Roundup: Mary Dawson delivers a spanking

Outgoing Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson released her report on the Prime Minister’s vacation to the Bahamas and the Aga Khan’s private island there last Christmas, and she determined that he had indeed broken four sections of the code. Reaction was swift – Trudeau quickly called a press conference to apologise and try and to take full responsibility, but stumbled in some of his responses. And soon after, both Andrew Scheer and Jagmeet Singh called their own press conferences to condemn Trudeau and to rail about how out of touch he is, and so on.

First things first: The Canadian Press has five items of note from the report, and John Geddes offers three items of his own. Hay is being made – particularly from certain opposition politicians – that Trudeau is the first PM to have been found guilty of breaking these conflict of interest laws, but it’s worth bearing in mind that this current conflict of interest regime is only a decade old, and it’s not a lot of time for which there to be much to compare to. Aaron Wherry parses the report here, while Paul Wells offers his own bigger-picture look as to why this all matters.

This all having been said, I’m trying to digest the substance of the report, and some of it does rankle with me a bit, in particular the way in which Dawson parses how a friendship with someone like the Aga Khan should unfold, given the position that he holds. I also wonder if better context should have been applied to just what his Foundation’s dealings with the Canadian government are, because actual private interests aren’t being advanced here – nobody profits from this. A lot of what the Foundation does with Canadian aid money is do things like provide school books to Syrian refugees in camps in the Middle East, where they have the networks to deliver them. This isn’t nearly the same thing as accepting gifts from businessmen whose private interests and personal profits may rely on decisions made by the Canadian government, and I wonder if it’s helpful to treat those as being on an equal playing field. (Then again, maybe it is. I’m not an expert in this).

A couple of other thoughts – It is fair to ask why Trudeau and his team, who can be so focused on optics at times, were so blind to this one. But given that they’ve scored more than a few own-goals this last year with bad communications plans, that’s becoming clear that they’re not the masters at this that they sometimes appear to be. As for the lack of penalties in the Conflict of Interest legislation, we have to bear in mind that these are political actors that we are discussing, and merely naming and shaming them does have political consequences. If we got into games of demanding financial penalties or that public office holders be jailed for breaches, we change the political calculus of this ethics regime, and it would become an even bigger gong show than it is now, not to mention that it would make cooperation even less likely if they think there’s a jail sentence attached. And finally, there is a lot of smug sanctimony going around, but some caution had best be exercised, particularly by members of the opposition, when it comes to how the Aga Khan is portrayed in this. The Ismaili community already has their backs up over how he has been characterised to date, and those opposition parties could find themselves alienating an important voting bloc if they’re not careful.

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Roundup: A new Chief Justice

The justice minister announced yesterday morning that the prime minister would be naming Justice Richard Wagner as the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, thus both respecting the tradition of alternating between a Common Law and a Civil Law judge as the Chief, as well as picking an accomplished jurist who has 15 years left on the bench, ensuring that there is a long enough period of stability on the Court. Wagner is well respected in the Quebec courts, where he hailed from, and it is noted that he doesn’t really fit into the left-right divide – something that is not only indicative of our Canadian system, but is one of those things that people point to when they note how a Liberal PM can elevate a judge chosen by his Conservative predecessor.

A trip to the Maclean’s archives finds this piece by Paul Wells on the day that Wagner was named to the Supreme Court was also the day that Justin Trudeau threw his hat into the ring for Liberal leadership, and that both men had famous fathers in political circles. Tasha Kheiriddin notes the choice of Wagner is a safe one.

It’s also worth noting that Wagner also becomes Deputy Governor General with his elevation to Chief Justice, and he can grant royal assent to bills in the event that the GG herself is ill or absent; he opens Parliament before a Speaker is elected; and he will head the committee in charge of nominating people to the Order of Canada. The practice since 1939 also used to be that the Chief Justice would close a session of Parliament instead of the Governor General following some particular manoeuvring by Mackenzie King while the GG was out of town, until the government stopped with prorogation ceremonies. (If you ask me, they should restore the ceremonies, but with the GG doing them).

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Roundup: No maple death squads

A story that caught my eye yesterday was on the topic of foreign fighters who may return now that ISIS/Daesh has fallen. More particularly was the notion that the US, UK and France have all made it policy to try and target and kill their own home-grown fighters rather than risk them returning to their own countries. Canada, however, came out explicitly yesterday to state that we aren’t doing the same because we don’t engage in death squads. And yes, we’re taking the issue seriously, and our security forces are on alert, and so on. While it may be astonishing to hear, it’s also not unsurprising considering that this is a government that is committed to the Charter, and extrajudicial killings would seem to be a gross violation thereof.

The problem? Some of the responses.

While I have a great deal of respect for the good senator, I’m a bit troubled by the sentiments expressed because the implicit message is that governments should feel free to violate the Charter with impunity, with either extrajudicial killings, or processes that violate the Charter and our other international obligations against torture, as with the reference to Omar Khadr. And worse, the kinds of responses to that tweet are pretty disturbing in their own right.

Aside from the fact that any of these targeted killings would be outside of the rule of law, Stephanie Carvin also points out that this kind of policy would be a false certainty, particularly when it comes to verification. I would also add that it would seem to me that it keeps the focus elsewhere than on home soil, where radicalisation still happens to one extent or another, and I do think there is likely a sense that “Hey, we’ve killed them over there,” then we don’t think about how they were radicalised at home in the first place, and we don’t put in the time and resources toward solving that issue. Nevertheless, that our government follows the rule of law shouldn’t be a news story, but in this day and age, it would seem to be.

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Roundup: The good news rollouts

The Liberals’ planned rollout of all kinds of “good news” announcements for Small Business Week – reductions in the small business tax rate by 2019, and changes to their planned amendments to Canadian-Controlled Private Corporation (CCPC) rules to crack down on those who use them to avoid paying taxes – were very nearly overshadowed by a Globe and Mail article that cried out that Bill Morneau hadn’t put his shares into a blind trust after all. As it turns out, this was largely a non-story – Morneau followed the advice of the Ethics Commissioner, who felt that because of his particular share structure that he wouldn’t need a blind trust but an ethics screen instead – though there are some added complications around it (see Glen McGregor’s tweets). This after the “revelation” about Morneau’s French villa – not that he had forgotten to disclose it, because he had already – just that he didn’t disclose the particular ownership structure, which is a French corporate structure not uncommon with the ownership of non-commercial real estate, known as a Société Civile Immobilière. Again, a non-story that the opposition (and certain media outlets) pounced upon, trying to make a bigger deal out of them than was merited.

And then there was the Prime Minister’s tax cut announcement at that Stouffville restaurant, and the somewhat bizarre behaviour by Trudeau in the Q&A period after where he tried to answer questions directed at Morneau (no doubt trying to keep control of the message and not let it get railroaded by the non-stories about his villa and shares, but it came off as smarmy). And back in Ottawa, his backbench critics seemed mollified by the morning’s announcements, so we’ll see if that holds in the days ahead. (Not to be outdone by all of the Liberal press shenanigans, Andrew Scheer walked out on a press conference when asked about his former campaign manager’s association with Rebel Media.)

Meanwhile, neither Chantal Hébert nor Andrew Coyne are impressed with the theatrics of this government’s attempt to change the channel on the pummelling they’ve received.

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Roundup: Looking to punish a maverick

One Liberal MP broke ranks from and voted for the Conservatives’ Supply Day motion on extending the consultation period on the tax changes, and the media has spent the day salivating over it, and as has become usual, is playing the role of party whip better than the party whip himself. Because drama!

Said MP, Wayne Long, conspicuously made himself absent from national caucus yesterday morning, and made himself available to media, so it’s clear that he’s being a maverick and pushing his luck rather than keeping his head down and falling into line, but at the same time, I wonder if the fact that the media makes a Big Deal of these kinds of incidents just amplifies what he did (which shouldn’t be a big deal given that it wasn’t a confidence vote), but was simply a rather performative protest motion by the Conservatives as part of their campaign to sow confusion into the tax discussion. But my concern is that when the media goes out of their way to make a Big Deal out of this issue, chasing the whip across the Foyer to his office trying to get him to give a juicy comment about the whole thing, I fear that it sets up these public expectations that MPs who don’t always toe the party line should be ousted. We saw this in Manitoba over Steven Fletcher’s vote against his party on an issue that wasn’t one of confidence, but it was the media who kept reiterating the message that he should be thrown out of caucus, until the caucus did just that. It’s so very damaging to what we want out of our democracy, and for all that the pundit class protests that we want MPs to exercise more independence, We The Media are always the first to pounce when they don’t.

On a similar note, Kady O’Malley thinks we should stop calling it “embarrassing climb downs” when governments listen to criticism and make amendments to their bills and proposals. And like the salivating that happens when MPs break ranks, this too is always the narrative that crops up when governments respond to complaints and move to make changes to improve what’s on offer. It’s how democracy should work, and yet We The Media keeps reinforcing this message that listening and adapting is a bad thing. I have to wonder if we’re really our own worst enemies sometimes.

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Roundup: An involuntary nomination

The outcome at the Status of Women committee was not unexpected, had as much sulking and grousing as was to be expected. In a public and not secret vote, the Liberals and NDP members of the committee rejected the Conservatives’ choice of Rachael Harder to chair the committee, and when the Liberals nominated Karen Vecchio in her place, Vecchio tried to back out but was overruled, and those same Liberal and Conservative members voted her in.

And then the bellyaching began. A sour press release was issued about how this was somehow about “bullying and intimidation” of some poor young woman (which is a ridiculous characterisation), but that they would accept the democratic will of the committee. And the pundit class took to Twitter to decry how bizarre it was that a woman was being forced to take the chair of a committee that she didn’t want. I’m not exactly sympathetic to these cries, because this is what happens when you try to pull a stunt for the sake of being a provocateur, as Scheer is trying to do, but you don’t have the votes to back it up. Oh, and then they tried to wedge this into the frame of it being a distraction from the tax proposals, when it shouldn’t need to be said that this was a distraction of the Conservatives’ own making, owing to their particular tactical ineptitude.

Meanwhile, Liberals took to tweeting about how this would have made Harder Andrew Scheer’s “spokesperson” on the committee, which is bizarre and wrong – the chair is the committee’s spokesperson. It’s baffling that they would try to spin it in this fashion. Then again, one shouldn’t be surpised given how badly this whole affair has been for people describing how things work in Parliament. And it shouldn’t surprise me, and yet here we are, that not one journalist writing about this story, nor any pundit commenting on it, remarked about the fact that it makes no sense to put your critic forward as committee chair. None. The chair’s role is to be neutral, to run the meeting, arbitrate rules disputes and to ensure that witnesses and questioners stay within their timelines. They’re not supposed to vote unless it’s to break a tie, which shouldn’t happen very often given the numbers at play. Why would you want your critic – your point person in holding the government and in particular that associated minister, to account – to be hobbled in this way on committee, is baffling. It’s utterly incomprehensible if you follow the basics of how parliament is supposed to work. And yet nobody saw fit to call Scheer out on this fact. These details matter.

https://twitter.com/pamdamoff/status/915394509588107270

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Roundup: Presenting Her Excellency

Yesterday was the big day, and Her Excellency, the Right Honourable Julie Payette was installed as the Canada’s 29th Governor General in a ceremony that involved more than a few nods to the Indigenous people, and a lot of music – numbers and artists that surprised many.

As for Payette herself, her installation speech was twenty minutes “from the heart” no script, no notes, and in a dynamic storytelling style about her personal journey, and what she hopes to accomplish in her time as the Vice Regal representative in Canada, drawn from her perspective of seeing a borderless planet from orbit. It also gave a hint about what she may see as her priorities as GG, which will involve promoting STEM (especially for girls), and about helping people unlock their potential by having the right support systems behind them. Personally, I would say that this speech was far beyond anything we’ve seen from the post in more than the past seven years of Payette’s predecessor, and that I believe will serve us well.

Meanwhile, the National Post looked into just what a Governor General does all day, in true Tristin Hopper style.

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QP: Statements for Edmonton and Vegas

In the wake of the installation ceremony for Her Excellency, the Right Honourable Julie Payette, Justin Trudeau was not in the Commons for QP, leaving only Andrew Scheer as the leader of note present. Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, reading about shock and sadness for the terrorist act in Edmonton over the weekend, and asked for a minister to update the House on the situation. Ralph Goodale read a statement of condemnation for the action and congratulations to the Edmonton Police Service for their actions, and updated on the injured. Scheer then read similar sentiments for the shooting in Las Vegas — minus the part about condemning global terror — and Chrystia Freeland responded with condolences and notes that one Canadian was confirmed killed and consular services were working to help victims and their families. (A second Canadian was later confirmed as having been killed). Scheer then moved onto the proposed tax changes, and Bill Morneau assured him that they were listening and would make changes to the proposals. Maxime Bernier was up next, saying that Morneau was not listening, and then raised the Morneau-Shepell conspiracy theory, and Morneau insisted that they were listening, which was why they engaged in consultations. After another round of the same in French, Alexandre Boulerice railed about the situation in Catalonia, but rather than answer, Bardish Chagger got up to read a statement of congratulations about Jagmeet Singh’s leadership victory. Boulerice asked again, and this time Chrystia Freeland said that Canada was hoping that Spain would act in a democratic manner. Pierre Nantel was up next, railing about the Netflix deal as selling out Canadian culture amidst a rate hike, and Mélanie Joly insisted that it was a good deal and was the first stage in modernising our cultural policies. Nantel and Joly went another round in English, not that the question or answer changed.

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Roundup: A new GG and a new NDP leader

Today is the day that Julie Payette is sworn in, and will soon be known as Her Excellency, the Right Honourable Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada. To that end, she has been receiving the customary signals of office over the past couple of weeks, as she takes on the roles of the chancellor (or “Principal Companion”) of the Order of Canada, the Order of Military Merit, the Order of Merit of the Police Forces, and the prior of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem (with note that the Queen is the fount of all Canadian honours).

Payette will have an extremely busy schedule from here on in, acting in the ceremonial capacity that state functions demand, doing diplomacy domestically and internationally, becoming a patron to charities, and keeping on top of her constitutional duties. It’s a big job, but given Payette’s accomplishments I’m quite sure that she’ll be up to the task.

Payette is also the first GG since the 1950s who comes to the position without a spouse, so she has nobody to help share the burden of appearances with, so that will be an interesting change from the past few appointments, where there has been this sense of a two-for-one deal between the GG and their highly-accomplished spouses. It will also, unfortunately, mean that more people will be attempting to download the whole “First Lady” nonsense to Sophie Grégoire Trudeau when the closest Canadian equivalent was the “Chatelaine of Rideau Hall” (when the GG was male – I’m not sure what the male of equivalent of Chatelaine is), presuming that one doesn’t count Prince Philip given that he’s actually the spouse of our head of state (and we don’t have a “First Family” because we have a royal family).

Meanwhile, here’s Philippe Lagassé on the meaning of the GG as our Commander-in-Chief in Canada.

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Roundup: More tax change caterwauling

Another day, and more moaning about the proposed small business tax changes, which have now been equated to “class warfare”! Yes, a pair of tax lawyers wrote in the Financial Post yesterday about how the ability for small business owners to split their income with stay-at-home spouses was great policy because it was first proposed back in 1966. I kid you not. Fortunately, economist Kevin Milligan is back after a few days offline, and can help sort some of this out.

And then there’s this kind of silly thinking:

Government is not a business. It cannot be run like one, no matter how many times people like to chant it as a slogan. It fundamentally does not operate in the same way, nor can it ever run in even approximately the same way. The absolute fundamental principles do not translate because government has no bottom line. The sooner people grasp this, the sooner we may have more rational discussions on how to better operate government in a sane and rational manner.

Meanwhile, Andrew Coyne is unconvinced by all of the caterwauling about the proposed changes, not seeing the moral advantage that small businesspeople are apparently owed, and suggests instead that the incentives to incorporate be reduced by bringing the topline personal income tax rate and the small business rate closer together.

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