QP: Concern about summer vacations

The day was not as hot as yesterday, but tempers were indeed starting to fray in the House of Commons with the threat of procedural shenanigans hanging in the air. Andrew Scheer led off, saying that the PM was eager to get away for summer vacation but lo, there were all kinds of new taxes. Trudeau noted that his summer vacation plans included touring the various federal parks around the country, which were all free, and oh, he lowered taxes on the middle class. Scheer then switched to French to demand a publicly accessible sex offender registry, to which Trudeau noted the existing system worked just fine. Scheer tried again in English, and got the same answer. Scheer turned to the Norsat sale in French, and Trudeau assured him that they listened to their national security agencies and allies. They went another round of the same in English, before Thomas Mulcair got up to ask the same question in English. Trudeau reiterated his response, and Mulcair insisted the answer was “demonstrably false.” Mulcair hammered away in French, but Trudeau stuck to his points about due diligence. Mulcair then demanded the government adopt the NDP’s proposed nomination process for officers of parliament, but Trudeau insisted that they already adopted a new process that got more meritorious diverse appointments. Mulcair tried again in French, but got the same response.

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QP: Carbon taxes and foreign takeovers

On a sweltering day in Ottawa, things carried on as usual in the House of Commons. Andrew Scheer led off, railing about carbon taxes killing the manufacturing sector, never mind that in his Ontario example, it was a provincial carbon price. Justin Trudeau hit back with jibes that it was good to see that most of the aconservaties believed in the Paris Accords and that carbon pricing was good for the market. Scheer groused that they would meet the targets without a carbon price, before moving onto the Norsat sale and lack of a comprehensive security screening. Trudeau reminded him that they took the advice of national security agencies. Scheer took a second kick, needling that Trudeau admired Chinese dictatorship too much to care about national security, and Trudeau lashed back that partisan jibes like that were unworthy of this place. Denis Lebel was up next, demanding a non-partisan process to appoint parliamentary watchdogs, and Trudeau noted their new appointments and rattled off some of the diversity of the new reports. Lebel tried again in English, and got the same answer. Thomas Mulcair was up next, asking if the Der Spiegel article was true that the government was backing away from climate goals at the G20. Trudeau insisted that they have been climate leaders and pointed to examples. Mulcair pressed, and Trudeau was unequivocal that he did not say what was in the article. Mulcair then turned to the issue of court cases involving First Nations children and dialled up the sanctimony to 11, and Trudeau noted the memorandum of understanding he signed with the AFN this morning about moving forward on steps. Mulcair demanded that the NDP bill on UNDRIP be adopted, but Trudeau insisted they were moving forward in consultation (never mind that said bill is almost certainly of dubious constitutionality).

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Roundup: Paris Accord disappointment

The inevitable happened yesterday, where Donald Trump announced that he would pull the United States out of the Paris Accords – a process that could take up to four years – with the intention of immediately trying to renegotiate re-entry on more favourable terms. Why that makes no sense is because the Accords were flexible enough that each country was supposed to set their own targets, so there was no actual need for him to pull out other than to look tough, but what can you do with a chaos generator like that? Justin Trudeau was one of the leaders who immediately contacted Trump to express his disappointment, while Catherine McKenna said that Canada was moving ahead regardless, and would be hosting a ministerial summit with China and the EU in September regarding next steps with emissions reductions.

We are no doubt going to hear some grousing from the Conservatives over the next few days about this, with renewed caterwauling about scrapping the federal carbon tax (which is actual a national carbon price, and any tax would only apply to a province that doesn’t have a price of their own that meets the target – namely Saskatchewan at this point), and concern trolling about how this makes us uncompetitive. The problem, of course, is that industry is all moving in the direction of favouring carbon pricing because it allows for stability and predictability, and it’s also a market-based mechanism to drive innovation – something that sector-by-sector regulations don’t do. And indeed, the business community in the States, including some major oil companies, are reacting negatively to Trump’s decision, and the heads of several companies are resigning from Trump’s business council in protest. And it shouldn’t be understated that the potential for a clean tech is real with price incentives that carbon pricing provides.

Meanwhile, French president Emmanuel Macron issued a statement in English, aimed to the Americans, inviting those scientists to France to continue their climate work there instead, which is a bold move.

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QP: More Meilleur, more problems

While the PM was back in town, he chose to meet the civil service summer students instead of attending QP, meaning that Andrew Scheer’s big face-off was going to have to wait for next week. Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and read some condemnation about the government not voting in favour of an autism partnership. Jane Philpott noted that this was largely a provincial matter and then listed billions of dollars that were spent on programs. Scheer then moved onto a consular issue with a Canadian couple detained in China, and Chrystia Freeland noted her own concern with the case, and assured him that she has raised it at a high level and would meet with their daughter later today. Scheer switched to French to list some condemnation about Madeleine Meilleur’s nomination, including accusations that two of Joly’s staffers used to work for Meilleur. Joly reminded him that those in her office had no part in the selection process. Scheer switched to English to ask it again, and Joly reiterated her answer. Scheer tried again, and got the same answer. Thomas Mulcair was up next, tried to poke holes in the story that Meilleur did not have conversations about the appointment with Butts and Telford. Joly said that they did not have that conversation. Mulcair insisted then that Meilleur lied to Parliament, and demanded to know if Joly’s staff were consulted, and Joly reiterated that they were not part of the team. Mulcair returned to the supposed involvement of Butts and Telford, and Joly reiterated her previous answers. Mulcair’s final question spun up the torque on Butts’ supposed involvement, and Joly responded by listing Meilleur’s qualifications.

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QP: Scheer’s debut reading

The day after the Conservative leadership results, the seating plan had changed to give front-row seats to most of the failed candidates, with Rona Ambrose to sit next to Scheer for the next few weeks. As well, the PM was still in Rome, and would not be here to spar with Scheer on his first sitting day in the new job. Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and launched into a rant in French about how the previous Trudeau government hurt his generation, and asked a rhetorical question about why the government was hurting Canadians. Bill Morneau first offered congratulations to Scheer for his election, and then reminded him that the economy was on the rebound. Scheer switched to English by reading complaints about people being nickled and dimed, to which Morneau repeated his congratulations in English and the positive economic indicators. When Scheer read questions about hiked taxes, Morneau reminded him that the first thing they did was lower taxes for the middle class. Scheer then changed topics and read a question about one of the surveillance planes in Iraq being withdrawn. Harjit Sajjan noted that Canada increased their contributions, and that rebalancing forces was a constant exercise. Scheer repeated his question in French and got the same answer. Irene Mathyssen was up for the NDP, railing about the Infrastructure Bank as a source of user fees. Amarjeet Sohi assured her the Bank was there to invest in the Infrastructure deficit. Alexandre Boulerice asked again in French, and Sohi reminded him that the Bank would be accountable to Parliament. Boulerice then switched to the question of lifetime pensions for wounded veterans, to which Sajjan insisted that they still planned to implement the pension. Mathyssen asked again in English, and Sajjan repeated that further details would be released later in the year.

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Roundup: Senator Greene’s grievous error

The strange fascination with Senator Stephen Greene’s ouster from caucus has consumed far too much time and attention, and yet things keep cropping up that demand a response. Today it was his op-ed in the National Post describing what happened, and then he dropped this little gem at the end of his piece.

No. Greene is completely and utterly wrong.

The Senate may not be the confidence Chamber – that is rightfully the House of Commons – but that doesn’t mean that the Senate doesn’t play an accountability role because the whole point of Parliament is to hold the government to account. The Senate is part of Parliament. This is elementary civics for a Westminster democracy.

The way in which the Senate exercises its accountability role is different from the Commons, but it exists nevertheless. It’s not a copy of the Commons’ processes either, nor can it be redundant because composition matters. Sober second thought is actually a form of accountability that relies on checking government legislation from a less partisan lens that is removed from the grasping for votes that afflicts most MPs, for whom populist considerations can blind them to bad policy – something the Senate can call out by virtue of the fact that they’re not seeking re-election.

That institutional independence – not seeking re-election, tenured so that they can’t be easily removed by the government of the day, given job security until age 75 so that they’re not compromising themselves in seeking post-Senate employment – it all adds up to the ability to hold the government to account in a way that the House of Commons simply cannot do. That’s why the Senate has the unlimited veto power that it does – because sometimes a government with a majority will pass blatantly unconstitutional legislation because it’s politically popular to do so, but as we all know, populism is not democracy, and the Senate safeguards that principle. That is an accountability function.

That Greene is unable to make that distinction is a problem, and it’s especially a problem because he’s been leading the charge with the modernisation push in the Upper Chamber, and his is a vision that is looking to see partisan caucuses diminishing. As I’ve said on numerous occasions, the ability to have a coherent opposition in the Senate is a key Westminster feature and a guarantor off accountability, which simply cannot be done effectively if the Chamber is a collection of 105 loose fish. That the Senate is more vigorously examining and amending legislation now is not a bad thing, but we are probably at the peak of what we can or should be expecting in terms of activism without senators engaging in overreach. But to think that this isn’t accountability is simply ignorant.

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Roundup: The Meilleur problem

The feigned outrage over Madeleine Meilleur’s nomination as the new Official Languages Commissioner, combined with the disingenuous concern over the search for a new Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, is really starting to annoy me – particularly because of the way in which things are being spun, and the abject hypocrisy of it all. As for Meilleur’s surprise that this has become an Issue amidst a snake nest of partisans looking to stir things up and try and throw as much mud on the PM as they can, I have to say Oh, come on. You were in Queen’s Park. You know that they’ll play politics over this. Because seriously.

To start with, I will take note of Meilleur telling an interviewer that she had initially thought about applying to be a Senator to continue to contribute to public life now that she had resigned from Queen’s Park. While I continue to object to the self-identification process that this government has put into place (because why not try to get every narcissist in the country to hand in a CV?), the fact that she was told by the head of the selection committee that recent politicians were verboten in the “newly independent” Chamber is kind of infuriating. Why? Because the Senate is Parliament’s institutional memory. It’s a Good Thing to have some experienced political players in there, from both federal and provincial sides, so that they can be of use to Parliament as that institutional memory. That Trudeau seems keen to destroy that function of it is a problem.

As for Meilleur meeting with Gerald Butts and Katie Telford, I’m far less sold that this is somehow suspicious partisan work. They are contacts she had from their mutual time at Queen’s Park, and she was looking for ways to contribute, and hey, they’re people who would have some ideas. You realise that trying to make a Thing out of it is childish, right? Is the fact that she was once a provincial Liberal a problem for the job? Perhaps, if she didn’t have the qualifications for it. But by all accounts, she is more than qualified, which makes the partisan gamesmanship all the pettier. And to hear the party that appointed Vic Toews to the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench rail on about how terrible this is, I have little patience for their arguments.

Meanwhile, as for the Conservatives’ demands that the process for the new Ethics Commissioner be turned over to a third party, I have a couple of things to say: one is that this is a democracy and not a technocracy, so stop trying to offload political decisions to outsiders; two is that you get to hold the government to account for the choices that are made; and three, demanding a retired judge make the selection, when the criteria specifies that the new Commissioner should be a former judge or head of a tribunal, you’re just creating a new conflict of interest because you’re asking said judge to appoint a former colleague. How is this any better? Seriously, do you people not stop to think for one second about your supposed attempts at being clever? Honest to gods, you people.

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Roundup: A few notes on a Friday QP

It was certainly the first time in almost nine years of covering the Hill that I saw the Prime Minister attend Friday QP. Granted, this was owing to the rather urgent circumstances of the missile strikes on Syria, and in all fairness to the PM, he could have just marched down to the Foyer, made his statement with a backdrop of a smattering of MPs who are present and not on House Duty, and then march back up to his office without taking questions, but he didn’t. While the plan had been for him to make the statement in the Commons, he instead incorporated it into QP so that the opposition could ask him questions about it, and he did answer what he could. And after QP, Harjit Sajjan used the Ministerial Statements portion of the Order Paper to reiterate the message, and allow opposition parties to make their replies, all in the House of Commons. This matters.

It’s also done in the backdrop of the debate on whether or not to eliminate Friday sittings, and of opposition MPs howling daily that it would be unconscionable for to eliminate the day because it meant that the government would be shielding itself from accountability, and people demand MPs to be in Ottawa, and this was all an attempt by the PM to get an extra day off, and so on. As far as apocalyptic talking points go, it’s terrible, but what gets me is that in the midst of all of these protestations about how important Friday is, the opposition ranks were mighty thin today, and not one other leader was present – not even Elizabeth May.

You would think that while they are wailing and gnashing their teeth about Friday sittings that the opposition could at least have the gumption to make a better show of attending on Fridays, to at least pretend that they care about how important Fridays are. But they didn’t.

And don’t get me wrong – I think they should keep Friday sittings. I’m even fine with it staying a half-day because I get that MPs have some distance to travel to get home to their ridings. And you can, theoretically, get plenty of work done on a half-day, especially if they’re abiding by proper Westminster debate formatting and not just speechifying into the void. And today proved that sometimes, circumstances intervene and it’s a good way to address the public while respecting the importance of Parliament. I’m just disappointed that the very MPs who keep protesting how important it is can’t be bothered to demonstrate it with actions instead of hollow words.

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QP: Happy clappy budget points

With most of the benches filled, MPs were settling in after a constituency week, but Rona Ambrose was absent for some unknown reason. Denis Lebel led off, immediately railing about deficit and family tax credits being imperilled in the budget. Justin Trudeau responded with his well-worn talking points about lowering taxes for the middle class while raising them on the one percent. Lebel switched to English, noted the American promises to lower smaller business taxes, and demanded that Trudeau follow suit. Trudeau noted that they were working to grow the middle class, and gave the same points about tax cuts. Lebel worried about airports being privatized, for which Trudeau told him to wait for Wednesday’s budget. Candice Bergen was up next, worried that the government was ramming bills through and worried that they wanted to bully through changes to QP so that he only has to show up one day per week. Trudeau avoided answering, and praised their programme to date. Bergen moved onto plans to change the Commons calendar to four days per week, but Trudeau noted that they were happy to open a discussion on making Fridays a full day instead of half days “like the Conservatives seem to want,” which was a clever bit of evasion. Thomas Mulcair was up next, railing that the government didn’t have a mandate to privatize airports. Trudeau explained that the Infrastructure Bank was a way of leveraging global investment, but more details would have to wait for Wednesday’s budget. Mulcair asked again in French, and Trudeau retreated to talking points about growing the middle class. Mulcair moved onto funding First Nations child welfare funding, and Trudeau gave his usual lines about the historic investments to start the long work of reconciliation. Mulcair then demanded that stock options tax loopholes be closed, but Trudeau again returned to his middle class talking points.

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Roundup: Expulsion isn’t rocket science

All day, we’ve been told that Senate clerks are “scouring the constitution” to find a “loophole” that will allow them to expel Senator Don Meredith, and even when they get former law clerks on television who’ve said clearly that yes, the Senate can do this, they still try to go “a ha, but they never did with…” name a scandalous former Senator, and in those cases, they resigned before the Senate had a chance to expel them. Suffice to say, a whole lot of reporters are being deliberately obtuse in order to create a false sense of drama around this.

The simple fact of the matter is that Parliament is self-governing, and it has the powers it needs to expel members if need be. Those are parliamentary privileges, and they have been exercised in the past in the Commons, as James Bowden’s research has shown, and those privileges would indeed extend to the Senate. It’s not sexy or rocket science, but people need to calm down and let the process work itself out.

Adam Dodek says that the Senate needs to move quickly on dealing with Meredith if they hope to regain the public trust. And that may be the case, but we also don’t want to be too hasty, given the ham-fisted and poor manner in which the suspensions of Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau were handled, and the truth of the matter is that the Senate is on March break. The ethics committee is coming back a week early to deal with the matter, so they are moving quickly but they can’t simply act rashly and in the heat of the moment, which I think will be the danger in order to keep from invoking the ire of an impatient public, egged on by a media demanding that the story move ahead quickly before people lose interest.

Meanwhile we’re also seeing a lot of second-guessing about the role that Meredith played within the Independent Senators Group, and how he was described as having a “leadership position” within it. Indeed, Meredith was elected to one of four “coordinating positions” within the nascent quasi-caucus, in its early days after the first round of independent appointments when the group was still getting on its feet and Meredith had more legislative experience than most of the members of the group. That being said, he had very little actual standing within the group and was certainly not viewed as any kind of actual leader by anyone I’ve spoken to. I have sympathy for their position that he was innocent until proven guilty and that it took the Senate Ethics Officer two years to reach her conclusions, but on the other hand, we could still see this train on the tracks. It’s too bad the ISG didn’t insulate themselves a little better from this, but in all, I don’t think the damage looks as bad from out here.

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