Roundup: Artificial cannabis vote drama

It started with a bunch of headlines about how it was do-or-die day for the marijuana bill in the Senate. Apparently, nobody can canvas vote numbers any longer, so there was the suggestion that it was going to be close, and that that it could be defeated. The Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative” even went before the cameras to play up the drama of not knowing the votes. As context, a number of senators were travelling on committee business, and there was a scramble to get them back to town in order to ensure they could vote on the bill (and while CBC gave the headline that it was the “government” scrambling, that would imply that it was actually government staffers doing the calling, not the ISG’s coordinators, as it actually was). The bill eventually passed Second Reading, and it wasn’t even a close vote.

With a new captive audience, reporters who don’t normally tune into the Senate got the Conservative senators’ greatest hits of over the top, ridiculous denunciations of the bill, and the usual canards as though this was just inventing marijuana rather than controlling something that some twenty percent of youths (and the 45-to-65 crowd as well) have used in the past year. Senator Boivenu got so emotional that he called the bill a “piece of shit” that won’t “protect people.” And on it went. From a press event in New Brunswick, Trudeau said that Senators are supposed to improve bills, not defeat them, though to be clear, they do have an absolute veto for a reason, and they refrain from using it unless it’s a dire circumstance because they know that they don’t have a democratic mandate. This bill, however, doesn’t really come close to qualifying as a reason to defeat a government bill (though I’m not sure all of the senators have the memo about using their mandate sparingly).

Since 1980, the Senate has only defeated three government bills, and in each time it was at third reading, which means that they let them go through committee before deciding to defeat them. In two of those cases, it was Charter rights at play, and the budget implementation bill in 1993 included some cuts to programmes and “streamlining” or boards and tribunals that were a straw too far even for some Progressive Conservative senators that they voted against their own government. This particular bill doesn’t rise to either of those particular tests. As for what would happen if it were to be defeated, well, the government can’t introduce the same bill twice in a single session. The way around that? Prorogue and reintroduce it. It would only delay, which may in fact hurt the Conservatives in the end.

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QP: Scrapping over data mining

While Justin Trudeau was off to New Brunswick, and Andrew Scheer elsewhere, it was up to Erin O’Toole to lead off, reading a quote about the job of the opposition to ask questions, attributing it to the PM, and wondered why the government wouldn’t let Daniel Jean appear before committee. Ralph Goodale calmly responded that the crux of the motion was around the Atwal invitation, that it was rescinded. O’Toole insisted two more times that MPs had a right to hear the briefing, but Goodale defended Jean’s career and insisted there were no contradictions in the positions put forward. Pierre Paul-Hus tried again twice in French, and Goodale poked holes in the Conservative Supply Day motion in return. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, and decried that only $15 million out of the $1 billion given to CRA to combat tax evasion. Lebouthillier reminded him that the investment was over five years, and it would be ramped up in order to take a strategic approach. Caron then railed that the CRA’s anti-avoidance committee met in secret, while Lebouthillier said that it was a committee of experts that meets as necessary. Peter Julian took over in French, and demanded taxation on web giants, to which Bill Morneau said that they were conducting studies to ensure that the system would work well. Julian changed to English to insist that studying the issue would mean doing nothing, but Morneau reiterated that they wanted to have a plan before acting.

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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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QP: Bell Island conspiracies

With Justin Trudeau on his way to the Microsoft conference in Washington State, and Rona Ambrose bowing out, there were only two leaders present for QP today. Candice Bergen led off, railing about the PM’s Xmas vacation — again — using the reach of a story about the island’s ownership to raise doubts. Bardish Chagger gave the usual reply. Bergen used this as a hook for a question to accuse Chagger of being the wrong person to be in charge of finding a new Ethics Commissioner, and Chagger reminded her that the process is open and anyone can apply. Bergen insisted that the government was simply looking for Liberal donors, citing Madeleine Meilleur’s nomination as Official Languages Commissioner. Diane Lebouthillier took this one, praising Meilleur’s record. Gérard Deltell was up next, worrying about the Infrastructure Bank and the search for a board despite the fact that it had not been created yet. Amarjeet Sohi reminded him of the value of the Bank, and that they wanted to gave board members ready to be appointed when the Bank’s creation was authorised by Parliament. On a second go from Deltell, François-Philippe Champagne took the opportunity to tout the Invest in Canada Agency that they were also looking for appointees for. Thomas Mulcair was up next, spinning a conspiracy about the tentacles of KPMG infiltrating everywhere, and Lebouthillier got up to note all of the measures they were taking to combat tax evasion. Mulcair asked again in French, and got the same answer. Mulcair then took a swipe at Meilleur’s appointment at Languages Commissioner, and Lebouthillier repeated her lines about Meilleur’s record. Mulcair demanded that Chagger recuse herself from the selection of the Ethics Commissioner, and Chagger reminded him of the open process.

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Roundup: Removing a senator over dinner

It started with a dinner invitation. The Prime Minister invited all of the senators who had thus-far sponsored government legislation to dinner to thank them for their contribution and to, presumably, talk about Senate modernization, and how it was taking shape. One of those senators was a sitting Conservative, Senator Stephen Greene, who had sponsored Bill S-4, on a tax agreement between Taiwan and Israel. The Conservative Senate leader, Senator Larry Smith, decided that if Greene was going to dine with the Prime Minister, that he was out of the caucus. Greene said fine – I’m going to be an Independent Reform Senator.

Part of Smith’s impetus for this move is because the Conservatives in the Senate are trying to preserve the Westminster role of opposition in the Upper Chamber, and that’s not a small thing. And there is a push, led by those like the Government Leader – err, “representative,” Peter Harder, to try and do away with the traditional roles of government and opposition, so that you have one big body of independents, which some of us have a problem with.

The other part of the context here is that Greene has been pushing for reforms in the Senate that would do away with partisan caucuses, and this would have been the final straw for Smith.

I will add that I do think that there is a problem with trying to eliminate the roles of government and opposition in the Senate, and I do think it’s problematic that the government is getting independent senators to sponsor legislation – particularly government legislation, and most especially budget bills. Those should be shepherded by ministers, which the Government Leader should be as opposed to this farcical “government representative” nonsense. Co-opting independents in this way has been problematic not only from a procedural and accountability framework (because ministers should be able to answer on behalf of cabinet when they sponsor such bills), but we have had several instances of independent senators sponsoring these bills with the intent to move amendments to them right away, which complicates their role in sponsoring and defending those bills. Part of this is the growing pains associated with the new reality of the Senate, but it’s also a reflection of this stubborn refusal by the PM to properly appoint a Government Leader who is the point of accountability in the Senate under our system of Responsible Government. Harder is not that, and it is a problem, and what happened to Greene is a fracture point in this bigger issue.

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QP: The most feminist budget ever

With Justin Trudeau off to New York, none of the other leaders decided to show up for QP today, so way to go for their insistence that all MPs should show up five days a week. Pierre Poilievre led off, demanding that the loan conditions to Bombardier to be reopened to ban the money from bonuses, to which Jean-Yves Duclos assured him that they were trying to grow the economy with key investments to the aerospace industry. Poilievre railed about the company’s family share structure, but Duclos’ answer didn’t change. Poilievre then moved onto the cancellation of tax credits, to which François-Philippe Champagne opted to answer, reminding him about their tax cuts. Gérard Deltell got up next to demand a balanced budget in the other official language, and Champagne reiterated his previous response. Deltell then worried that there was nothing in the budget for agriculture, and after a moment of confusion when Duclos stood up first, Lawrence MacAulay stood up to praise all kinds of measures in the budget. Sheila Malcolmson led off for the NDP, demanding childcare and pay equity legislation immediately. Maryam Monsef proclaimed that the budget was the most feminist budget in history, and listed off a number of commitments. Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet repeated the question in French, and Monsef listed off yet more budget commitments. Boutin-Sweet pivoted over to the changes to the Standing Orders, and Bardish Chagger deployed her “modernization” talking points, with some added self-congratulation about yesterday’s proto-PMQs. Murray Rankin demanded a special committee on modernization, and Chagger insisted she wanted to hear their views, but would not agree to a committee.

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Roundup: A bad term-limit promise

Senator John Wallace announced yesterday that he’s keeping his pledge to Stephen Harper and resigning after eight years in the chamber despite the fact that he won’t have reached the mandatory age of 75. Of the other cohort of Senators that Harper appointed in late 2008, only Pamela Wallin has indicated that she plans to also end her term after 8 years – but not including the time she was suspended, so she’s got a couple of years left to go. Other senators from that cohort have either said that their pledge was conditional on Harper’s reform plans, which went down in flames after the Supreme Court of Canada shot them down spectacularly, or that they still have things left to accomplish, which is fair. But you know there is a whole crowd of people waiting for them to fail to live up to this “promise.”

Here’s the thing – it was a bad promise that Harper never should have extracted because short term limits are antithetical to the design of our senate, and that a mandatory retirement age of 75 is actually part of its structural guarantees. By having security of tenure, senators are able to exercise institutional independence, and by ensuring that they have employment until age 75, there is not the temptation for them to try to curry favour with the government in order to try and win some kind of post-Senate appointment (be it a diplomatic posting, or heading and administrative tribunal or commission). The lack of term limits like Harper was proposing were part of what is supposed to keep senators more independent and less beholden to the party leaders than MPs are. But it’s not like Harper was trying to undermine the Senate’s ability to be independent – oh, wait. He spent his nine years in power doing exactly that. So no, I will not be joining in the chorus demanding these senators resign, and in fact, I think Wallace is making a mistake in doing so.

Meanwhile, the Senate has grave concerns about bill S-3 on gender inequities in registering First Nations identity with the government, which the minister herself has acknowledged has problems but she wants them to pass it anyway because there’s a court deadline which she said they couldn’t extend, but now it looks like they’re going to. Also, this was a government bill introduced in the Senate so you can’t even claim that it goes against the will of the Commons. Once again, the Senate is doing its job, and oh, look – Andrew Coyne is furiously clutching his pearls over it, while National Post reporter’s description of the current state of the Senate is that they’re moving away from rubber-stamping bills which was never their role in the first place. Honestly, my head is about to explode about this. Again.

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Senate QP: Unions and migrant workers

Six new senators had just been sworn in, and other senators in the chamber had been shuffle around, making for a fuller chamber. This week’s special ministerial guest star was employment minister MaryAnn Mihychuk (and I can’t recall if she’s been here before). Senator Carignan led off, asking about union certification and secret ballots, taking a shot at Senator Bellemare while he was at it. Mihychuk, after getting him to repeat the question, said there was no real reason to move away from the card check system, and noted that while intimidation does exist, they are returning to a system that worked well for years.

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QP: Taking the provinces’ phone calls

While Justin Trudeau was not only present, having already participated in the debate of the day (a rarity for any PM these days), his leaders opposite were not. Rona Ambrose was off to the UK Conservative caucus in Birmingham, while Thomas Mulcair was elsewhere. Denis Lebel led off for the Conservatives, demanding a signed softwood lumber agreement before it was too late. Trudeau responded by reminding him that the previous government neglected the file while his government has been hard at work in negotiations. Lebel moved onto the healthcare transfers file, demanding the government respect provincial jurisdiction, but Trudeau shook it off, ensuring that they were working together. Lebel insisted that there was peace with the provinces when the Conservatives were in charge and why wouldn’t the federal government just let them be rather than meddle? Trudeau insisted that the provinces were much happier now that the federal government answered their phone calls. Ed Fast got up next to decry the “carbon tax grab” being shoved “down the throats” of Canadians. Trudeau hit back that the previous government ignored the file and made no progress, while his government was. Fast tried again, decrying it as an intrusion on provincial jurisdiction, but Trudeau reminded him that they were indeed respecting said jurisdiction. Robert Aubin led off for the NDP, lamenting the “Harper targets” for GHGs, and Trudeau noted that they had just tabled their plan, and soon all Canadians — not just 80 percent — would be in a carbon priced jurisdiction. Aubin went again another round, got the same answer, and Linda Duncan took over in English, decrying that the announced starting carbon price was too low to be effective. Trudeau noted they were simultaneously developing a strong economy while being environmentally sustainable. Duncan worried the government was abandoning the clean energy future, but Trudeau reiterated his answer a little more forcefully.

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Roundup: The price of everything and the value of nothing

We’re into that part of summer where the news is so thin that we’ve turned to cheap outrage to get to some headlines. Combing through expense reports, many a reporter is simply putting a big number up on a headline and clutching their pearls about it, never mind that there’s no context around those figures, and that in most cases they’re actually reasonable. And lo, we look small town cheap, like backwater rubes as we continue to insist that our politicians subsist on stale bread and shaving water lest they look like they’re too good for the rest of us.

What is possibly worse is the fact that there is constant apology rather than defending any of the spending. Was the cost of Jane Philpott’s car service unreasonable? That’s debatable, and I’m dubious that the fact that the owner of the service was a campaign volunteer will gain much traction with the Ethics Commissioner. Catherine McKenna at least defended the use of a photographer at COP21 (and no, it’s not the media’s job to take photos that the government can later use for their own promotional need), but instead of media questioning the return that they got for them (Jen Gerson noted on Power & Politics that the quality of the photos she’d seen were questionable and the photographer hired had credentials that may not have been suitable for the task), we just get performed outrage at the dollar value.

In this he’s exactly right – this is made worse by politicians essentially cannibalizing one another to score points rather than saying “Whoa there, let’s stop and think about this for a minute. Maybe these are reasonable expenses.” No. Instead it’s this game of tit-for-tat, Conservatives getting back at the Liberals for pointing out their own spending excesses when they were in government, and the NDP simply being sanctimonious and smug. The Globe and Mail’s editorial on the subject is right – we are spending too much time on the nickel-and-diming and the cheap theatre of performed outrage rather than on the actual scrutiny of government spending, and this may be related to the absolute dysfunction of the Estimates process in parliament (noting that parliamentarians themselves let it get this bad rather than push back on successive governments that caused this problem, and performing cheap outrage is easier). On the other hand, we’ve reached the point where we are living out that Oscar Wilde quote about a cynic being “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Reporters rushing to put up that headline number with no context attached have done the system a disservice. Insisting that everyone post receipts will only make things worse, and will only hasten the race to the bottom where MPs will be fighting for re-election on the backs of what brand of toilet paper they bought for the constituency office and whether it was on sale that week or not. We need to draw a line somewhere, before we both paralyze the discourse and make politics so unattractive to anyone who wants to serve the public that they won’t bother. We’re our own worst enemies, and we help nobody in feeding this populist noise.

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