Roundup: Bad takes versus obstinacy

The bad takes continue to roll in on the Canada Summer Jobs brouhaha – so many bad takes – all of them written by straight white men who can’t fathom that these “sincerely held” religious beliefs that women and LGBT people shouldn’t be allowed to have equal rights, are in fact actual points of contention rather than some kind of Liberal Party demand for ideological orthodoxy. There seems to be not a clue that the governing party’s values are such that they have the gall to suggest that if you believe that women or LGBT people don’t deserve equal rights and you actively campaign against those rights, then maybe you don’t need taxpayer funds.

This isn’t to say that the government has done a stellar job of communicating this effectively, nor have they done a great job in drafting the wording of this attestation they want groups to sign. That’s fair criticism, and even pro-choice groups are saying hey, maybe you should clarify that language a bit so that you’re not freaking out the religious groups, and of course, the minister is obstinately saying no, I’m good with the wording as it stands – and I’m sure that they’ll be true to form and back down and agree to amend the wording after they get in another two or three weeks of self-inflicted damage, particularly after a week or two of mind-numbingly repetitive questions in QP about how this is all about feeding Christians to the lions, or some such bullshit – but we’ll hear all about it, and the Liberals will let this self-inflicted damage carry on until then.

This having been said, I’m at the absolute limit of my patience over the assertion of the pundit class that “if it had come from Conservatives but in reverse, there would be an uproar across the land.” That’s a quote from Chantal Hébert on The National on Thursday night.

There was uproar when the Conservative defunded anything to do with abortion internationally, and if you remember then-Senator Nancy Ruth’s blunt advice to women’s groups to “shut the fuck up about abortion,” it was well-meaning advice to stop poking the bear (for which she was unfairly castigated and her words being taken entirely out of context). Let’s not pretend that outrage didn’t happen then. Meanwhile, there was a hell of a lot less outrage when the Conservative defunded any LGBT festival or group that used to be funded, and the one time that they did give tourism funds to Toronto Pride, they got so petty about damage control that they literally trotted out Brad Trost to ritually humiliate the Minister of State, Diane Ablonczy, in order to placate their social conservative base.

“Two wrongs don’t make a right!” was the common Twitter response to this, and no, they don’t. My point, however, is that every single government engages in this kind of thing based on their values, and we can’t pretend that they don’t, or that this isn’t unique to the Liberals, nor can we pretend that the Liberals are getting an easier ride than the Conservatives did, because there wasn’t that outrage across the land when LGBT groups lost funding, or when HIV/AIDS service organizations lost funding, or when the Harper government pissed away millions in funds from the Gates Foundation in HIV prevention because they engaged in petty bullshit around local politics over facilities. Some of us covered those fights, and they didn’t get weeks of coverage or a plethora of terrible hot takes in national newspapers because that government was petty and ideological as opposed to inept about their communications strategy like the current one is.

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Roundup: The authentic Andrew Scheer

It’s year-end interview time, and Andrew Scheer gave a couple yesterday that gave me a bit of pause. First was his interview in the National Post, where off the bat, he lays out this gem: “I am younger, I am modern and I have a different take on Conservative principles than my predecessors.” But does he lay out what that different take is? Nope. Scheer says that he can offer “authenticity” like a Bernie Sanders or Ron Paul, which is…curious. He’s spent the week talking about how middle class he is, unlike Justin Trudeau. This immediately elicited some reminders from Twitter – that the only job he held outside of politics was working at his friend’s insurance company for six months, that he got elected at 25 and has a $3 million pension by age 38; his political career includes being Speaker and Leader of the Opposition, each of which comes with an official residence and a driver. So he’s authentically middle class. Later, Scheer talked about how he’s spent the past six months “setting down markers” about the Conservative approach. Markers like putting everything in a disingenuous or outright mendacious frame and treating people like idiots? Okay, then.

Meanwhile, over on CTV’s Power Play (starts at 8:15), Scheer went on about how Conservatives do better when they present a positive approach (which I totally see with the aforementioned disingenuous and mendacious manner in which they go about their role), and then added this: “We are actually more caring than Liberals because we actually care about results, and they just like to send signals and show their good intentions and they don’t care about what actually benefits people.”

That’s…interesting. Because immediately preceding that was Scheer was outright virtue signalling about free speech on university campuses (which, I will add, is an issue that the alt-right has weaponized, and Scheer is playing directly into it). And if you look at the Conservative record over the past decade, it’s replete with sending signals that didn’t actually benefit people, whether it was tough-on-crime legislation that was either unconstitutional or created backlogs in the court system (as mandatory minimum sentences did), or gutting environmental laws (which only ended up in litigation and didn’t get any further projects approved), or their actions in making cuts to show that they had a paper surplus (which led to the massive gong show that is Shared Services Canada and the Phoenix pay system fiasco, not to mention the loss of capacity in a number of other departments). All of it was the very signalling that they criticize the Liberals for. So you’ll forgive me if I find Scheer’s particular assertions to be a bit unconvincing.

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Roundup: Absurd procedural objections abound

There are times when I don’t get the way that the opposition is trying to do its job – and I don’t mean the epic levels of disingenuousness and mendaciousness by which Question Period is operating these days. Rather, it’s the procedural objections to the way in which the government plans to handle Bill C-59, being the major national security bill that they’ve tabled. They’ve stated that they want the bill to head to committee before Second Reading, which is unusual, but still procedurally sound because it means that it will allow for a wider variety of amendments to be proposed and adopted, as a vote at Second Reading means that the bill is “locked” at its principles, and changes made at that point tend to be fairly technical. One would think that proactively taking this move would generally be appreciated, because it’s a recognition that it’s a tough subject that they want to get as much input on as possible, and are open to a wider degree of changes than usual. But no.

Instead, the opposition are now crying foul because they say that the government is trying to “fast track” it by doing his – not necessarily true, given that it can stay at committee for a long time, and they haven’t invoked any time allocation – that they’re trying to “evade” second reading debate (which, again, is absurd given the procedural move of allowing a greater scope of amendments), and that they’re avoiding the possibility that the Speaker could break up the bill because it’s an omnibus bill. But part of the problem with that is that omnibus bills aren’t bad per se – they’re bad when they’re used abusively to ram through a multitude of unrelated things with little debate. In this case, all of the constituent changes in the bill, which affect several other existing pieces of legislation, are all part of the same national security framework. It makes more sense to make the changes at once with a single piece of legislation rather than piecemeal bills that may create legislative traffic jams that would require coordinating amendments in order to ensure that all of the changes don’t butt up against one another. It’s hardly an abuse of omnibus legislation in this case, and they should know that.

What the government is doing is procedurally sound, and I can’t count the number of times that the NDP have demanded that bills go to committee before second reading debate on a whole host of issues (and it happened a lot under the previous regime). This government is doing that move on a major piece of legislation proactively, and they’re being accused of evasion. It’s enough to make a person scream.

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Roundup: A cynical membership ploy

Oh, Alberta politics. For the place where I first got cut my political chops, you continue to fill me with such…outrage, particularly with how you’ve so bastardized the way in which leadership contests are supposed to run. The former Progressive Conservative party was a good example of how our system could be so debased as to turn those leadership contests into quasi-primaries that they became a direct election of the premier through instant party memberships, and usually block votes to groups such as teachers, for whom leaders like Alison Redford became indebted to. This time, it’s the antics of the upstart Alberta Party that has me fuming.

For those of you who don’t know, the Alberta Party is a centrist party of mostly hipsters and academics that aims to try and find the sweet spot of the province’s political pulse, while also not being associated with the heretofore tainted Liberal brand. (Disclosure: I was friends with one of the leadership hopefuls in the previous contest, and am friends with a previous candidate for the party in the last election; both, incidentally, are academics). And with the demise of the amorphous PC brand and its quasi-centrism in favour of Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party and its decidedly more right-leaning brand, there is optimism within the Alberta Party that hey, maybe they can attract some of the former PC types fleeting for greener pastures. And so with that in mind, the current leader (and up until a week ago, holder of their only seat in the legislature, until an NDP defector joined the ranks) decided he was going to resign.

But – and here’s the catch – he just might run for the position again. And admitted yesterday that his resignation is a ploy to drive party memberships. And this is the part that makes me crazy, because it reinforces this sick notion that has infected our body politic that the only real reason that the grassroots membership exists any longer is for the purpose of leadership contests. And while sure, that’s important, it continues do drive this growing push that makes these contests into quasi-presidential primaries that centralises power in the leader’s office because the selection (and subsequent ability to remove said leader) rests outside of the caucus – though I will grant you that for Greg Clark, that was a caucus of one until just now.

And I get that at this point, the Alberta Party is one that isn’t as centrally-driven as other parties, and where there is trust in candidates about policy matters that they’re not just parroting talking points (so says my friend who ran for them), and that’s great. But it’s also indicative of a party without seats (which they had none until the last election), and without a taste of power. But it nevertheless follows the pattern that memberships – which Clark is trying to drive – is all about the leadership, and not about the nominations, or the grassroots policy development, or being the interlocutor between civic life and the legislature. And if they do manage to attract a bunch of former PCers, that could be either great for them, or their own demise as that party’s former culture takes over the party (which isn’t necessarily a great thing). It’s a risky move that Clark made, and it may present a change for the political landscape…or it becomes one more cynical exercise in bastardizing the meaning of grassroots party memberships. I guess we’ll have to see.

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Roundup: Mid-term check-in

Over in Maclean’s, John Geddes put together a deep dive into the current government’s midterm woes, and it’s well worth the read – and it’s a pretty long read too. But once you’re done (seriously, this post isn’t going anywhere), I would want to push back on some of the things that he highlights.

For starters, I think that there is something to be said for a government that is willing to walk back on bad promises, and they made a few. Most notably is electoral reform, and the fact that they could actually take the step of smothering it the cradle is actually something that they should be congratulated for. We dodged a bullet with that one, and I wish that my fellow journalists would get that through their heads. Likewise, Bardish Chagger taking back her plans to “modernise” the way that the House of Commons operates is similarly another dodged bullet – most of her plans were terrible and would make things worse, not better. Casting them as failures does a disservice to the fact that they backed down from bad promises. When it comes to Bill Morneau and his troubles, I think it also bears mentioning that the vast majority of the attacks against his tax proposals (and his own personal ethics situation) are largely unfounded, based on disingenuous framing or outright lies designed to try and wound him. The attacks have largely not been about the policies themselves (even though there were actual problems that should have been asked about more), and I think that bears some mention.

I also think that Geddes doesn’t pay enough attention to some of the backroom process changes that the government has been spearheading, particularly on the Indigenous files – many of the problems mentioned need to have capacity issues addressed before funding is increased because we have seen numerous examples of places where money was shovelled out without that capacity-building being done, and it made situations worse. Is it frustrating that some of this is going slowly? Yes. But some of the ground-up work of reforming how the whole system works, and ensuring that once more money flows that it can be spent effectively is something that we should be talking more about, because process matters. We simply don’t like to talk about it because we labour under this belief that nobody reads process stories, so we ignore them, which is why I think some of the calls about “failures” are premature or outright wrong – things are changing that we can’t immediately see. That doesn’t mean that changes aren’t happening.

Finally, there is a list of major legislation coming down the pipe, and I think it bears reminding that the focus on consultation before making some of these changes is as much about inoculating the government against criticism that was levelled against their predecessors as it was about trying to get some of this complex legislation right. Do they get it right all the time? No. There is a demonstrated record of barrelling ahead on things with good intentions and not properly thinking through the consequences *cough*Access to Information*cough* and when it blows up in their faces, they’re not really sure how to respond because they think that their good intentions count for something. I’m not sure that simply focusing on the perceived inexperience of ministers helps when it comes to trying to meaningfully discuss these issues, but here we are.

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Roundup: Blame Dawson or the system?

As the Bill Morneau imbroglio starts to fade behind the outrage du jour, being the Paradise Papers, Andrew Coyne decided to take another crack at the issue, this time taking a swing at Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson and her handling – or mishandling – of the whole affair from the beginning. The problem of course is that Coyne’s piece relies heavily on commentary from local civically illiterate crank and guaranteed quote machine Duff Conacher, for whom everything is evil and wrong, and why he hasn’t yet been labelled a vexatious litigant by the courts is beyond me. Regardless, it cannot be denied that yes, Dawson herself is a problem, but not the only problem.

A few days ago, Andrew Potter wrote a piece in the Globe and Mail about the whole sordid history of why we have the Commissioner position in the first place, and why it has always been a problem. And he’s right in pointing out that the point of this position has been politicized from the beginning, but as with so many of our watchdog or “Independent Officer of Parliament” positions these days, they exist as much to deflect problems onto as they do to act as the instrument by which the opposition can use as both a cudgel to launch their attacks, and a shield to hide behind if there is any counter-fire.

And to that end, we can’t simply blame Dawson herself – as much as she is and always has been part of the problem. Much of that lies on MPs themselves, who created the regime, wrote rules that don’t include ethics guidelines, and when presented with the litany of problems with the legislation, shrug and make minor tweaks without addressing the big stuff. And it happens constantly, so when imagined scandals happen, they can scream and rail that just following the rules isn’t good enough, but that the alleged transgressor must have known better and should have exceeded them. Never mind that it’s a nonsense frame to put around issues, but these are also the same rules that those MPs put into place. Saying that the rules they created for themselves aren’t good enough is galling, and one has to constantly ask why they didn’t create rules that were good enough in the first place if they knew that there were problems – and yes, they did know, because Dawson herself identified them. It’s childish politics, and just manages to make a farce out of their feigned outrage (not surprisingly).

Meanwhile, Conacher managed to get a whole piece out of the Star by complaining that the government is wrong in saying there aren’t enough qualified candidates for the Ethics and Lobbying Commissioner positions because he applied for the Lobbying Commissioner position and hasn’t been chosen. Err, that may be a reflection on you, Duff, and this exercise in your ego may be part of the reason why you’re not chosen.

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QP: A promise that action is being taken

While the Prime Minister was off to the APEC Summit, the rest of the leaders were present in the Commons for what was likely to be a repeat of yesterday’s gong show. Andrew Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and in French, he read a condemnation of the prime minister’s silence on tax havens, demanding to know when he knew about his fundraiser’s offshore holdings (which said fundraiser disputed). Diane Lebouthillier listed off the measures that the government has taken to combat tax evasion — a billion dollar investment in the CRA, which has led to 980 investigations, 42 criminal investigations of structures abroad, a list of pending criminal charges, and billions in potential recoveries. Scheer reiterated it in English, got the same answer, and when Scheer gave his standard disingenuous talking points about the government going after small businesses while leaving their wealthy friends alone, Lebouthillier reminded them that when they were in power, they didn’t treat tax evasion as a priority. Alain Rayes took over, gave some hand-waving about the Sponsorship Scandal (no, seriously), and Lebouthillier reiterated her list. Rayes complained that CRA wouldn’t publish the tax gap data, and Lebouthillier listed even more facts about combatting tax evasion. Guy Caron was up next, demanding the government stop defending the CRA. Lebouthillier made a quip that she had more expertise than Caron did about fishing (which I’m not sure translated as well in English), and gave her usual rebuttal. Alexandre Boulerice demanded action against tax havens, and Lebouthillier reminded him that it was a priority in her mandate letter, which is why they hired auditors to tackle four jurisdictions per year. Boulerice demanded renegotiated tax treaties, and Lebouthillier listed more actions yielding results. Caron got back up to repeat the demand for renegotiations in English, and Lebouthillier stuck to her guns — and talking points.

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Roundup: Let’s not lobotomize the GG

There have been so, so many bad takes on the whole issue of Her Excellency Julie Payette’s speech to scientists last week, but there’s one published by the National Post yesterday that was so terrible, that Paul Wells’ incredulous reaction is something that matches my own. Fraser Valley University history professor Barbara Messamore writes that Julie Payette should be a scripted automaton because that’s the role that Governors General are expected to be.

No. Absolutely not.

This is the kind of thing that drives me completely insane. This constant need to keep politics as tightly scripted and lifeless as possible is part of what is killing our democracy, and it’s telling that so many people flocked to the unscripted (and unhinged) Donald Trump because of his “authenticity.” And to demand this of a vice-regal position is completely overkill. I also continue to boggle at the number of pundits who think that Payette somehow was commenting on live issues under debate. I’ve asked, and yet no one can point to where any of our mainstream parties are denying climate change, or who support creationism in our school curricula. They don’t exist in Canada, which is why the insistence that these are somehow issues under debate is baffling.

But beyond that, I find it unfathomable that we would want brilliant and accomplished individuals for the role, given the immense power at their disposal (should they choose to set off a constitutional crisis to exercise most of it), or the tough decisions that may be asked of them in any number of post-election scenarios, while we simultaneously demand that they be utterly vacuous so as not to cause problems. But while Payette may have rankled the delicate sensibilities of some, she also did not cross a partisan line which is what matters in this situation. Why we should force her to lobotomise herself for the sake of smiling and waving and mouthing beige platitudes makes no sense. If that’s what we want, then why not simply put some bilingual starlet in the role so that she can look good in photos and can smile and wave to her heart’s content? Why bother looking for someone accomplished if we’re not going to let them speak or exercise the judgment that we ask of them when it counts? If we let Payette continue to go unscripted, could she make a mistake? Maybe. She’s human. But it keeps her authentic and the reflection of her true self and intellect, and that to me is far more important than the fact that she may bruise a few feelings from time to time. We’re grown-ups. We should be able to handle the odd bump, and it’s far better than the alternative.

Meanwhile, Michael Coren defends Her Excellency’s “mocking” of religion from his own religious perspective, and he calls out the Conservatives’ attempts to make political hay out of this, which he deems akin to “prayer abuse” – something refreshing amidst days of fainting couches and clutched pearls.

 

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Roundup: Trying to score dangerous points

In amidst all of the really bad takes on Governor General Julie Payette’s commentary the other night, I find myself more than a little horrified that the Conservatives have decided to play political games around this. More specifically, they are attacking Payette obliquely by directing their comments at the prime minister, who didn’t leave well enough alone when he said it was great that the GG stood up for science. And great that she did, but this was also in the context of there being a willingness to torque the comments into a bit of a scandal, and to blow them completely out of proportion.

So what did the Conservatives do? It started with a Members’ Statement before QP, where MP Ziad Aboultaif denounced the supposed attack by the PM on people of faith (which isn’t what happened), and was followed up by a Facebook post by Andrew Scheer who said much the same thing – entirely ignoring that Trudeau is a practicing Catholic who has been public about the value that he places on his faith.

But what irks me the most about all of this is that it’s an example where our elected officials keep being cute about our most vital institutions – the Crown – and politicising them in subtle ways. When the Conservatives were in power, it was aggressively giving things a royal re-brand (which, don’t get me wrong, I’m in favour of), but the manner in which it was handled, along with the abdication on the opposition benches of similarly owning the fact that this country is a constitutional monarchy, allowed the media to paint the exercise as a Conservative nostalgia for the days of colonialism, and to tar the whole of our monarchical institutions with a partisan taint. And I fear that Scheer is going down the same path here in trying to stir up controversy around these largely innocuous statements by the GG in order to try and whip up his base. It’s a very dangerous game, especially because Scheer and his entourage have proven themselves to be ham-fisted in pretty much everything that they do, and that increases the chances of this blowing up in everyone’s faces, and the very last thing we need to do is try to politicize the Crown or the GG in this country. So seriously – knock it the hell off. This is not something that’s worth scoring a few cheap partisan points off of. You’ll only hurt everyone in the process.

Meanwhile, Colby Cosh has made one of the only reasonable takes on the Payette comments in noting that we don’t have rulebooks for Governors General, so they should stick to principles about appearing to arbitrate impartially, particularly because of the powers she possesses. And he’s right. And I would also add that it’s why I find the furore overblown – the existence of climate change and evolution are not partisan issues in Canada, so she’s not actually crossing any partisan lines in her comments. My own weekend column delves further into that aspect, as well as the reminder that she’s not actually a figurehead like so many of the pearl clutchers seem to be demanding from their fainting couches.

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QP: Responding not in anger but with pity

Wednesday, caucus day, and Justin Trudeau was present for QP, ready to take all of the questions. Whether he would actually answer them, well, remained to be seen. Andrew Scheer led of, mini-lectern on desk, and read about the reach that we call the Morneau Shepell conspiracy theory, Bombardier edition. Trudeau stated that it was false, there was not conflict of interest, and that they were supporting the aerospace sector. Scheer switched to English, asked the same thing, and Trudeau simply reiterated the support for aerospace, but didn’t denounce the accusation. Scheer tried again, and Trudeau said that the opposition was only interested in slinging mud because they couldn’t fault their economic growth. Scheer tried to pivot to the tax credit for diabetics, and Trudeau insisted that they would never be as mean as the Conservatives to cancel refugee healthcare or closing veterans offices. Scheer tried to riff on how “mean” the Liberals were to businesses or farmers, or indeed diabetics, but Trudeau hit back with his economic record that the Conservatives failed at. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, and he railed about the Morneau Shepell conspiracy theory, Bill C-27 edition, to which Trudeau denounced the accusations, and reminded him of the ethics screen. Caron demanded a closing of loopholes, and Trudeau expressed his disappointment in the NDP for going for the Conservative tactics of personal attacks. Nathan Cullen was up next to sanctimoniously denounce Morneau Shepell and its various tentacles, and Trudeau responded by regaling him with tales of visiting Alberta and Quebec of the last few weeks and he heard about how everyone praised the Canada Child Benefit. Cullen stated that he was moving a motion at the Ethics Committee to call Morneau before them, to which Trudeau listed the programs they feel are making a difference for Canadians.

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