QP: Justice delay bafflegab

With the PM still in France, most of the other leaders didn’t bother showing up either today, which places more doubt in their howling insistence that the QP is so important that the PM should be there daily. But I digress… Denis Lebel led off, asking about an accused murderer released based on the Jordan decision fallout. Jody Wilson-Raybould insisted that they had taken steps to ensure that there was a transparent, merit-based process, and more judges would be appointed soon. Lebel moved onto softwood lumber and the lack of progress — never mind that there is no trade representative appointed in the States — and François-Philippe Champagne insisted that they were working the provinces and working to engage the Americans. Lebel pivoted to the question of Syria and doing something about Assad, and Champagne said that Assad must be held accountable for his war crimes and Canada was committed to humanitarian assistance, refugee resettlement, and ensuring a peaceful Syria. Candice Bergen picked it up in English, accused the government of shifting positions, and wondered how hey planned to institute regime change. Champagne repeated his response in English, never quite answering the regime change question. Bergen then moved onto the Standing Orders, demanding any changes be made by consensus. Chagger gave a bland response about the necessity to have a serious conversation. Thomas Mulcair was up next, and wondered how many court cases had been thrown out because of delays. Wilson-Raybould reiterated her plan to appoint new judges, but didn’t answer the question. Mulcair asked why the delays in French, and Wilson-Raybould said that she was meeting with provinces to discuss the issues of delays in order to find a coordinated approach to tackling them. Mulcair moved onto problems with the military justice system, and Navdeep Bains responded that they were planning to work on ensuring reforms to that system. Mulcair sniped that Bains answered, then moved onto veterans’ pensions, and Ralph Goodale asserted that they would have an announcement later this year.

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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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Roundup: For fear of Mary Dawson

It was a day of juvenile finger-pointing as the big headline from the Globe and Mail was that the Ethics Commissioner said that she plans to speak to Justin Trudeau and Bill Blair about allegations that certain fundraisers may have breached conflict of interest laws, based entirely on innuendo from the Globe (which then gets repeated in Question Period, and that gets written up, and when the Globe adds another new piece of unproven innuendo the next morning, the cycle starts over again). Trudeau’s response? Bring it on – I’ve done nothing wrong.

So where are we? Because I’m not sure at this point. Do we insist that the PM and ministers no longer fundraise? Because that’s happening is that the party is capitalising on their “celebrity” for higher-level fundraisers, which is basic economics. They’re more in demand, so you send them to the higher-priced fundraisers. Should they be disallowed because someone would try to talk to them about their particular hobby-horses? As though they wouldn’t if they met them in the grocery store or on the street? Because I’m not sure that it’s actually lobbying activity, despite the label that has been slapped onto it by the bulk of the media and the opposition, looking to score some points on this. Does this mean that the whole of cabinet should be encased in these bubbles where nobody can talk to them? If the fear is that they get “exclusive” access, the government is quick to point out that they’ve accused of consulting too much and that there are plenty of other opportunities. If the worry is that it’s because they’re rich that they get access, again I’m not seeing the issue because you’re not buying influence for $1500. “Oh, you’re buying good feeling and they’ll think to pick up the phone and call you the next time something comes up” is the latest excuse I’ve heard, and I rolled my eyes so hard that it almost hurt. Honestly? Especially with the accusations that they’re buying the influence of “good feelings” donating to the Trudeau Foundation, which the PM severed his connections to and which provides scholarships? And if the charge is that because many of these rich business people are of Chinese descent, again, I’m not actually seeing any real issue here. They accuse one businessman of donating who had interests in canola that the Chinese government restricting and then Trudeau got it resolved. Conspiracy! Err, except that was the concern of every single gods damned canola farmer in this country so singling out one Chinese-Canadian starts to smack of veiled racist sentiment.

Once again, I’m waiting for someone to show me where there’s smoke, let alone fire. I mean, other than that sickening smell of people who’ve lit their own hair on fire over this. And I would be willing to bet that Mary Dawson is going to shrug and say “they haven’t broken any rules, but I want you to turn over more power to me” like she does all the time.

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QP: Questions about NAFTA

While Justin Trudeau was off in Cuba, and after Rona Ambrose walked in her party’s newest MP, Glen Motz, she led off Question Period by wondering why the government would be so quick to be willing to renegotiate NAFTA. Navdeep Bains responded, talking about how they were looking to protect and advance Canada’s interests. Ambrose then moved onto the Infrastructure Bank, and wondered who would be backstopping overages, and Marc Garneau got up to praise how great infrastructure spending was, but didn’t really answer the question. Ambrose then moved onto Keystone XL and lamented that the PM was “silent” and misled energy workers. Jim Carr stood up to reassure her that they still supported it and the approvals were still in place, but the company themselves had to reapply to the US. Ambrose switched to French to return to the NAFTA question, and Bains repeated his earlier answer in English. Ambrose then pivoted again to UNRWA funding, accusing the government of using those funds to put Israeli citizens at risk. Marie-Claude Bibeau said that they were ensuring that there were robust controls, but they preferred Palestinian children in schools than on the streets.  Thomas Mulcair lamented instances of surveillance of journalists and demanded a full national public inquiry. Ralph Goodale insisted there were no ongoing operations, and they welcomed input from journalists and lawyers on improving the law. Mulcair switched in French to demand concrete steps to protect freedom of the press. Goodale insisted that there was no argument, that they had appropriate safeguards and were open to input on improving the law. Mulcair then switched to the issue of softwood lumber as part of trade deals, and Bains assured him that they were looking to protect Canadian interests. Mulcair switched to English to press the issue, and Bains insisted that they were looking for Canadian jobs.

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Roundup: Policy or privilege?

Yesterday after QP, NDP trade critic Tracey Ramsey raised a question of privilege in the Commons, claiming that the tabling of CETA implementing legislation was contrary to the rules, not only because it didn’t follow the 2008 departmental policy on tabling treaties which lays out that 21 sitting days be given before introducing any such bills, and because it didn’t contain any explanatory memorandum.

They key phrase to remember in there is that it’s a departmental policy and not a standing order or other rule of the House of Commons, which means that this point of privilege is pretty much doomed to fail – and this was pretty much Bardish Chagger’s brief submission to the Speaker in advance of a more robust response to come at a later date. I would add that while Ramsey says that it’s unfair that Parliamentarians have to digest all 1700 pages of the treaty on their own without these explanatory memoranda, it’s not like these details have been in the dark. The text of the agreement has largely been available for a year now at least, which is a lot of time for the parties to do their research on the agreement, and yes, this is why they have research budgets and staff who can assist with these sorts of things. And it also sounds a bit like the opposition is complaining that the government isn’t doing their homework for them. Maybe I’m wrong, but that would certainly fit with the trend that has developed across the board in the House of Commons – that MPs expect everyone else to do that homework on their behalf, whether it’s the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the Auditor General, or any other Officer of Parliament.

I would also add that many of the changes that the Conservatives made policy-wise to things like treaties and military deployments were done under the illusion of giving the House of Commons a greater role to play when many of these matters are actually Crown prerogatives that they were looking for political cover in exercising, or in partisan gamesmanship designed to divide the opposition. I’m not sure how much this particular 2008 policy is a reflection of that Conservative mindset, but if the way the government went about this was a more traditional exercise of prerogative powers, then that’s all the more reason for them to do so, rather than to continue to indulge some of the bad habits that the Conservatives put in for their own purposes.

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QP: Wounded by your cynicism

The Liberal front bench was pretty empty as QP got underway, and Thomas Mulcair was the only leader present today, for whatever the reason. Trudeau in particular had no real excuse as he was just at an event with students in the precinct just a couple of hours before. Candice Bergen led off for the Conservatives, lamenting the lack of new jobs produced by the previous budget. Scott a Brison responded, lamenting the lack of attention the Conservatives were paying to the international investment that they had drawn, such as Thompson Reuters and Amazon. Bergen moved onto fundraising issues and Bardish Chagger gave her usual “federal rules” replies. Bergen demanded the Ethics Commissioner police this issue (not really per place to, which is an issue), and Chagger repeated her response. Gérard Deltell lamented the lack of a date for a return to budgetary balance, but Brison reminded him of their middle class tax cuts and the Canada Child Benefit. Deltell then demanded to know which other tax credits the government planned to eliminate, but Brison dodged and praised their investments in economic growth. Thomas Mulcair was up next, demanding to know which electoral system that the Minister of Democratic Institutions favoured, but with Monsef absent, Brison praised their consultative process and to let the committee do its work. Mulcair decried that those statements undercut the committee’s work, and Brison lamented Mulcair’s cynicism. Mulcair then changed topics and demanded to know now how many journalists were being signed on at the federal level, Ralph Goodale said that the situation in Quebec wasn’t applicable to the federal level but he wouldn’t comment on any ongoing operations. Mulcair pressed, and Goodale reminded him that the Commission told a committee that the answer was zero.

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QP: In advance of the fiscal update

Just before the fall fiscal update was to be delivered – in the Commons for the first time in a decade, mind you – Justin Trudeau was elsewhere, despite all other leaders being present. Rona Ambrose led off, raising the forthcoming fiscal update and wondering why the government was doubling down on its failed plan. Bill Morneau said that he was looking forward to talking about the long-term impact of their measures. Ambrose noted that the infrastructure plan only got one project going, but Amarjit Sohi disputed that characterization and praised the agreements with the provinces. Ambrose decried tax increases, and Morneau retorted with the tax cuts they put through in the last year plus the implementation of the Canada Child Benefit. Ambrose then tried to equate Trudeau’s cabinet with Kathleen Wynne’s staffers facing provincial charges as a segue to fundraising issues, and Bardish Chagger read her standard response about the federal rules. Ambrose changed to French and raised the Chrétien-era staffer who was found guilty for Sponsorship-scandal related fraud charges, and Chagger simply repeated her response in French. Thomas Mulcair was up next, asking about police surveillance of a journalist in Quebec. Ralph Goodale responded about the gravity of the situation and the values of freedom of the press, which is spelled out in a ministerial directive. Mulcair pressed, and Goodale spelled out the Supreme Court five-part test. Mulcair moved onto fundraising, and Chagger repeated her standard response. Another round of the same got no different answer.

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Roundup: About those revocations…

Everyone has been making a big deal about citizenship revocation lately, particularly post-Maryam Monsef birthplace revelation, but as it turns out, the situation is not as black-and-white as presented, particularly in some media depictions like this one from CBC. So the former chief of staff for the department sent out a tweet-storm of context and correction that is worth reading, and shows why it’s wrong to conflate that issue with the other revocations that are taking place. This is also interesting context to add to the questions that John McCallum faced in Senate QP last week where he stated that he’d look into a moratorium on these revocations that are happening without much in the way of due process or an appeal mechanism, but it does shape the issue in a different fashion, so again, it does give pause as to what the moratorium being demanded is really asking for. It’s something to keep an eye on, but for now, here’s that boatload of context for consideration.

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Roundup: A questionable path forward

Two former senators, Michael Kirby and Hugh Segal, got together to write a report on how they see a move to a more independent Senate should go, and offered a number of suggestions along the way. (They summarise the report in an op-ed here, as does Susan Delacourt in her column here). The highlights of the report are that they feel that the Parliament of Canada Act be amended so that the Senate is no longer dependent on recognized party lines to organise themselves, that they instead be organised into four regional caucuses (Newfoundland and Labrador apparently being lumped in with the Maritime region, and the territories being given a choice as to which region they want to sit with) that would form a “senior council” to decide things like committee selection. They also suggest changes to Senate Question Period, that the absolute veto be self-limited to a six-month suspensive veto, and that the minimum age of 30 be dropped as with the net worth qualification of $4000 (but not property, as it helps to determine residency requirement).

While I will no doubt discuss these recommendations in more depth elsewhere, I will first preface my comments by saying that the Senate Modernisation Committee will have their own report out in a few weeks, and we will likely get a better sense of how things are headed on the ground from there. As for these recommendations, while changes to the Parliament of Canada Act need to happen in order to break the party oligopoly now in place, I fail to see the value-added of regional caucuses. Current committee selection already looks at regional as well as gender balance, so creating a “council” to determine this seems frivolous, and the current seat allocation on committees will rebalance as more unaffiliated senators are appointed and start feeling comfortable enough to take on committee work. I’m not sure that enforcing regional lines is really what the Fathers of Confederation had in mind (as Segal and Kirby keep going back to) because I think it has the potential to create balkanization. Breaking the oligopoly and giving the unaligned senators more of a voice in organization and logistics can happen without needing to completely freeze out parties. The post-2008 excesses were not necessarily the fault of partisanship per se as it was an overly controlling PMO manipulating new senators, who didn’t know any better, to get their way. The suggested changes to Senate QP (like asking questions of committee chairs) make no sense as there is little accountability to be had from them, which is the point of QP. The change to a suspensive veto I am wary of because the point of the Senate is to be able to check the powers of a prime minister with a majority, and saying that the Lords in the UK has been like this since 1911 ignores the history or temperament of that chamber as it differs from our Senate. As for dropping the minimum age, if I had my druthers I would raise it a decade if not two, but if we can’t do that, then leave it as is. We have no need to appoint twentysomethings to be there until age 75. Sorry.

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QP: Demands that Fantino resign

The second-last Monday of the sitting year, and there were a large number of empty seats in the Chamber, which sadly is not too much of a surprise. Thomas Mulcair was present, and led off by asking about the AG report on mental health in veterans affairs, and the funding announcement being led over 50 years, and then accused the minister of fleeing the country. Fantino stood up and robotically insisted that he asked for the AG review and that he accepted his recommendations, before insisting that he was on a trip with veterans in Italy. Mulcair lashed out, calling him a coward, for which the Speaker cautioned him, before they went for another round. Mulcair demanded his resignation, but Fantino simply uttered robotic talking points. Mulcair changed topics to the final dismantling of the Wheat Board, to which Gerry Ritz insisted that they were still accepting bids. Mulcair then launched into Aglukkaq, but because he used “dishonesty” in his salvo, the Speaker shut him down. Ralph Goodale led for the Liberals, and calmly demanded the resignation of Fantino. Fantino simply returned to his talking points about making improvements to veterans benefits. After a second round, Fantino hit back a little more, and for the final round, Marc Garneau repeated the resignation demand in French, Fantino restored to his script about making significant improvements for those benefits.

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