Roundup: Ouellet’s magnanimity

The complete illogic of how the Bloc Québécois’ leadership woes continue to unfold continues to amaze. Over the weekend, the party executive emerged from a meeting to affirm their support for Marine Ouellet, but they extended the magnanimous gesture to not tear up the Bloc memberships of those seven MPs who walked out. This, of course, should surprise no one because badly our system has become corrupted by membership-driven leadership contests is that those same members who elected that leader will also help to install his or her friends into the party executive, which centralizes power for that leader. Witness Patrick Brown having Rick Dykstra installed as PC party president, or Justin Trudeau and his friend Anna Gainey. This is why the kind of rot in the PC party in Ontario happens – because the checks and balances within the party have eroded as it transforms itself into a cult of the leader. One a further note about Ouellet, Martin Patriquin notes that as Bloc fortunes continue to wane, she becomes a perfect scapegoat for the party’s demise.

As for Patrick Brown, the news of the weekend was how the party started making plans to deal with revelations of his dating history as it came out, particularly vengeful ex-girlfriends and staffers, which should have been alarm bells right then and there. But this is what happens when you try to deal with the leader that a membership-driven process delivers and who has a “democratic mandate,” whereas if caucus chose from among its ranks, they would know the kinds of open secrets about a candidate and could be steered away from choosing a leader with such skeletons on display, and furthermore, could easily deal with a leader whose vices and other personal problems came to light with swift action. This is yet another reason why caucus selection matters, if we can get past the populist impulses of the current system.

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Roundup: Space to socialize

Amidst the growing buzz of MPs’ bad behaviour, whether it’s ejections from the House of Commons during QP, or the allegations of inappropriate comments at events as with James Bezan and Sherry Romanado, Kady O’Malley says that the presence of cameras hasn’t been a guarantor of good behaviour. And that’s fair enough. So what does she propose? Not to do away with the cameras, particularly in the Chamber itself, but rather creating the conditions by which MPs can spend more time together outside of the strictly partisan work situations.

More to the point, O’Malley suggests that MPs start sharing meal breaks, whether it’s in the cafeteria, or has been proposed earlier this session with a common space behind the Commons chamber where they can eat together rather than having the usual food services delivered to their respective lobbies on either side of the Chamber. It’s not a novel idea, given the fact that it was shared meals used to be a feature of how our parliament operated. Evening sittings happened three nights a week, and at the appointed hour, they would suspend debate, head upstairs to the Parliamentary Restaurant for a couple of hours and there was cross-pollination of socializing between the different parties. And lo and behold, when evening sittings were abolished in the name of being “family friendly,” collegiality between MPs took a hit.

The problem with simply creating a space behind the Commons for MPs to have that meal together is that it’s pretty much restricted to those who are stuck with House Duty, so the numbers at any given time would be pretty small, and I’m not sure that it’s enough to get a big the requisite sea change happening. Maybe the answer is to bring back evening sittings – it’s not like there’s a lack of legislation that could use the added time – but even there, part of what kept MPs at the parliamentary restaurant is that there was a dearth of other options in the area, which isn’t the case any longer. So while I don’t dispute that more opportunities for MPs to socialize is a good and necessary thing, I’m not sure that the conditions to make this a broader issue are really there any longer.

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Roundup: Romanado’s version

A little over 24 hours after the allegations between Liberal MP Sherry Romanado and Conservative MP James Bezan ricocheted around the Hill, CTV got an exclusive interview with Romanado, and it’s eye-opening in how the accounts differ, particularly around the apology itself. In particular, Romanado disputes that Bezan had made attempts to apologize earlier – something she would have welcomed – and noted that she was blindsided by his public apology in the Commons on Monday morning considering that she was in her office when it happened, and only later made her statement to try to correct what she felt was wrong information.

The biggest takeaway from the interview (which I would encourage you to watch, despite the fact that it’s 20 minutes long) is the fact that in her estimation, Bezan broke the confidentiality of the mediation process by putting out his statement on Monday afternoon – something she respected up until that point, which is partially why she had been blindsided. She also notes that while others are accusing her of making a partisan issue out of it, she had plenty of opportunity to do so beforehand while she respected the confidentiality of the grievance process, and her “reward” for this affair is to be inundated with trolls over social media who have been replete with lewd suggestions about threesomes. As well, other MPs have come to her to recount their own experiences that they won’t come forward with.

There were a few other points of note in the interview – that what people will say was a bad joke felt to her like she was being undermined in front of stakeholders and treated like a sexual object, which made her job as parliamentary secretary harder to do. As well, she has been asked directly by young women who want to get involved in politics if they will be sexually harassed on the Hill, and she has told them unfortunately yes. There need to be conversations about what goes on and how to prevent it, but as this experience shows, it certainly appears that Bezan may have been engaging in some damage control that further sought to undermine Romanado, which is sadly the kind of cynical manoeuvres that happen here far too often.

Meanwhile, Susan Delacourt calls out those who would use sexual harassment allegations for political purposes, going back to the initial incident of those two Liberal MPs booted from caucus, while Robyn Urback argues that a bad joke is not really the same as the same kinds of allegations of sexual harassment that other women are coming forward about.

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Senate QP: Sajjan is taking his time

After a terrible QP in the Other Place, it was hoped that things would be better in the Senate as Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan arrived to answer questions from his department. Senator Smith led off, worrying about the state of the planned purchase of Super Hornets and the possible purchase of used F-18s instead. Sajjan first stepped back to outline the problem of not being able to meet both NORAD and NATO requirements, and said that they will be filling the interim gap before they replace the whole fighter fleet. Smith wondered about the issue of newer versus older when it comes to the interim fighters, and Sajjan noted that they hoped for new, but would go for the same models that we currently use if necessary.

Senator Enverga asked about the situation in Iraq, and wondered about what our role was in the fight against ISIS if training was suspended. Sajjan said that they were assessing the situation given the changing situation on the ground in order to assess what the needs are now that Mosul has fallen.

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Roundup: All abuzz about Netflix

It’s probably not a big surprise that the story for which the most ink (physical or digital, take your pick) was spilled yesterday were the culture policy changes that Mélanie Joly announced, punctuated by the grand announcement that Netflix had committed to spending half a billion dollars over five years on Canadian productions. But in there was also news that there would be no big bailout for the news media in this country, and there would be some funding boosts for the Canada Media Fund, the Canada Music Fund and the Canada Book Fund, and a creative export strategy, along with previously announced reforms of the Copyright Board.

Suffice to say, there’s a fair amount of grumbling from traditional broadcasters that Neflix is essentially getting away with murder, not bound by the same CanCon obligations of traditional broadcasters, nor are other Internet giants like Google and Facebook being asked to contribute to the same content creation funds that traditional media are. And there is some pretty legitimate concerns about this announced Netflix deal because it’s pretty opaque – Netflix will continue to be able to operate as a black box when it comes to their subscriber data, and while Sean Casey went on Power & Politics to insist that the $500 million was new money (given that Netflix had previously told Parliament that they were already spending “hundreds of millions of dollars” in Canada), it really doesn’t seem like that’s anything new given that previous statement. Netflix also says that the money isn’t coming from the recent rate-hike in Canada, but that’s not washing with a number of people. The Financial Post has a fairly comprehensive look at the announcement here, including the fact that the announcement seems to leave a lot of the heavy lifting into the future, which probably shouldn’t be a surprise.

I do think it should be incumbent upon us to remember that Netflix has not been a net benefit to the cultural sector in Canada. The late Denis McGrath used to refer to them as a “parasite” on the Canadian broadcast sector because they put no money into the production of shows that they streamed, encouraging the cord-cutting that starved the very platforms who produced those shows that they later streamed of funding. It’s a complex problem, and a handful of Netflix originals aren’t going to be the panacea for the Canadian film and television industry. If anything, it may hasten the decline.

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QP: The Morneau-Shepell conspiracy

Shortly after a fire alarm emptied out the Centre Block, and MPs made their way back into the building, Question Period got underway. Andrew Scheer led off, reading a stilted question about the Omar Khadr settlement in French. Justin Trudeau took the chance to take a partisan shot, saying that this was because the previous violated his rights — not mentioning that it was also the fault of previous Liberal governments — and reiterated his previous speech about how he was outraged and hopefully that outrage would ensure that future governments would not violate rights again. Scheer called out that the Liberals were at fault too, and Trudeau modified his response that it was about previous governments (plural) but added that this was not about Khadr, but about the government’s action and they should stand up for rights even when it’s not popular. Scheer then pivoted to the tax change issue, got the usual talking points from Trudeau, and when Scheer tried to skewer this as being one more cost to the middle class, and Trudeau reeled out his points about cutting taxes on the middle class. Scheer made a few digs at Trudeau’s own numbered corporation and his speaking fees before he was made party leader, but Trudeau didn’t take the bait. Pierre Nantel was up for the NDP, and railed about the announcements on cultural industries. Trudeau read a statement that assured him that they had unprecedented investment from Netflix, and that they would ensure that Canadian creators would benefit. Rachel Blaney asked in English, decrying that Facebook and Google were not being made to pay, but Trudeau reiterated his assurances that Canadian producers would benefit from these funds. Nantel repeated the question in scripted English, Trudeau reiterated that this was great news for Canadian cultural industries, and Alexandre Boulerice closed the round by railing that other media companies weren’t being taxed. Trudeau repeated that they were looking to support the industry as it transitions.

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Roundup: Signs Morneau is listening

For all of the bellyaching from those who consider the government’s tax proposals to be a done deal that may not even get enabling legislation but would instead be rammed through by way of a Ways and Means Motion, it looks like those fears are for naught. In a tele-town hall yesterday, Bill Morneau admitted that there are problem areas that need to be addressed, and they plan to take what they’ve heard in the consultations and try to fix the implementing legislation, especially when it comes to things like how it affects the sale of family farms. Economist Lindsay Tedds was listening in, and she provided a play-by-play with some instant analysis here:

Meanwhile, Chantal Hébert wonders if Morneau can’t pull out a win that will let both sides claim victory, even if Morneau himself emerges wounded from the process. This being said, Hébert makes the point about the lack of applause from the Liberal benches, which Bob Fife made on The West Block on the weekend, and it bugs me that pundits are still trying to read into this because the Liberals stopped clapping in January 2016, except for rare verbal zingers. It’s not indicative of anything other than an attempt to restore a bit of dignity to the exercise of QP, and making a deal out of it to fit a narrative is bad form.

The Senate’s National Finance committee will examine the proposals as well, and the debate getting there contained some of the usual cheek of some particular senators.

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Roundup: The needless drama over the Status of Women chair

The news yesterday that the Liberals on the Commons standing committee on the status of women walked out rather than vote on the Conservatives’ choice for chair, Rachael Harder, certainly had a bit of drama to it, but underneath that surface-level bit of excitement, so much of this story defies sense.

For starters, it makes no sense that the Conservatives would name their chosen critic for the portfolio to be the committee chair. Why? Because a committee chair is supposed to be a somewhat more neutral figure who presides over the meetings in order to maintain decorum, decide on questions of order and procedure, and only vote in the event of breaking a tie. These are qualities that a critic should be dealing with. No, a critic should be doing the work of leading the questions of witnesses and doing the work of holding the government to account. That is not the chair’s job. Furthermore, if Andrew Scheer is going to insist on calling his critics “shadow ministers,” then perhaps he should actually treat them as such which means not having them on committees at all – and yes, the semantic difference is important. If you want to implement a shadow ministerial system then start behaving like that’s what they are. Otherwise, changing their nomenclature is nothing more than a twee affectation that he shouldn’t get so uppity about (and he has been).

Meanwhile, for the rest of the day, the Conservatives tried to spin this as a distraction from the tax change proposals that they are otherwise getting hammered on when they put her up for the position of chair knowing full well that this would be an issue. The NDP were out on Monday afternoon in the Foyer decrying this possibility and they went ahead with it. They created their own distraction and then tried to spin it as the Liberals using it as such. The Liberals didn’t create this drama, so you can’t accuse them of creating something from nothing.

The Conservatives have three members on the committee – Harder, Karen Vecchio, and Martin Shields, and if it makes no sense to put the critic in the role of chair, then why not put Vecchio forward? Is it because she isn’t looked kindly upon by Campaign Life Coalition? I would have thought her more than capable of the role otherwise, which is why this mystifies me unless this is something that the Conservatives were looking to try and force a confrontation of some variety by putting forward a critic and then candidate for Chair that would deliberately offend the sensibilities of the other parties – something that you shouldn’t be doing in a committee setting because committees, as the lifeblood of parliament, are supposed to be less partisan and more collegial.

This is just one more example of how the current iteration of the Conservative party doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing. Since Scheer took over the leadership, there seems to have been a sudden loss of know-how amongst the party’s senior staffers and they’re making all manner of really dumb tactical mistakes. You also have to wonder how much of this is also because the party had spent their nine years in power trying to burn down many of the norms of our parliamentary system and treating the institutions with utter disdain, and now that they’re back in opposition, they have simply lost the capacity to engage with them properly, leading to these kinds of mindless choices that just shoot themselves in the foot. It’s not promising for a party that is supposed to be considered a government in waiting.

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Roundup: Say no to written guidelines

In the pages of the Hill Times, recently retired Liberal Senator George Baker opined that he thinks the Senate needs written guidelines to restrict how bills can be amended or defeated. Currently, there is the constitutional provision for an unlimited veto, and a general principle followed by senators that they don’t defeat (government) bills unless it’s a Very Serious Matter because they know they’re not elected and don’t have a democratic mandate to do so. And as much as I appreciate the learned wisdom of Senator Baker (and his retirement is a tremendous loss for the institution), I’m going to solidly disagree with him on this one.

For one, our institutions in their Westminster model are predicated on their flexibility, which allows for a great deal of evolution and adaptability, and adding too many written guidelines to hem in powers – powers that were given to the institution for a reason – rankles a bit because there will always be situation for which those powers may become necessary to use. Too many guidelines, especially when it comes to amendment or veto powers for a body for whom that is their entire purpose, takes away their power and ability to do the jobs that they are there to do in the first place. As with the constant demands for a Cabinet manual to spell out the powers of the Governor General, it’s the first step in removing discretionary power, and giving political actors (especially prime ministers) ways to go around the other constitutional actors, be they the Senate or the Governor General, which is something that should worry every Canadian. As well, codifying those powers opens up the possibility of litigation, and you can bet that our friends at Democracy Watch are salivating for any chance at all to start suing the Senate based on their not living up to whatever guidelines are drawn up, thus further imperilling the exercise of parliamentary privilege and the separation of powers between Parliament and the courts. So no, I don’t think written guidelines are needed, nor would they be helpful. At least not from where I’m sitting.

Meanwhile the Senate’s Internal Economy Committee members published an open letter to Senator Peter Harder in response to his Policy Options op-ed on independent oversight for the Senate. Suffice to say, they weren’t fans. (My own response to Harder can be found here).

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Roundup: Unexpected PBO problems

As it turns out, there is another problem with the legislation that turns the Parliamentary Budget Officer into a full-fledged independent officer of parliament rather than his current status as being part of the Library of Parliament – it just so happens that they need to request any information from ministers themselves and not from civil servants. And nobody flagged this issue during study of the bill when it was before Parliament. Oops.

The concern from the PBO is that this could automatically politicise the work, as though that wasn’t already happening. After all, the PBO has become the opposition’s favourite cudgel to bash the government with, and shield by which to hid behind in order to insist that the report comes from the “objective, non-partisan” PBO and therefore is sacrosanct. Not to mention, that the creation of the office has meant that MPs have one more person to fob their homework off onto rather than doing it for themselves. After all, math is hard, and they have better things to do. So will the change have any material effect? Hard to say, given that the bureaucracy has been reluctant to share all of the requested information to date, and a government that is happy with the PBO one day can quickly become a government that is unhappy with him the next, and they could start insisting that all information is cabinet confidence. But they can already do that with information being requested by way of the civil service, so perhaps that’s a moot point. Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, there have been no efforts to rein in the scope of the PBO’s work, which could become a different sort of problem down the road. Ontario’s PBO-equivalent released a report yesterday that seemed to be a little outside of its mandate, leading to indications that perhaps there are problems brewing.

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