Roundup: Threatening marathon votes

Because apparently this Jaspal Atwal issue refuses to die, the Conservatives have decided to spend today’s Supply Day motion demanding that the Prime Minister instruct the National Security and Intelligence Advisory to attend the public safety committee and give the MPs there the same briefing he allegedly gave journalists (on background). Or else.

That’s right – in order to overplay their hands, they’re openly threatening to force some forty hours’ worth of votes on the Estimates as consequence for defeating this motion – because that doesn’t come across as petulant or childish. And while they couch it in the fact that they have a responsibility to hold the government to account – which they do – they’ve also been demonstrably obtuse about this whole affair. The different versions of what happen are not impossible to reconcile – they are, in fact, eminently reconcilable. The PM has defended the facts put forward by the senior officials, and have stated that they did not put him up to it. Media outlets have since dribbled out versions of “reviewing my notes” and toning down some of  their reporting of what was actually said to show that it wasn’t actually as inflammatory as initially reported as (because by the point at which it initially happened, they were focused more on wedging it into the narrative they had all decided on rather than acknowledging what was happening on the ground if it didn’t fit that frame). Nobody has acted responsibly in this – the government, the opposition, or the media. And digging in to entrench the narrative that somehow we have damaged relations with India (not true, unless you’ve conveniently forgotten the fiction about how it led to new tariffs) and that the trip was some giant disaster (forget the investments or the constructive conversations with Indian officials) is just making it all worse for everyone.

The bigger issue, however, is the fact that this committee is not the venue for this conversation to happen, and MPs are kidding themselves if they think it is. We have the National Security Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians to review this kind of intelligence data in confidence, and then issuing a report on what was said. Commons committees have been down this road before, and have actively damaged our national security and intelligence agencies because they can’t help themselves, and now they’re demanding the chance to do it yet again. There are proper ways to hold the government to account. This planned stunt and threat is not it.

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Roundup: 20 years of Vriend

There was a particular milestone that has personal significance to me yesterday, which was the twentieth anniversary of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Vriend v Alberta, where sexual orientation was official “read into” the Charter of Rights and Freedoms when it comes to protection from discrimination. Why it has particular significance for me was because this happened shortly after I came out, and in many ways, it opened my eyes to the cynicism of politics.

This was shortly after I completed my time as a page in the Alberta legislature, and I had become familiar with the MLAs who worked there. As a page, you have so many friendly interactions with them, as they ask about how you’re doing in school, and they sneak candy to you from the stash at their desks, and generally made you feel like a welcome part of the functioning of the chamber. But as the decision was rendered, the newspapers were full of statements from these very same MLAs whom I had come to like and respect that were full of vitriolic homophobia that it was very much like a betrayal of everything I had come to experience about them during my time as a page. Ralph Klein, who was the premier at the time, was also publicly mulling the use of the Notwithstanding Clause to opt out of the Court’s decision, but in the end, opted to respect it, and thus proving that so much of the trials and the foot-dragging by the provincial government was merely about the performance of having to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the present, and being “forced” to accept that gays and lesbians had rights. In other words, nobody – especially Klein, who was described by many as a liberal who adopted the Progressive Conservative mantle – had the political courage to stand up for what was right because they were afraid of the province’s Bible belt (which continues to be a thorn in the side of many to this day, with the battles of Gay-Straight Alliances in the province, and the “acceptability” in the former Wildrose party of the “Lake of Fire” comments by one of their MLAs, which eventually forced then-leader Danielle Smith to walk out, sinking the party’s fortunes).

So yes, this had a very formative impact on my political sensibilities, before I even considered journalism to be my career path. It forged much of my cynicism about electoral politics, and about the kinds of performative jackassery that is considered normal in the execution of political duties, and it especially gave me a real sense of the profiles in political courage that we see time and again, every time there’s a tough decision that MPs will defer to the Supreme Court, every single time, most recently with the decision to return the tougher decisions around medical assistance in dying back to the courts after the government refused to accept expert recommendations in their legislation. The pattern remains the same, even if the moral goalposts have shifted ever so slightly. So here’s to twenty years of Vriend, and to my human rights as a Canadian.

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Roundup: Scheer unveils more reheated policy

While at the Manning Centre Networking Conference in Ottawa yesterday, Andrew Scheer unveiled another policy plank – that he was going to support a free trade deal with the United Kingdom, post-Brexit. And a short while later, put out a press release and “backgrounder” (which was a bit content-free) to say that he was going to travel to the UK next month to start talking about just this.

Scheer is behind the times on this, because Justin Trudeau announced that he and Theresa May were already having this discussion back when she visited in September, and Scheer knows this. So he’s reiterating this for a couple of reasons, beyond the fact that he’s trying to paint the picture of Trudeau being unable to adequately handle trade negotiations (never mind that his government concluded CETA that was in danger of going off the rails, and similarly extracted concessions from TPP talks, and they haven’t rolled over on NAFTA talks).

  1. Scheer is a Brexit supporter, and his trip to the UK is at a time where the UK Parliament is dealing with their Brexit legislation and not doing very well with it. One suspects that this trip is more about offering Canadian support for Brexit from his position as Leader of the Opposition, never mind that I suspect that the vast majority of Canadians would oppose Brexit (and hell, the number of Britons who regret voting for it seems to be growing daily). But Scheer does seem to want to offer that encouragement from his position.
  2. This announcement was to a crowd of small-c conservatives who feel a great deal of affection for the Anglosphere, and suspicion for other trade deals, particularly with China. It doesn’t seem to be out of the realm of possibility that this is a bit of red meat for that base.

Suffice to say, if this is a new bit of policy, this awfully thin gruel.

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Roundup: Pipeline demands versus environmental legislation

The pipeline drama between Alberta and BC continues to carry on at a dull roar, with yet more demands by the Conservatives that Trudeau return home to deal with the situation, and Jason Kenney demanding that the federal government take BC’s government to court, Trudeau reiterated from a press conference in San Francisco that yes, they will ensure that the Trans Mountain pipeline will get built, and reminded Kenney et al. that you can’t take BC to court over a press release. They’ve just stated intentions and haven’t done anything yet. Take a deep breath.

Amidst all of this, the federal government unveiled their new environmental assessment legislation yesterday, and pointed to it when answering questions on the pipeline battle. The new bill undoes much of the changes made during the previous Conservative government, but also places new streamlined processes with legislated timelines and a plan to replace the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency with the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, and the National Energy Board with the Canadian Energy Regulator. The Conservatives don’t like it because it undoes the changes they made, and the NDP don’t like it because they say it leaves too much uncertainty, but one suspects that the fact that neither other party likes it suits the Liberals just fine.

As for the pipeline battle, Jason Markusoff looks at what needs to happen for Alberta and BC to stand down from their respective positions, while John Geddes notes how little wiggle room that Trudeau has given himself.

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Roundup: Romanticizing a political “success” story

It’s not a secret that Globe and Mail editorials have a tendency to be terrible, but one yesterday was particularly misinformed to the point of being criminally negligent. The subject? That politics needs more Ruth Ellen Brosseaus. The thrust of the piece is that politics doesn’t need more lawyers or titans of industry, but plucky individuals with a common touch. What they completely ignore is how much support the party gave Brosseau to turn her from the assistant manager of a campus bar who spent part of the campaign in Vegas (who never actually went to her riding during the campaign) into the eventual NDP House Leader that she is today.

To wit, after the 2011 election, the party sequestered Brosseau, put her through intense French immersion to get her proficiency in French back up to an acceptable level for the francophone riding that she was accidentally elected into during the Orange Wave, and then carefully kept her away from the media except for select clips to show how great her French was. Her early interventions in the Commons were brutal – I recall one particularly memorable nonsense question in QP about how, as a busy single mother, she didn’t have time to worry about all of the Conservatives scandals. Riveting stuff. She was given a deputy portfolio that kept her very constituency bound, and again, she was largely kept away from the media spotlight for four years, and when she was in the media, it was for personality pieces and not policy. During the last election, the party put her forward to every outlet conceivable to showcase her personality and endear her to voters, and she did win again. And good for her.

But what the Globe piece misses entirely is that plucky everywoman Brosseau was given a hell of a lot more support than any other candidate or MP gets, because they wanted to rehabilitate her image, and to demonstrate that they didn’t make a mistake in putting her name on the ballot in the manner that they did. And sure, maybe we need plenty of everyperson candidates, but we also do need lawyers and corporate types who have policy experience as well, because part of the danger of just nominating your everyperson candidate is that it puts them in the position to be the puppets of party apparatchiks run out of the leader’s office. We already have too much central control in politics, and there is a real danger that candidates who are unprepared for political life will become fodder for those machinations, which will do no favour to our political system. So sorry, Globe editorial board – maybe you need to do a little more homework before you file a piece like this.

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Roundup: More dubious Senate suggestions

Over the weekend, there was a piece on Policy Options from University of Manitoba professor emeritus Paul Thomas about the “new” and improved Senate. While most of the piece was a recounting of what brought us to the current set of circumstances in the Upper Chamber, it ended with a series of recommendations of what Thomas thought the Senate should adopt going forward as it enters into this uncharted territory. But I’m not entirely convinced by his particular reasoning. To wit:

  1. The Senate should only engage in “judicious combativeness” by rarely seeking to defeat or fundamentally alter legislation, but use more subtle means of altering policy over the medium and long term. Which is fine on the surface, but legislation is contextual, and the Senate has long engaged in long-term policy development through committee studies that are usually of some of the top caliber in the country, doing more than Royal Commissions could on a more cost-effective basis. This suggestion is not much of a change from the status quo.
  2. More pre-study of regular legislation. I’m a bit dubious of this because while pre-study makes sense with some bills that are more complex or time-sensitive, it defeats part of the purpose of the Senate to do the work after the Commons has in order to look for things that the Commons missed and addressing it then, rather than trying to run committee processes in parallel. Meanwhile, there was a time when the Senate did a lot more pre-study of bills, and were subsequently accused of just rubber-stamping legislation when it made its way to the Senate, and bitter feelings erupted.
  3. Including timetables with legislation. Nope. Nooooope. This is the kind of nonsense that Senator Peter Harder is trying to bring in with his business committee nonsense, and it goes a long way to defeating the purpose of the Senate. Sometimes sober second thought takes time. Sometimes it takes a while for senators who see problems with legislation to convince the rest of the chamber, and including timetables from the start not only create a largely unnecessary sense of haste (and the Senate generally passes legislation more swiftly than the Commons, with few exceptions already) means that you’re applying unnecessary pressure that gives the message that you would rather a rubber stamp than sober second thought. And like I said – legislation is contextual, and no two bills are the same, so to have someone come in from the start and start assigning timetables lacks any sense.

I get that there’s a mood to pre-emptively start reining in a more activist upper chamber, and I have my own concerns with some of the newer appointees and their sense of self, which is all well and good. But to start demanding rule or process changes is foolhardy, and will almost certainly result in unintended consequences. The “new and improved” Senate is working, and they’re responding to the signals that the government is sending them when it comes to their willingness to accepted amended bills. There’s no problem to fix, and I wish that people would leave well enough alone.

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Roundup: Bad takes versus obstinacy

The bad takes continue to roll in on the Canada Summer Jobs brouhaha – so many bad takes – all of them written by straight white men who can’t fathom that these “sincerely held” religious beliefs that women and LGBT people shouldn’t be allowed to have equal rights, are in fact actual points of contention rather than some kind of Liberal Party demand for ideological orthodoxy. There seems to be not a clue that the governing party’s values are such that they have the gall to suggest that if you believe that women or LGBT people don’t deserve equal rights and you actively campaign against those rights, then maybe you don’t need taxpayer funds.

This isn’t to say that the government has done a stellar job of communicating this effectively, nor have they done a great job in drafting the wording of this attestation they want groups to sign. That’s fair criticism, and even pro-choice groups are saying hey, maybe you should clarify that language a bit so that you’re not freaking out the religious groups, and of course, the minister is obstinately saying no, I’m good with the wording as it stands – and I’m sure that they’ll be true to form and back down and agree to amend the wording after they get in another two or three weeks of self-inflicted damage, particularly after a week or two of mind-numbingly repetitive questions in QP about how this is all about feeding Christians to the lions, or some such bullshit – but we’ll hear all about it, and the Liberals will let this self-inflicted damage carry on until then.

This having been said, I’m at the absolute limit of my patience over the assertion of the pundit class that “if it had come from Conservatives but in reverse, there would be an uproar across the land.” That’s a quote from Chantal Hébert on The National on Thursday night.

There was uproar when the Conservative defunded anything to do with abortion internationally, and if you remember then-Senator Nancy Ruth’s blunt advice to women’s groups to “shut the fuck up about abortion,” it was well-meaning advice to stop poking the bear (for which she was unfairly castigated and her words being taken entirely out of context). Let’s not pretend that outrage didn’t happen then. Meanwhile, there was a hell of a lot less outrage when the Conservative defunded any LGBT festival or group that used to be funded, and the one time that they did give tourism funds to Toronto Pride, they got so petty about damage control that they literally trotted out Brad Trost to ritually humiliate the Minister of State, Diane Ablonczy, in order to placate their social conservative base.

“Two wrongs don’t make a right!” was the common Twitter response to this, and no, they don’t. My point, however, is that every single government engages in this kind of thing based on their values, and we can’t pretend that they don’t, or that this isn’t unique to the Liberals, nor can we pretend that the Liberals are getting an easier ride than the Conservatives did, because there wasn’t that outrage across the land when LGBT groups lost funding, or when HIV/AIDS service organizations lost funding, or when the Harper government pissed away millions in funds from the Gates Foundation in HIV prevention because they engaged in petty bullshit around local politics over facilities. Some of us covered those fights, and they didn’t get weeks of coverage or a plethora of terrible hot takes in national newspapers because that government was petty and ideological as opposed to inept about their communications strategy like the current one is.

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Roundup: Draft climate legislation revealed

The government unveiled their draft legislation for carbon pricing mechanisms, largely as the backstop for those provinces whose governments are toeing the agreed-upon line, and it includes both pricing incentives for those who can get 30 percent below the national standards, as well as the ability for the federal government to directly reimburse individuals for their carbon payments rather than just returning it all to provincial coffers and letting the provincial government figure it out.

Energy economists Andrew Leach and Trevor Tombe dig into the announcements a bit more.

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Roundup: Privilege case at the SCC

There is an interesting case being heard at the Supreme Court of Canada today, which goes to the heart of how laws are made in this country. An Alberta First Nation, the Mikisew Cree, applied to the Federal Court for judicial review of the 2012 Conservative budget implementation bill after its changes to environmental legislation didn’t consult them, per Section 35 of the Constitution. The problem? You can’t have the courts interfere with the legislative process. That goes to the heart of parliamentary privilege and the separation of powers.

The Federal Court allowed a partial application, citing that they should have been given an opportunity to make submissions, but this was overturned by the Federal Court of Appeal, which (correctly, in my view) cited that the Federal Court Act had no jurisdiction over the legislative process, and that it offended parliamentary privilege and the separation of powers, and there was an additional issue that this omnibus bill was of general application and did not apply specifically to this First Nation. The Supreme Court of Canada now gets to hear the issue and decide whether or not this should be the case in the face of the constitutional duty to consult.

While I’m sympathetic to the need to consult on these issues, particularly on issues that will affect their lands and ability to have engage with the processes that are created out of the regulator bodies that are engaged by the legislation once it is enacted, I do have a problem with the demands that any outside group be included in the drafting process. And while the current government has made a great deal of effort doing consultations before they draft bills (and there is no shortage of grousing as to how it slows down the process), there are usually plenty of opportunities to intervene once the bill is tabled and reaches committee hearings in both the Commons and the Senate. This is how parliament is supposed to work. Trying to short-circuit this has an effect on things like cabinet secrecy, and more likely, could grind the legislative process to a halt if you were dealing with a group that wanted to be obstinate. But also, it bears reiterating that parliamentary privilege and the separation of powers are not things to be trifled with, because it undermines the ability of parliament to do its work. While I’m confident that the Supreme Court will do the right thing, I do worry that this case has made it this far and could be victim of novel thinking that could do lasting harm to our institutions.

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Roundup: Cyberwarfare oversight concerns

The University of Toronto’s CitizenLab issued a report on Bill C-59, and the powers that it gives the Communications Security Establishment to engage in offensive cyberwarfare operations, rather than just sticking to being on the defensive. According to their report, these kinds of activities wouldn’t require any kind of judicial oversight – just the sign-off from the ministers of foreign affairs and national defence – and will have little other oversight other than the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians. And as Stephanie Carvin explains below, that’s actually not a bad thing, because offensive capabilities are not the same as intelligence gathering – one of CSE’s other activities.

And this is pretty much the point – a Crown prerogative doesn’t require the same kinds of oversight, and does not necessarily bind the activities to being Charter compliant because it’s not directed at Canadians, thus is not concerned with their particular rights and freedoms. And as Carvin points out, these kinds of operations have their own particular oversight mechanisms, which are simply different than the once that CitizenLab identifies. It’s perfectly fine to wonder if CSE is really the agency to be doing this kind of work, but that also means asking who else would be doing it, and if the answer is to build new capabilities within the Canadian Forces, is that the best use of scarce resources? Perhaps, perhaps not. It’s certainly a topic worthy of debate, but “no judicial oversight” is not right argument to be making in this case.

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