Roundup: Unifying the prohibitions across departments

The federal government has issued new guidelines for foreign intelligence likely obtained through torture, so that it now covers the Canadian Forces, the Canadian Security Establishment, and Global Affairs Canada. This means that they are prohibited from using such information, except if it’s going to save lives either from an imminent terrorist attack or protecting Canadian troops on an overseas mission. This appears to harmonize direction handed down earlier to the RCMP, CSIS, and CBSA, so that all national security agencies (which are now under the same parliamentary oversight regime and will soon be under an independent arm’s length national security oversight regime) will have the same rules and restrictions. For some, it’s reassuring that the government is taking the issue seriously, but for others, the caveat isn’t good enough, and they need to issue a full prohibition, no caveats, no exceptions, full stop. Stephanie Carvin has more reaction to the announcement here:

Continue reading

Roundup: The Order Paper is not a race

The House of Commons has risen for the season, but still has a number of bills on the Order Paper slowly working their way through the process. And as usually happens at this time of year, there are the big comparisons about how many bills this government has passed as compared to the Conservatives by this point. But those kinds of raw numbers analyses are invariable always flawed because legislation is never a numbers game, but is qualitative, as is the parliamentary context in which this legislating happens.

Part of the difference is in the set-up. Harper had five years of minority governments to get legislation in the wings that he couldn’t pass then, but could push through with a majority. He went from having a Senate that he didn’t control and was hostile to his agenda to one where he had made enough appointments (who were all under the impression that they could be whipped by the PMO) that it made the passage of those bills much swifter. And they also made liberal use of time allocation measures to ensure that bills passed expeditiously. Trudeau has not had those advantages, most especially when it comes to the composition of the Senate, especially since his moves to make it more independent means that bills take far longer than they used to, and are much more likely to be amended – which Trudeau is open to where Harper was not – further slowing down that process, particularly when those amendments are difficult for the government to swallow, meaning that they have taken months to either agree to them or to come up with a sufficient response to see them voted down. And then there are the weeks that were lost when the opposition filibustered the agenda in order to express their displeasure with the initial composition of the electoral reform committee, the first attempt to speed through legislation, and the government’s proposal paper to “modernize” the operations of the Commons. All of those disruptions set back legislation a great deal.

This having been said, Trudeau seems to remain enamoured with UK-style programming motions, which he may try to introduce again in the future (possibly leading to yet more filibustering), because it’s a tool that will help him get his agenda through faster. So it’s not like he’s unaware that he’s not setting any records, but at the same time, parliament isn’t supposed to be about clearing the Order Paper as fast as possible. Making these kinds of facile comparisons gives rise to that impression, however, which we should discourage.

Continue reading

Roundup: Space to socialize

Amidst the growing buzz of MPs’ bad behaviour, whether it’s ejections from the House of Commons during QP, or the allegations of inappropriate comments at events as with James Bezan and Sherry Romanado, Kady O’Malley says that the presence of cameras hasn’t been a guarantor of good behaviour. And that’s fair enough. So what does she propose? Not to do away with the cameras, particularly in the Chamber itself, but rather creating the conditions by which MPs can spend more time together outside of the strictly partisan work situations.

More to the point, O’Malley suggests that MPs start sharing meal breaks, whether it’s in the cafeteria, or has been proposed earlier this session with a common space behind the Commons chamber where they can eat together rather than having the usual food services delivered to their respective lobbies on either side of the Chamber. It’s not a novel idea, given the fact that it was shared meals used to be a feature of how our parliament operated. Evening sittings happened three nights a week, and at the appointed hour, they would suspend debate, head upstairs to the Parliamentary Restaurant for a couple of hours and there was cross-pollination of socializing between the different parties. And lo and behold, when evening sittings were abolished in the name of being “family friendly,” collegiality between MPs took a hit.

The problem with simply creating a space behind the Commons for MPs to have that meal together is that it’s pretty much restricted to those who are stuck with House Duty, so the numbers at any given time would be pretty small, and I’m not sure that it’s enough to get a big the requisite sea change happening. Maybe the answer is to bring back evening sittings – it’s not like there’s a lack of legislation that could use the added time – but even there, part of what kept MPs at the parliamentary restaurant is that there was a dearth of other options in the area, which isn’t the case any longer. So while I don’t dispute that more opportunities for MPs to socialize is a good and necessary thing, I’m not sure that the conditions to make this a broader issue are really there any longer.

Continue reading

Senate QP: Not the minister you’re looking for

The time came once again for Senate QP, and this week the special guest star was Jean-Yves Duclos, minister for families, children and social development. Senator Larry Smith led off, asking about CMHC providing the government with a special dividend while raising insurance fees for young families trying to buy their first home. After the Speaker gave Duclos the option not to respond as it wasn’t really within his ministry’s responsibility, Duclos said that he would let the finance minister know and try to get him an answer.

Senator Maltais asked a double-header around the potential job losses at the Davie Shipyard, and also wondered about that Quebec City bridge in a dispute with CN. Duclos noted that these really weren’t questions for him, but that his counterparts were engaged in discussions on both files.

Continue reading

Roundup: Feeding the fear industry

The Conservatives’ final Supply Day motion of the year, and they chose to use it to both demand that the government bring any returning ISIS fighters to Canada to justice, while simultaneously condemning them for the Omar Khadr settlement – you know, the issue that they were going to hammer the government hard on back in September which didn’t materialize.

As you can expect, the arguments were not terribly illuminating, and lacking in any particular nuance that the topic should merit, but that’s not exactly surprising. Still, some of the lines were particularly baffling in their ham-fistedness.

Amidst this, the CBC published a piece about Canada’s refusal to engage in extrajudicial killings of our own foreign fighters out of the country, asking lawyers whether Canadian law actually prevents it, which not unreasonably has been accused of creating a debate out of nothing.

And this is really the key point. Treating issues like this one in a ham-fisted manner, whether it’s with a Supply Day motion designed to fail, or a debate created out of nothingness, is playing into the fear industry that we really should be trying to avoid. This is not the kind of nuanced debate that we should be having, which hurts everyone in the long run.

Continue reading

Roundup: The abuse of “appearance”

Breaking! Ethics Commissioner wants to talk to Bill Morneau about that share sale! To which I immediately yawn and say, “Yeah, and?” Because we are beyond the point where any of these stories are actually advancing the story in a substantive manner, and we’re well past innuendo, and are now onto a full-on pile-on in the attempts to make something, anything, stick.

This attempt to try and create some issue around insider trading has been nothing short of ludicrous because none of the facts bear the slightest scrutiny, nor does any of their internal logic hold-up in the face of the other allegations. If he was really interested in “insider trading” (which isn’t actually possible from his position), why wouldn’t he wait to sell those shares until he tabled Bill C-27 and Morneau Shepell’s share prices spiked (temporarily)? But really, none of it makes adds up, and Andrew Coyne constructed a pretty good takedown of the allegation here. And Mary Dawson saying she’ll give Morneau a call sounds pretty pro forma here, given that this is in response to yet another of Nathan Cullen’s demands that she look into his dealings in the vague hope of her finding something, anything, that Cullen can use to any tactical advantage. But as both the opposition and some of the more mediocre journalists in the Gallery continue to carry on this campaign, it has the very definite potential to backfire – especially as Morneau is taking the gloves off now that his father is being dragged into the fray. As Terrence Corcoran points out, the Conservatives are the ones who are now acting unethically, not Morneau (and I’m sure you could add a couple of aforementioned journalists to this list, because their reporting on this has been anything but responsible).

But when this short thread from Howard Anglin was pointed out last night, it became clear to me where the real problem lies.

The problem here is not Bill Morneau – it’s Justin Trudeau, and the high-minded language he put into the mandate letters about being seen to be conduct the affairs without the appearance of conflict. What that turned out to be was an invitation for abuse. Because of the word “appearance,” all that anyone – opposition MP or mediocre journalist trying to make a big score – has to do is line up unrelated or conflated facts in a completely disingenuous manner and say “See! It looks like a conflict! This goes against the mandate letter!” Never mind that none of the allegations, whether it’s the cash-for-access (which wasn’t really cash for access) caterwauling months ago, or this Morneau nonsense now, bear up under the slightest bit of scrutiny – they are simply counting on it being the appearance of a conflict, and crying foul. We’re no longer dealing with issues of substance, but rather, the manufacture of optics in deliberately dishonest ways, because Justin Trudeau gave them an open invitation to. This is the state of our democratic discourse at the end of 2017. We should be embarrassed.

Continue reading

Roundup: Demands for MP parental leave

Some MPs are looking for changes to the Parliament of Canada Act in order to better accommodate parental leaves, given that they have no provision for them, and MPs start getting salaries clawed back if they miss more than 21 sitting days. (Mind you, records of those absences aren’t made public, so we have no way of checking). And while I’m sympathetic to the notion that there is no parental leave, I find myself sighing because there is this constant need by MPs and the press to describe Parliament as a “workplace,” and try and ham-fistedly force a number of hackneyed comparisons to justify it.

No. Parliament is not a “workplace.” And MPs most certainly are not employees.

I understand that it’s a job that’s not the friendliest for new parents. And I get that there is this desire to get younger voices into parliament, and there is a need to facilitate them, which is great. But I get very, very nervous every time MPs start talking about how they want to start changing things to make the place more “family friendly,” because every time they’ve done that to date, they’ve made things worse. Eliminating evening sittings to be more “family friendly” had a devastating effect on collegiality because MPs no longer ate together three nights a week. Now they’re looking to avoid coming to Ottawa altogether, instead appearing by videoconference instead, and no doubt they’ll demand to be able to vote remotely as well. And that is a bridge too far.

When you get elected, it’s to do the job in Ottawa. Work in the riding is secondary to your role as an MP, and that role is to hold government to account. Meeting constituents, while good small-p politics, is a secondary consideration to your duties. And the added danger in appearing remotely is not only a further breakdown in what remains of collegiality, it’s that the lack of facetime with other MPs and with witnesses who appear at committees means that there is no ability to forge connections or have off-script conversations, which are the lifeblood of politics. You need to show up to do the job. Your job is to be in Ottawa to vote and be seen voting, and to attend debate and committees. You knew that when you ran for office, and you knew that when you decided to have a child while in office. Trying to do this job remotely means that soon every MP will start to demand it, until the Commons is reduced to a small cadre of people there to fulfil quorum while everyone else attends to the “very important business” in their ridings.

The other point is that these MPs are not lacking in resources when it comes to finding childcare solutions – they are very well compensated, and can afford options that most Canadians can’t. That does matter in the equation, and why my sympathy has its limits.

Continue reading

Senate QP: Chagger skirts some issues

While the official apology to LGBT Canadians carried on in the House of Commons, the Senate moved onto its regularly scheduled ministerial Question Period, with special guest star Bardish Chagger in her role as minister of small business and tourism. That didn’t quite matter to the Conservative leader, Senator Smith, who led off on the ongoing issue of the process to name a new Ethics Commissioner, which Chagger is in charge of, and his concerns with news that four members of the PMO had recused themselves from the process because they were on the PM’s vacation to the Bahamas over Christmas. Chagger noted that she was supposed to be here in her role as minister of small business and tourism, but that being said, she responded that the was an open, transparent, merit-based process in place. When Smith pressed, noting that Chagger had defended the PM on his vacation while she was in charge of this process, Chagger reiterated that there was an open, transparent, merit-based process.

Senator McIntyre asked about the PBO report on the proposed tax changes, and whether she knew in advance what it said. Chagger noted that she read the report at the same time as others, and that the intent of the changes was to close loopholes on places where they are used for high-earners evading taxes but not to punish small businesses, which are the backbone of the economy.

Senator Day asked a question in relation to Chagger’s role as House Leader, and raised the omnibus motion that Chagger moved in June that in part rejected Senate amendments to the budget bill. Day demanded to know what “rights and privileges” the amendments would have violated, and why they would have been passed without debate. Chagger said that they have the utmost respect for the Senate, but didn’t really defend her motion or her actions. Day pressed on the rights and privileges, given there was no debate that spelled out what they were, but Chagger merely said that she would ensure that the Senate’s views were heard.

Senator Cormier asked about the Business Development Bank of Canada, and the needs of the arts and culture sector. Chagger said that she has been working with BDC on several initiatives, and that a whole-of-government approach was being taken, but she was pushing for more recognition of the arts sector.

Senator Lankin asked about taxes on campgrounds and the lack of sufficient answers on the matter to date. Chagger said that CRA was dealing with those cases on a case-by-case basis, and she had asked to be kept informed on the progress.

Senator Batters asked about the lack of details on retroactive tax changes to passive investments (which is not actually right — passive income changes were to be grandfather existing investments). Chagger respectfully disagreed with Batters on her characterization, noted the 73 percent tax rate referred to was not common, and then quoted the PBO report that said that 97 percent of businesses would not be affected.

Senator Greene Raine asked about a programme for tourism packages, which was had their GST rebate application later than expected and less than expected. Chagger said that she would follow up with her on the issue.

Senator Omidvar talked about entrepreneurship among immigrants, and some of the difficulty that they have with navigating the system. Chagger highlighted the accelerated growth service that caters to the needs of entrepreneurs that provides help to get through the hurdles.

Senator McPhedran asked about a fund for women entrepreneurs in the tech sector, particularly for Indigenous women. Chagger agreed that were not doing enough in that sector and they were trying to do better, and they were seeing returns on that fund, and curiously, tied it into the apology to persecuted LGBT Canadians taking place in the Commons, and the loss of potential that took place then and that she doesn’t want to keep taking place now.

Senator Oh asked about Canada-China tourism, and the ability to quickly process visa applications. Chagger said that she was happy to see the numbers from China grow, and gave some praise for the tourism industry before getting around to the visas, and noted the seven new visa centres which were opened and are “working well.”

Overall, it was a fairly mixed bag. On the one hand, Chagger could absolutely give good answers to some questions, and without the same 35-second constraints in the Commons, was able to actually give reasonable answers instead of sound-bites. This having been said, she did have a tendency to dissemble at times, but not quite as much as some of her colleagues, and generally, she would return to the question being posed. But when pressed on one of the most fundamental issues, being Senator Day’s inquiry into just what happened in June with the amendments to the budget bill (during which, I will remind you, Senator Harder compromised his own position in his leading the response from the Senate), and the somewhat alarming manner in which Chagger made her response in the Commons at the time, she remained mute. While it wasn’t too surprising, it was certainly disappointing, especially as it points to the ways in which this government continues to handle the independent Senate that they have promoted.

Sartorially speaking, style citations go out to Senator Lillian Eva Dyck for a black leather jacket with embroidery, a white blouse with a lace collar and a black skirt with a Indigenous floral pattern, as well as to Senator René Cormier for a tailored dark grey suit with a white shirt and patterned tie. Style citations go out to Senator David Richards for a baggy black jacket, taupe slacks, white shirt and black striped tie, and to Senator Pierrette Ringuette for a tan long sweater over a black, white and red patterned dress, with red tights.

Roundup: The coming Senate legislative crunch

While the legalized cannabis bill passed the House of Commons last night and is off to the Senate, questions about the kind of reception it will find there are sure to be buzzing about in the days to come. While the bill’s Senate sponsor wants a process akin to the medical assistance in dying bill to take place (something I find overzealous and ignores the context of what happened then), it’s unlikely to happen that way, and we may see the Conservatives in the Senate trying to dig their heels in. But it’s still early days, so we’ll see.

With this in mind, I wanted to turn to Kady O’Malley’s Process Nerd column yesterday, where she looked at how the Senate could gum up the government’s end-of-season legislative plan, as they try to push through a number of bills before the Commons rises in just under three weeks. The Senate is already seeing a growing backlog of bills on its Order Paper (a function I’m told has to do largely with the Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative” and his unwillingness to negotiate with the caucuses in there on timelines), and will likely sit up to the 22nd to try and get most of them passed. But what O’Malley described in the refusal by the Senate to engage in pre-study of the budget implementation bill as being a sign that of uncertainty, I will note that the circumstances around this demand for pre-study were unusual from a procedural standpoint. As he outlined in his speech against the pre-study motion, Senate Liberal leader Joseph Day pointed out that the point of pre-study is for the Senate to do a parallel committee process and send recommendations to the Commons before they complete their own study so that they have the chance to make amendments that the Senate proposes at that time. The problem is that this particular bill had already reached Report Stage in the Commons before the motion to pre-study was moved in the Senate by Senator Harder, meaning that the opportunity to offer amendments had already passed, and there was no actual cause for pre-study, and what Harder was looking to do was short-circuit Senate procedure for his own scheduling purposes, and well, the Liberals were having none of it. And in the end, neither were the Conservatives and several of the Independents.

And this is one of the things that I think O’Malley missed in her column – that part of the problem in the Senate right now is that the leadership (meaning Senator Harder) is not exactly doing the government any favours with his inability to manage the legislative agenda in that chamber, especially when he tries to do an end-run around the rules to suit his purposes. It will be a problem if he keeps this up, because the veterans in that chamber won’t stand for it.

Continue reading

Roundup: Uncritical about the playwright’s lament

Toronto playwright Michael Healy apparently took to the Twitter Machine to plead with the government to ditch their talking points and talk like human beings. Aaron Wherry in turn wrote this up as wondering why politicians don’t talk like they’re on the West Wing, but didn’t actually look at the reasons why message control has taken hold – never mind that nobody actually talks like they’re in an Aaron Sorkin production (because honestly, the sanctimony alone…) But in all honesty, it would have been a useful exercise to see why some of this has become entrenched.

For one, part of the problem is the format of Question Period in the Commons, where the strict 35-second clock makes reasonable answers all-but impossible in most cases. I’ve had staffers tell me that they have to prepare scripts, not because their ministers don’t know the subject matter, but because they need to keep it within those 35 seconds and that’s the easiest way. I can’t say that I’m necessarily sold on that – or too sympathetic – but I can see why the temptation is there.

Part of the problem is the way in which branding has taken hold of politics to such a degree that there is a perceived need to drill slogans into people’s brains – things like “Strong, Stable Conservative Majority™,” or “The Middle Class and Those Looking to Join It™.” One of my pet peeves is “The Environment and The Economy Go Together™” because I know that the minister who keeps saying that is capable of answering questions in a reasonable manner and could do so if she stopped delivering that line, but that’s the message that she wants to drive home. Even though we get it.

And part of the problem is the way that We The Media treat frankness – we punish them for it. Witness what happened two weeks ago when Carla Qualtrough went on CTV’s Question Period, and Evan Solomon picked the $1 billion figure for a possible Phoenix price tag out of thin air, and when Qualtrough said, frankly, that she didn’t know but she couldn’t rule it out, suddenly CTV ran with the “billion dollar” headline, and absolutely everyone else followed suit. It’s now stuck to the Phoenix issue in most headlines, never mind that it wasn’t what she actually said, but her moment of frankness is now being treated as some confession that we will tar the issue with. We The Media have been repeating the mendacious and disingenuous framing devices around the interminable Morneau Shepell questions uncritically – and in some cases, fuelling them in a complete absence of fact of context *cough*Globe and Mail*cough* and anything that the ministers say becomes a trap.

So why, then, would any minister want to be frank in their answers, if we’re just going to punish them for it? Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have the self-awareness to process this – that we are part of the problem that drives this issue to turn all government messages into pabulum. We do this to ourselves. Let’s think about that.

Continue reading