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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Roundup: A test of bicameral wills?

Whether through stubbornness or pique, the House of Commons voted to adopt nearly all of the amendments the Senate proposed to Bill C-14, with the exception of the biggest and most important one – the one which would eliminate the requirement of a “reasonably foreseeable” death before someone could be granted medical assistance in dying. And then, the Commons more or less announced that tomorrow will be their last sitting day before they rise for the summer, essentially daring the Senate to return a bill to a chamber that has gone home (well, they are supposed to come back on the 29th for Obama’s address), and leaving the spectre of there being no law in place, which has all manner of medical community stakeholders concerned (never mind that the framework of the Supreme Court of Canada’s Carter decision is in place and would ensure that nobody would be charged for providing the service). It’s a little more ballsy than I would have given the Liberals credit for a few weeks ago, particularly before I saw the background paper that Jody Wilson-Raybould released with her…questionable justification for drafting the law the way it was. Now comes the difficult part – will the Senate stick to their guns and insist that the amendments to eliminate “reasonably foreseeable” be maintained if the bill is to remain constitutional, or will they back down because they’ve made their point and the Commons is the elected chamber?

This is the part where I chime in with a few reminders that this is the reason why our Senate exists the way it does – it enjoys institutional independence and cannot be threatened by the Commons so that they can push back on bills they find unconstitutional, particularly a controversial one like this, where MPs are proving themselves to be timid in the face of a Supreme Court of Canada decision that lays out what they deem to be an appropriate constitutional reading of the issue – something the government is basically flouting in an attempt to push back on this bit of social evolution for as long as possible. And as I’ve stated before, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the Commons is waiting for the Senate to “force” them to advance things. Will it turn into a ping-pong between the chambers? Not for much longer, I would say, but it is going to depend on who blinks. If the Senate does dig in its heels on this and insist that doing otherwise would be to let an unconstitutional bill pass, then there is every reason to suspect the government take the “forced into this” option and let the Senate be the punching bag when religious and disability groups complain. There are people suggesting that the Supreme Court should break the impasse, which I would loudly denounce because it’s the very last thing we need. It’s not their job, and it would signal a complete abdication of the rights of Parliament and Responsible Government that our predecessors fought long and hard for. (Also, stop demanding these bills be referred to the Court – legislating is not a game of “Mother May I?”). This whole exercise is why the Senate exists. Let’s let them do their jobs.

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QP: In other news…

It was very nearly a full house for QP, including all of the leaders. Rona Ambrose led off, mini-lectern on neighbouring desk, once again demanding an electoral reform referendum. Trudeau said that he did trust Canadians to discuss complex and nuanced issues, which was why he wanted an open consultative process. Ambrose switched to French to lament the current government’s understanding of the military and his choice in the Super Hornets. Trudeau in turn lamented the sorry state of the Forces left by his predecessors and their botched procurements. Ambrose asked again in English, and got the same answer. Denis Lebel was up next, decrying the lack of progress on a new softwood lumber agreement. Trudeau responded that the previous government neglected the file, focusing fruitlessly on pipelines that went nowhere. Lebel disputed Trudeau’s characterisation, but Trudeau insisted they immediately sought to restore positive relations with the Americans to better deal with these irritants. Thomas Mulcair was up for the NDP, and listed off the opposition to C-14, and Trudeau called the bill an “important step” but that it struck a balance with the protection of the vulnerable. Mulcair insisted it was as false choice, and accused the government of behaving exactly like their predecessors. Trudeau begged to differ, noting the Conservatives ignored the issue, and he praised the work to date. Mulcair demanded that the government at least take amendments from the Senate, and Trudeau said that he looked forward to what the “newly independent and less partisan” Senate would bring forward. Mulcair accused the bill of going against the Charter, and Trudeau reiterate the balance being struck.

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Roundup: A stake through the grassroots

Congratulations Liberals, you have once again made things awful for the proper functioning on Canadian democracy, as you so often do. In fact, most of our democratic ills in this country can be traced directly back to Liberal “innovations,” like delegated leadership conventions, which removed caucus accountability of the party leader, to the “supporter class” of leadership selection – removing any and all accountability the leader had – and now you’ve decided to eliminate party memberships to further erode what accountability was left in the party system so that all of the remaining power can be centralised in the leader’s office and Big Data can be used to justify any and all policy decisions rather than allowing them to come from the grassroots. Well done! Oh, but no need to worry – Justin Trudeau totally promised that this wasn’t about centralizing power and taking it away from the grassroots (just the regional power brokers, natch), so no need to worry! Absent from that assurance was anything about accountability, which isn’t surprising given the way the history of these attempts to “democratize” things happen in this country. I’m not saying that the party didn’t need to update its various constitutions into a single body. That’s fine. But memberships are actually an important thing for the role of a political party in our democratic system. And while I get that the “supporter” category during the leadership was instrumental in populating the database that they’re so very proud of for their new digital future, it doesn’t erase the role that grassroots members play. While the Liberals are trying to “deconstruct” what a political party is and turn it into a “movement,” it can’t escape that political parties are not just “private clubs,” as the rhetoric around the new constitution has been trying to paint them as (and indeed, rhetoric used going back to the introduction of the “supporter” category during the leadership). And beyond just offering organizational structure within Parliament (which is in itself a Very Big Deal), parties have an interlocutory role to play between the parliamentary caucus and the public at large. It’s why people are supposed to be joining parties – to provide bottom-up ideas and policies, to nominate candidates, and in return, the riding associations act as interfaces to bring local concerns to caucus if there is no local representative. But we’re not taught about the importance of joining riding associations in school, and when the grassroots has weak structures and little power, then it only empowers the apparatchiks in Ottawa at the centre of the party. I fail to see how Trudeau’s new “movement” is going to empower the grassroots when riding associations will be hollowed out in favour of “streamlining” policy proposals via Big Data. The social and community aspects of riding associations are gone because there is no longer anything there for them to do, other than organise nominations every few years. And not only does it weaken the grassroots, it further diminishes the power of MPs (as Peter Lowen writes here) because that power gets centralized in the leader’s office – just as the power of MPs started being eroded when we took away their ability to select and remove leaders. But because we’re not being taught civic literacy, we’re not learning these lessons, and power continues to be centralized. Trudeau has consolidated a great deal of power now, owing to his popularity, and he is accountable to nobody, and the party structures that would place any kind of check on that power are now gone. I don’t see this as a great day for the Liberal party, but one that harkens worse things to come for our country’s political system as a whole.

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