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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Roundup: The phantom lobbying menace

You can already hear the grumblings over social media over the headline: “As senators become more independent, meetings with lobbyists hoping to take advantage tripled in 2016.” And immediately most people go “Ooh, lobbyists are bad, so this sounds like a terrible thing.” It’s not actually true, but it’s something we’re probably going to have to unpack a little better rather than cause some mass panic (once again) about how the newly “empowered” Senate is going to be the death knell for democracy in this country, or some other such nonsense.

For starters, not all lobbying is bad. With strict rules in this country around reporting and gifts, this isn’t like the free-for-all that we’ve seen in places like Washington, where lobbyists were meeting with Congressmen in the steam room of the Capitol Hill gym, or taking them on private plane rides and giving them holidays, or showing up on the floor of the House to watch them cast votes, all while funnelling money into their re-election campaigns. While I believe they tightened some of those rules down south, we simply don’t have that kind of lobbying culture here in Canada, so get that out of your minds first of all. Secondly, Senators in Canada don’t have re-election campaigns to finance, so the influence that lobbyists can try to gain with financial incentives of one variety or another are also non-existent here, so once again, don’t try to map an Americanism onto the process here. Third, lobbying is not all corporate influence. A lot of lobbyists represent charities or non-profits, so best to keep that in mind when you see the numbers grouped together.

Meanwhile, as for what they hope to achieve, well, remember that despite the newfound “independence” of the Senate, its powers are still fairly limited. Those hoping to use this newfound power to amend more bills or delay others will find that when it comes to any amendments, they would still need to be accepted by the House of Commons, and there has been very little acceptance so far of most amendments sent back by the Senate unless it’s a glaring error. And as for delays, if it’s a government bill there are tools like time allocation and closure to force them through the system. Just because Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative” – Senator Peter Harder hasn’t yet availed himself of those tools doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t. So really, your mileage with how effective lobbying efforts will be will certainly vary.

The uptick in lobbying is not unexpected now that the usual central channels for information flow have been disrupted. That’s to be expected, so this increase is hardly nefarious. I’m more concerned with cabinet ministers lobbying individual senators than I am actual lobbyists, to be honest, since those meetings are less open and transparent, and they have a lot more power to grant political favours. So really, let’s stay calm about this headline, but keep an eye on things nevertheless. Trudeau’s plans for a “more independent” Senate are certainly proving the rule around unintended consequences.

Continue reading

QP: Vote for my bill

Despite being in town (and just having a completed a call with the White House), Justin Trudeau was absent for QP today, for which I will scowl. Thomas Mulcair was still away as well, part of the GG’s state visit to Sweden, leaving only Rona Ambrose the only major leader present. She led off, trolling for support for her private member’s bill on mandatory sexual assault training for judges — something that is not asking about the administrative responsibilities of the government. Jody Wilson-Raybould said that it was an important topic and that she would review the bill as it came to the Commons. After another round of asking in French and repeating the answer in English, Ambrose raised the case of Justin Bourque to demand that consecutive sentencing laws remain in place. Wilson-Raybould reminded her that they are conducting a broad-based review, and that there are already the highest mandatory penalties on the books for murder. Ambrose asked about that Chinese company that bought that nursing home chain and wondered if they figured out the ownership yet, but Navdeep Bains repeated this assurances from yesterday about the review of the sale. Ambrose finished off her round asking about the government refusing to release information on their carbon price cost projections, and Catherine McKenna reminded her that there are also costs for not tackling climate change. Nathan Cullen led off for the NDP, spinning a small conspiracy theory about fundraising by the chairman of Apotex, for which Bardish Chagger reminded her that the Lobbying Commissioner found nothing amiss. Karine Trudel asked the same in French, got the same answer, and then spun another question about the government’s ethics, and Chagger reiterated her same points. Nathan Cullen then railed about the government caring only about billionaires and not average Canadians, and Chagger chastised him for ignoring the ways in which the government has been listening to Canadians.

Continue reading

Roundup: Asylum conundrum

The debate over illegal refugee crossings into Canada is at a bit of a roadblock given the impossibility of the situation from a great many perspectives. Without any kind of physical barrier at the border – say, a fence or a wall – there’s not a lot that we can do to stop them from coming over because, well, that’s American territory and our border guards and RCMP aren’t going to cross the border to prevent crossings, nor can they anticipate every crossing point and physically prevent them from crossing into Canada, despite the tautology that Tony Clement seems to be clinging to.

Ralph Goodale has been quite lucid in answering questions on the subject and saying that additional resources will be deployed as needed, but again points to the physical impossibility of keeping them out, so we have to simply follow our processes once they’re here. And for as much as people talk about dissuading these migrants from making a crossing, we can’t exactly buy up American ad space telling them not to come because they’re already freaked out by the Trumpocalypse and I’m not sure that many of them are acting rationally, which makes “dissuading” them a difficult prospect, particularly given our international obligations.

One tool that the government is not in any hurry to implement is a 2012 law around designating irregular arrivals in order to take additional detention measures and would prevent them from sponsoring other family for five years, but again, I’m sure that many would rather be in immigration detention in Canada for a few weeks as opposed to facing the prospect of immigration crackdowns and travel bans in the United States. This law was drafted largely in response to the arrival of boatloads of Tamils seeking asylum, but it also needs to be pointed out that the number of those claimants were small, and I remember more than a few columns around the time that it happened where people were saying that these people willing to brave a crossing and survive on a diet spiders during the crossing were the kinds of resilient people that we want in this country. But the previous government was also one that was trying to solve the refugee backlog “crisis” that they created by not filling IRB positions for an extended period, and when they did accept refugees, tried to prioritize groups they felt they could get some political advantage out of (such as Christians from Iraq). I would also add that stepping up detention and other punitive measures would go against the brand that the current government is trying to sell to the world, which would make their reluctance all the more apparent, but one supposes that we’ll have to wait and see if there is a bigger spike in claims once the weather gets warmer.

Meanwhile, Andrew Coyne grapples with the difficult conundrum of what to do with those asylum seekers, while Scott Gilmore says that while we can’t stop them from arriving, we can do better once they’re here, starting with more staff at Citizenship and Immigration and making more of an effort to make them feel welcome because we need them.

Continue reading

QP: Seniors and softwood

Tuesday afternoon, and the benches were full for the grand inquest of the nation. Rona Ambrose led off, worried about that Vincent Lee, who beheaded someone on a bus several years ago (declared criminally not responsible) who is now freed and changed his name. Trudeau responded that they were working to ensure that all Canadians were kept safe. Ambrose pressed, and Trudeau said that he sympathized with the family of the victim, but wouldn’t commit to tougher measures, nor did he make any point that this was a case where it was someone suffering from a mental health issue and not a criminal case. Ambrose switched to tax measures for seniors and wanted assurances that Trudeau wouldn’t repeal them. Trudeau responded by listing measures that the have taken to benefit seniors, and when Ambrose called him on it, his answer didn’t change much. Ambrose closed off by worrying that softwood lumber talks were not in any new ministerial mandate letters, and Trudeau assured her that they were working with the Americans  on this and a number of trade files, ensuring that they know how many jobs rely on trade with Canada. Thomas Mulcair was up next, declaring that Trudeau had broken the law on his holiday with the Aga Khan and wondered if he had met with the Ethics Commissioner yet and what he told her. Trudeau reiterated that the Aga Khan was an old family friend and he would answer any questions she had. Mulcair pressed, but Trudeau stuck to his points. Mulcair moved onto the recommendation from Morneau’s advisory panel that they raise the OAS age back to 67, and Trudeau said they would not. Mulcair railed about how this was the recommendation and that Morneau didn’t rule it out, but Trudeau reminded him that it was a promise they kept.

Continue reading

QP: No responsible path forward

After the prime minister spent his morning hearing from youth about their issues (and, interesting enough, electoral reform was not brought up), he was in QP, ready for the grand inquest of the nation. Rona Ambrose led off, bringing up the Globe and Mail investigation on “unfounded” sexual assault complaints in the country, and about ensuring that the RCMP have sufficient training to deal with it. Trudeau said that they were working to address gender-based violence and sexual assault and making changes at the institutional level. Ambrose changed topics to fears that jobs would end sent south for lower taxes and slashed regulations, to which Trudeau pointed out their record of tax cuts and enhanced child benefits. Ambrose pressed the topic on trade issues, and Trudeau pointed out how many American jobs depended on trade with Canada. Denis Lebel went for another round in French, got the same answer, and for his last question, Lebel worried about softwood lumber. Trudeau noted that he has talked about it with the Americans constantly, and that they remain engaged on the topic. Nathan Cullen led off for the NDP, wailing about proportional representation. Trudeau reminded him that there was no consensus and no responsible path forward. Cullen railed about broken promises, and Trudeau pointed about other progress on the democracy file before reiterating that there was no consensus. Alexander Boulerice picked up to give the angry denunciations in French, and Trudeau hit back by talking about working in the best interests of the country. He then tried to insinuate that the PM was lying and got cautioned by the Speaker for it, not that Trudeau’s response changed.

Continue reading

Roundup: The measure of a political promise

There’s been a lot of hay made, ink spilled and electrons converted into pixels over the last 36 hours or so about the value of political promises, and how terrible it is when politicians break them. It makes people so cynical, and it’s no wonder that people hate politicians, and so on. We had Liberal MPs Nate Erskine-Smith and Adam Vaughan prostrating themselves about how sorry they are that the promise was broken, voter reform groups wailing about how terribly they’ve been betrayed, and columnists pontificated on broken promises (though do read Selley’s piece because he offers some great advice, not the least of which is telling PR advocates to tone down the crazy. Because seriously).

But in the midst of this, we had Conservative leadership candidates laying out a bunch of promises of what they would do if they a) won the leadership, and b) won the next general election, and some of those promises were hilariously terrible. For example, Maxime Bernier thinks it’s cool to freeze equalization payments so that the federal government can tell provinces how they should be managing their own fiscal houses, or Andrew Scheer saying that he would enshrine property rights by using a novel approach to amending the constitution through the back door, as though the Supreme Court of Canada would actually let that pass.

And while everyone was tearing their hair out over Trudeau’s “betrayal” and “lies,” what were these two other, equally implausible promises as Trudeau’s on electoral reform, met with? A few pundits tweeted “good luck with that” to Scheer. And that was about it. So forgive me while I try to calibrate my outrage meter on political promises here, as to which ones we should take seriously and which ones we know are bad or wholly improbable but can safely laugh off.

To be clear – I’m not looking to give Trudeau a free pass on this one, and I’ve written elsewhere that I think he needs to own up to the fact that it was a bad promise made when he was a third-place party who were blue-skying a number of things. And I think that it should give parties and candidates pause so as to caution them against being overly ambitious in what they promise (preferably, though, without draining all ambition out of politics). But come on. Let’s have a sense of proportion to what just happened here.

Continue reading

Roundup: Losing crucial regional perspectives

As the hollowing out of the Press Gallery continues, we lost a fairly unique voice yesterday, being Peter O’Neil, who was writing for the Vancouver Sun. While he is but yet one more journalist who has been let go in this period of bloodletting, his was a fairly unique position of being the only “regional” voice left in a major chain paper. Yes, we still have the Winnipeg Free Press and the Halifax Chronicle Herald sending journalists to the Hill rather than just buying wire copy (which they still do, mind you), but those independent papers, and that does make a difference.

Once upon a time, each local paper for the major chains sent someone to Ottawa to cover stories here from the local perspective rather than rely solely on national reporters to feed stories to them. It allowed for local concerns to be brought to MPs here, and for the MPs to better engage with their local papers from Ottawa – especially as they had someone who knew their home ridings here to keep them honest. That’s all gone now. And part of why this is a problem is that there has been a proven correlation between the loss of regional reporters in the Press Gallery and a decline voter turnout in those communities where they suffered that loss. (There are academic studies on this, but my GoogleFu is failing me on this one, but yes, this was a subject frequently discussed during my master’s programme). And now, with even fewer national reporters there to do the daily reporting plus trying to get any kind of perspective, we no longer have reporters doing the same kinds of accountability on MPs themselves rather than just of the government. Peter was the last of the regional voices from the big chains, and because Vancouver has a particular unique political culture of its own, that was an important perspective to have. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why he wound up writing the biography of former Senator Gerry St. Germain – because St. Germain knew that O’Neil knew West Coast politics, he could trust him enough to tell his story. That’s not an insignificant thing in a country with big regional differences like Canada has. And this becomes a growing problem as we lose more and more journalists and positions here in Ottawa, which we need to figure out how to reverse, one way or another, before things deteriorate to the point of no return.

Continue reading