In the pages of the Hill Times, recently retired Liberal Senator George Baker opined that he thinks the Senate needs written guidelines to restrict how bills can be amended or defeated. Currently, there is the constitutional provision for an unlimited veto, and a general principle followed by senators that they don’t defeat (government) bills unless it’s a Very Serious Matter because they know they’re not elected and don’t have a democratic mandate to do so. And as much as I appreciate the learned wisdom of Senator Baker (and his retirement is a tremendous loss for the institution), I’m going to solidly disagree with him on this one.
For one, our institutions in their Westminster model are predicated on their flexibility, which allows for a great deal of evolution and adaptability, and adding too many written guidelines to hem in powers – powers that were given to the institution for a reason – rankles a bit because there will always be situation for which those powers may become necessary to use. Too many guidelines, especially when it comes to amendment or veto powers for a body for whom that is their entire purpose, takes away their power and ability to do the jobs that they are there to do in the first place. As with the constant demands for a Cabinet manual to spell out the powers of the Governor General, it’s the first step in removing discretionary power, and giving political actors (especially prime ministers) ways to go around the other constitutional actors, be they the Senate or the Governor General, which is something that should worry every Canadian. As well, codifying those powers opens up the possibility of litigation, and you can bet that our friends at Democracy Watch are salivating for any chance at all to start suing the Senate based on their not living up to whatever guidelines are drawn up, thus further imperilling the exercise of parliamentary privilege and the separation of powers between Parliament and the courts. So no, I don’t think written guidelines are needed, nor would they be helpful. At least not from where I’m sitting.
Meanwhile the Senate’s Internal Economy Committee members published an open letter to Senator Peter Harder in response to his Policy Options op-ed on independent oversight for the Senate. Suffice to say, they weren’t fans. (My own response to Harder can be found here).
Open letter from the Senate’s internal economy committee to Senator Harder re: his @IRPP piece on Senate oversight. They’re not fans. pic.twitter.com/hHFOyJCXqs
The Star has a story that shows how a recently appointed judge made donations to the Liberal Party in the past couple of years – $1800 worth over the two fiscal years, in part by attending a fundraising dinner. And after it lays out all of his donations, the story leaves us with this: “It is not unusual for judicial appointees to have made political donations, nor does it break any rules.” Which makes me wonder why they’re making a) an issue out of it, and b) framing the story in such a way that it gives the impression that he bought his appointment, because that’s exactly what the headline screams. Emmett Macfarlane sees an issue, but I’m having a hard time buying it.
Part of my issue is the fact that we’re already at a crisis point in this country when it comes to grassroots democratic engagement, and this current media demonization of any political fundraising hurts that. The more we demand that anyone who has made donations be excluded from jobs, the worse we make the political ecosystem as a whole. Sure, once they’ve been appointed they shouldn’t make further donations – that’s fair. But the fact that he didn’t even make the maximum allowable donation over those two years, and the fact that the amount he’s donated is a couple of billable hours for him, is hardly worth getting exercised over. This isn’t America – we don’t have big money buying candidates here, nor do we have the spectre of elected judges that are entirely interested in getting re-elected. And, might I remind you, the previous government appointed Vic Toews and most of Peter MacKay’s wedding party to the bench, which seems far bigger of an ethical breach. The current government has reformed the judicial advisory committees to broaden the scope of who they’re considering, and considering how slowly the process is going, it’s not believable that they’re simply going through the party donor rolls to find a match. And while Macfarlane insists that it’s not about the dollar amount, but the perception of bias, I am very bothered by the way in which stories like this are framed adds to that perception. It’s driving the perception, not the other way around, and that is a problem when it comes to trying to fix the actual things that are breaking down about our democracy.
As expected, Bill Morneau announced three new measures to crack down on tax avoidance by means of self-incorporation by high earners, many of them doctors and lawyers. While the government goes on a 75-day consultation period (to ensure that there are no unintended consequences) in order that the changes can be legislated in the autumn budget implementation bill, here’s economist Kevin Milligan explaining the problem and changes in detail here, plus his Twitter posts on the topic:
Disclosure: I advised Finance last Fall; also received technical briefing on today's announcement last week.https://t.co/SZC55862ny. 2/
Morneau acknowledged that the changes may personally disadvantage him (though two of the three categories didn’t apply to him) – making it clear that he didn’t look into his own situation to ensure that he was being fair and not self-interested in making them.
The saga of Steven Fletcher in Manitoba continues to fascinate and enrage me. The now-former member of the province’s PC caucus, and one-time federal Conservative cabinet minister, has not only run up against a very problematic expulsion from caucus because he dared to have differing opinions (which I wrote about in my column), but now it appears that Fletcher is planning to challenge the province’s law that bans floor-crossing. Not that he wants to cross the floor, but the fact that the law is on the books.
In case it’s not clear, the very notion of a legislated ban on floor-crossing should be unconstitutional. Apparently, Manitoba’s not the only province to have this either – New Brunswick has a law on the books that requires floor-crossers to reimburse their former party for election expenses, which is also legally dubious. The history of these laws is also circumspect at best – in Manitoba, it was allegedly cashing in on the anger around David Emerson crossing the floor to become a federal Conservative cabinet minister in 2006, while in New Brunswick, it was the angry response to a husband-and-wife MLA couple crossed from the provincial Conservatives to the Liberals. The Manitoba case has the added factor that it was an NDP government at the time, and the NDP are particularly hostile to floor-crossers, which one suspects has to do with the fact that they are a party that is big on solidarity and being in constant lock-step, and they aren’t very tolerant of their members stepping out of line. They’re also much more wrapped up in their party identity, which is part of why these laws are such a problem.
The thing with our electoral system is that it gives individual agency to MPs. They are elected as individuals, to fill a single seat in the House of Commons in a separate election. That’s why a general election is 338 separate elections federally, or however many seats are in that province’s legislature during their elections. MPs are not elected a party vote which then gets allocated to that seat, and this is important. Because we elect MPs as individuals, regardless of whatever party colours they may be wearing, it empowers them to make their own decisions in Parliament (or their provincial legislature), and that includes the ability to cross the floor when their conscience is so moved. It’s not a bug in our system – it’s a feature because it means that the individual is more powerful than the party. The NDP doesn’t like this line of thinking at either level of government, and apparently the provincial Liberals in Manitoba are also under the misguided notion that it’s “unconstitutional” (which it most certainly is not). I’m glad that Fletcher is planning to challenge the law, because it is an affront to Westminster democracy. And when it does get struck down, I hope it serves as a warning to other provinces, or the federal NDP in their perpetual quest to enact such laws.
The debate over illegal refugee crossings into Canada is at a bit of a roadblock given the impossibility of the situation from a great many perspectives. Without any kind of physical barrier at the border – say, a fence or a wall – there’s not a lot that we can do to stop them from coming over because, well, that’s American territory and our border guards and RCMP aren’t going to cross the border to prevent crossings, nor can they anticipate every crossing point and physically prevent them from crossing into Canada, despite the tautology that Tony Clement seems to be clinging to.
Ralph Goodale has been quite lucid in answering questions on the subject and saying that additional resources will be deployed as needed, but again points to the physical impossibility of keeping them out, so we have to simply follow our processes once they’re here. And for as much as people talk about dissuading these migrants from making a crossing, we can’t exactly buy up American ad space telling them not to come because they’re already freaked out by the Trumpocalypse and I’m not sure that many of them are acting rationally, which makes “dissuading” them a difficult prospect, particularly given our international obligations.
One tool that the government is not in any hurry to implement is a 2012 law around designating irregular arrivals in order to take additional detention measures and would prevent them from sponsoring other family for five years, but again, I’m sure that many would rather be in immigration detention in Canada for a few weeks as opposed to facing the prospect of immigration crackdowns and travel bans in the United States. This law was drafted largely in response to the arrival of boatloads of Tamils seeking asylum, but it also needs to be pointed out that the number of those claimants were small, and I remember more than a few columns around the time that it happened where people were saying that these people willing to brave a crossing and survive on a diet spiders during the crossing were the kinds of resilient people that we want in this country. But the previous government was also one that was trying to solve the refugee backlog “crisis” that they created by not filling IRB positions for an extended period, and when they did accept refugees, tried to prioritize groups they felt they could get some political advantage out of (such as Christians from Iraq). I would also add that stepping up detention and other punitive measures would go against the brand that the current government is trying to sell to the world, which would make their reluctance all the more apparent, but one supposes that we’ll have to wait and see if there is a bigger spike in claims once the weather gets warmer.
Meanwhile, Andrew Coyne grapples with the difficult conundrum of what to do with those asylum seekers, while Scott Gilmore says that while we can’t stop them from arriving, we can do better once they’re here, starting with more staff at Citizenship and Immigration and making more of an effort to make them feel welcome because we need them.
At the risk of this becoming a media criticism blog, I have to take exception to the big Globe and Mail story that they were pushing all weekend, about how Justin Trudeau was not going to attend the Trump inauguration in January.
Seriously. Canadian prime ministers never go to inaugurations. The protocol people in Washington make it pretty clear that they don’t want heads of government or heads of state to attend. This is not a scandal. Nor does it have anything to do with Trudeau’s decision to go on his little cross-country tour. The rest of the piece is fairly hysterical about the tour, and Trudeau not going to Davos, Switzerland either, and then meanders into the fact that the US ambassador was recalled on inauguration day.
Um, guys. This is routine. They are almost always recalled, and then it takes them months and months to get new ambassadors approved by the US Senate. Remember how it took Obama nine months to get Ambassador Jacobson here? And how we were worried that it meant that he was mad at us or something? And then it took another several months between Jacobson and Heyman? Yeah. This is not out of the ordinary. Yes, Heyman has been very popular, but did you honestly think that Trump would keep an Obama fundraiser in the post after he took office? And more to the point, would it kill our political reporters to have a sense of history and perspective in their stories, rather than trying to make everything some kind of proto-scandal? It’s not only wrong, but it’s dull. We can do better.
Everyone spent yesterday lighting their hair on fire based on this “buried” government report that was full of scary numbers, like growing deficits going out to 2050 that reached the $1 trillion mark, and wasn’t this just the sign of how reckless Liberal spending was, and so on. The headline in fact read “looming fiscal crisis.” The Conservatives in particular tried to push some rather questionable narratives about how much better fiscal managers they were, complete with a little chart that was a work of fiction that Dame Barbara Cartland would be proud of.
Two years and two plans later, the cost of Justin Trudeau’s tax and spend approach has become clear. His plan has already failed. pic.twitter.com/0iYt9xDd37
Of course, it’s all complete and utter twaddle. For one, the report points to the fact that the debt-to-GDP ratio continues to decline, which means that the economy is growing and the deficit is not proportionally. That is a big deal. And if you believe that the Conservatives would have a trillion-dollar surplus in the same amount of time, give your head a shake because they not only built their “balanced” budget on a foundation of sand in 2015, but they continued to insist that they would cut taxes rather than let surpluses accumulate (and hey, remember how their desire to cut the GST in a hurry left them with a deficit before the 2008 financial crisis even hit? Yeah. Prudent fiscal management there, what with the desire to put populism before good economics). Not to mention, as Andrew Coyne points out, the whole exercise was just that – a paper exercise based on a number of projections on a spreadsheet, not an actual economic forecast, which you wouldn’t actually do for 40 year timelines because that’s literally crazy-talk.
The question becomes, however, does this become a narrative that hangs around the Liberals’ necks like an albatross? They’re already using it as showing why they’re taking a harder line against the provinces demands for increased healthcare spending, and about approaching new spending with caution. But it also lends credence to their project for trying to restructure the economy to kick-start growth that is otherwise sluggish. Will it work? It remains to be seen. But without trying to sound like some kind of apologist, would it kill a single journalist writing the stories around said report to mention the debt-to-GDP ratio? Provide some actual context for those numbers, rather just present the scary trillion-dollar deficit figure and brand it a looming crisis, when it very clearly is not? But that might require something other than the usual kinds of cheap outrage that our journalism tends to peddle, making us all the poorer for it.
So many hot takes on Kellie Leitch and her need to keep digging when it comes to her “Canadian values” test proposal. Leitch continued to insist that this is a topic worthy of discussion, and proposed yet more “Canadian values” to back up her claim, and this time, those values include “equality of opportunity, hard work, generosity, freedom and tolerance,” with a focus especially on the tolerance part. She also denies that this targets Muslims in any way and doesn’t think that characterisation is fair. So there’s that. Oh, and you can add Deepak Obhrai to the list of leadership candidates opposing Leitch’s position, and Maxime Bernier gave a somewhat muddled response that he believes there are Canadian values but you just can’t test for them.
Kellie Leitch has been offered a job as head of the Archeologists Association due to her love for digging. https://t.co/ZdgtwCjkCG
In terms of pundit reaction, Michael Den Tandt seems to think that Leitch is going nativist for the sake of deepening her fundraising coffers, while Matt Gurney sees Leitch’s proposal as unworkable, but not really offensive per se. Susan Delacourt sees problems for Leitch from the perspective of a party that doesn’t seem to want to embrace a young female leader, though she may have tapped into an anti-immigrant sentiment within the ranks, while Madeline Ashby looks at the inherent contradictions in Leitch’s position. My own Loonie Politics column on Leitch’s campaign looks at the ways in which she and some of her fellow campaigners are picking and choosing which intolerances to run on, and her own tone-deafness about it (which, given today’s added comments, seem to really fit the bill).
In other Conservative leadership news, Brad Trost thinks that he can unite the party around his economic ideas while still running as a social conservative, and Deepak Obhari has filed his papers and is officially in the race.
I was all set to write about the Liberals invoking time allocation on the Air Canada bill, when I saw this story and it pissed me right off: Thomas Mulcair thinks that the assisted dying bill needs to be referred to the Supreme Court to ensure that it meets the tests set out in the Carter decision. And it set me off, because this is completely ridiculous. The bill hasn’t even been debated yet, and already they want to demand that the Supreme Court start weighing in? Are you serious? Oh, but of course it’s serious – it’s part of this ongoing pattern of a lack of moral courage that MPs are oh so good at demonstrating, where they don’t want to be seen to have to make any tough decisions, so they fob it off onto the courts to do it for them. And here, before he’s even spoken to the bill in the Commons, he wants the court to do the heavy lifting for him. And it’s an endemic pattern. Usually, it involves the officers of parliament, for whom MPs have so successfully fobbed off all of their work that those officers are de facto the official opposition these days, holding the government to account and doing the heavy lifting because MPs won’t. Oh sure, they’re happy to make snide remarks and to manufacture a bunch of fake outrage in QP, but they won’t scrutinise estimates anymore, and barely scrutinise bills. Hell, their very first bill in this parliament got sent to the Senate in an incomplete form because they couldn’t be bothered to actually check it, but rather passed it at all stages in 20 minutes. And now they want the Supreme Court to do even more of that homework for them. And just like with other homework, where MPs use officers of parliament as their partisan shields (witness the number of questions in QP predicated with “The PBO says…”), Mulcair is looking to use the Supreme Court to do just that for this bill. Before it’s even had a minute of debate. Rather than just stand up and say “In my analysis, this bill doesn’t meet the Carter decision,” no, he needs to hide behind the Supreme Court so that it doesn’t look like the criticism is coming from him. That MPs do this is ridiculous and infantile. You’re elected to do a job – so actually grow up and do it.
In a piece in the Huffington Post that gives yet another farewell from Andrew Scheer to the office of the Speaker, we find that at least two of the people running for the job – Mauril Bélanger and Yasmin Ratansi – are vowing that if elected Speaker, they wouldn’t use the official residence in Kingsmere. While Bélanger could certainly make the case as an Ottawa resident that there’s no real need, anyone else eschewing the use of the residence is, frankly, being obtuse. Scheer makes some good points – that the National Capital Commission needs to spend money to keep the place functional anyway, so it’s not a huge savings if that’s the motivation, and the fact that the “luxurious” apartment the Speaker gets in the Centre Block is anything but (the piece has photos of it, and well, I would hesitate to call it a two star), and it’s not really healthy to live at the office. Beyond that, the whole point of having an official residence is that it’s to be used for entertaining – MPs, diplomats, and even journalists during the annual barbecue at Kingsmere every June. That entertaining can be pretty important, particularly among MPs. Speaker Milliken used to hold dinners that always included MPs of different parties so that they could get to know each other better outside of the Commons – something that is increasingly important with the demise of evening sittings and the fact that MPs simply don’t socialise together the way they used to. Vowing to do away with the official residence – and the space to hold this kind of necessary entertaining – is not being frugal, it’s playing into cheap politics that ultimately serves nobody, and in fact feeds into the toxicity that surrounds the perception of politics as it is. None of this is actually some kind of luxury five-star extravagance that is soaking the taxpayer. It’s relatively modest, but reflects the office – one of the reasons why we have official residences to begin with. Rejecting it, even for symbolism, does nobody any favours.