QP: Back to helicopter questions

With the PM back from France, and business in the chamber was already hijacked by procedural shenanigans. Rona Ambrose led off, worrying that the PM had misled the House by saying that he had no choice by to take the private helicopter during his vacation to the Aga Khan’s island, to which Justin Trudeau deflected with his standard response that it was a personal vacation and he was happy to answer questions from the Ethics Commissioner. When Ambrose pressed, Trudeau added that he followed the RCMP’s advice regarding travel, but added nothing more, even on a third question, demanding clarification on the RCMP addition to the answer. Ambrose moved onto the question of Syria, demanding that sanctions be restored to Russia in a first step to remove Bashar Assad. Trudeau insisted that they were working broadly with the international community. When Ambrose pressed, Trudeau reminded her that the foreign minister was meeting with G7 counterparts on this very issue. Nathan Cullen and Karine Trudel returned to the helicopter issue, and Trudeau reiterated his same answer, in both official languages. Trudel then turned to the issue of court delays, and Trudeau responded with the same talking points that the justice minister gave yesterday, about working with a new process. Alistair MacGregor then demanded immediate marijuana decriminalization, and Trudeau reminded him that decriminalization does nothing to prevent it from getting into the hands of kids, or keeping profits out of the hands of the black market.

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Roundup: The spectre of a Leitch Party

A rather remarkable exchange happened during Trudeau’s visit to Nunavut when he was pressed about his electoral reform promise. Trudeau responded to his questioner “Do you think Kellie Leitch should have her own party?” and laid out a realistic case where parties like that can hold enough seats to affect the balance of power in a parliament. His questioner was taken aback and “respectfully disagreed,” which isn’t surprising because the narrative we are always given when it comes to proportional representation is that it will give us nice left-wing coalition governments forever, which is certainly not the case, and we need to challenge that particular narrative more often, and to point to what’s happening in Europe right now. And to be honest, I’m glad that Trudeau is being a bit more forceful on this point about the potential rise of extreme parties and that such a system would be bad for Canada. Big tent parties have done a lot for this country, and have moderated a lot of regional tensions within them.

Of course, Trudeau bringing up Leitch in such a manner could have unintended consequences of its own.

In a not unrelated note, Michelle Rempel was at an immigration conference in Montreal, and she noted her frustrations in bashing her head against her own party as much as she was with the Liberals that she is critiquing. And she made some very salient points in here about how we can’t pretend that we’re immune to populist rhetoric in this country, because we have a history of it bubbling up (hello 1993 election) and the sentiments still exist here where you have groups of disenfranchised people looking to blame Others. And this brings us back to why changing our electoral system to give incentives to these elements to form their own parties and try to win seats that they can use to leverage power is a very real and present danger. Add to that, there are concerns from experts in the field that the anti-immigrant rhetoric in the States is bubbling up here and fuelling a rise of racism in this country because it’s being seen as more socially acceptable.

So do we change our system to incentivise these voices to better organise and try to win themselves political leverage? Or do we do we maintain institutions and practices that have been successful in dispersing these elements because they know that there is no pathway to victory by pursuing it? It seems to me that it’s a fairly simple answer.

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Roundup: Asking for an electoral pony

It was entirely expected to happened, and lo and behold, Nathan Cullen stepped in front of some microphones today to cherry-pick the results of the MyDemocracy survey to declare that it told him just what he wanted to hear. Or rather, the whole survey was a failure except for the one table that proved his point.

That single table was the index that said that Canadians want parties to work together. Obviously, that means proportional representation, right? Never mind the other responses that disprove that with Canadians saying that they want simple ballots and having single parties to hold to account when things go wrong – you know, things that are more hallmarks of a First-Past-the-Post system. Of course, PR advocates have a long history of hearing what they want to hear, like how our friends at Fair Vote Canada very creatively interpreted the Liberals’ platform promise about ending FPTP to “prove” that it obviously means a PR system and only a PR system. Because that’s what they wanted to hear. And then there was Cullen’s rhetoric around it. “The idea that the Liberals, having heard all this evidence in favour of proportional systems, would then turn their backs on that promise and try to bring in a ranked ballot, alternative vote system, would be the equivalent of nuclear war in politics,” he said. That’s right. Nuclear war. Cripes.

Here’s the thing about the whole “Canadians want parties to cooperate” thing. It’s like moms and apple pie. Of course people want parties to cooperate. That’s a no-brainer. The problem of course is that decisions need to be taken, and people need to be held to account for those decisions. Our system is very much built on accountability, because that’s really the whole point of parliament. It’s to hold the government to account for the decision that it makes. When parties cooperate to make decisions, it makes accountability harder because when everyone is accountable then nobody is accountable, which is a problem for our system of government. Add to that, under our system of Responsible Government, it requires competition between parties for that power to govern. The tension between government and opposition is crucial not only for the exchange of ideas, but to both ensure that there is accountability and a suitable replacement waiting in the wings if the government should lose confidence. You can’t do that if you’re all working together.

The other part about insisting that “Canadians want parties to work together” is that it’s a wish that has about as much depth as people wanting a pony. It assumes that there are no trade-offs or downsides, and that you can simply ride or pet that pony at your leisure and not have to worry about feeding it, housing it, cleaning it, or shovelling out the barn. It’s far less glamourous, and sometimes ponies are mean, and they kick and bite. Sure, a voting system that you think will encourage parties to work together sounds like sunshine and rainbows, but it also means smaller parties holding larger ones hostage to try and gain outsized influence on decisions, and the inability for a government to speak with one voice, which is another one of those crucial things in our system that helps keep things accountable. So sure, people will answer on a survey that they want cooperation. It sounds like a wonderful thing. Reality of course is different, and people need to be very aware of that.

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Roundup: The “dangerous” Senate

Remember last week when John Ivison had that ridiculous column about the Senate apparently becoming such a terrible beast that the finance minister was being forced to change his upcoming budget to placate them, and then Andrew Coyne got the vapours about it? Yeah, well, over in the Vancouver Sun, they found a couple of people for whom that Ivison column made them utterly hysterical that they made it the BC angle. And as much as I like Peter O’Neil, who wrote the piece, it was really terrible and didn’t appear to challenge any of these so-called experts at all, or even what Ivison wrote – it took Ivison as gospel and went to town with it, despite the fact that it was torqued and wrong.

The “experts” consulted were a former BC Liberal leader, a law professor, and a recycled quote from the current BC premier. Said former BC Liberal leader spins conspiracy theories that because BC only has six senators, it means that the other senators are going to sneakily start amending bills to funnel BC’s wealth eastward.

No, seriously. He actually said that.

The law professor? He asserts that, apparently based on the Ivison column, that the “half-reformed” Senate is emboldened to exercise its powers without correcting the institution’s “considerable faults,” which aren’t. Never mind that we haven’t actually seen much in the way of them being so “emboldened” other than the fact that they’ve found legitimate flaws in government legislation and insisted that it be either corrected or removed. You know, like they’re supposed to because that’s the whole raison d’etre of the institution. And Christy Clark? She simply asserts that the Senate doesn’t work now. Erm, except that it actually seems to be considering that they’ve catching flaws in government legislation and dealing with it. Seems to be working to me.

Part of the problem with the framing of the article as well is the fact that it is coming from this particular grievance-based claim that BC is underrepresented in the Senate because it only has six seats when Ontario and Quebec each have 24. The flaw in this argument is that it ignores the regional construction of the Senate – it is not designed for provincial representation, but rather regional blocks – Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes, and the West, with the territories and Newfoundland and Labrador each being additional regions unto themselves. The reason why it was designed with regional rather than provincial equality in mind was to provide a counterbalance to the representation-by-population of the House of Commons, and if you look at the populations of each regional bloc (Newfoundland & Labrador and the territories excepted), they are roughly analogous. That’s not a bad thing, but BC is acting a though the Senate was designed in another way, which it was not.

The problem with pieces like this one is that the important facts and context are left out. We are left with a few tantalizing quotes that crank the hysteria up to eleven, but there is no actual civic literacy to counter any of it, whether that’s out of ignorance or by design I can’t say. But it’s not edifying. It’s cartoonish, and in fact promotes an ugly cynicism about our institutions that creates bigger problems of perception that are not based on fact, and that’s a problem.

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Roundup: And the Tony for outrage goes to…

I really didn’t want to have to write about this, but it managed to suck up all of the oxygen in the news cycle this weekend, and I feel compelled to once again say something that I really didn’t want to, but lately this seems to be my lot in life. I’m talking about the whole Trudeau/Castro statement, and how very tiresome that pile-on soon became. Forgetting of course that nobody’s hand are clean in the game of international diplomacy, and for some reason nobody is allowed to speak ill of the dead unless it’s Fidel Castro, Trudeau’s comments weren’t sufficiently scolding enough of his legacy – never mind that he has a personal family connection there, and he has to be pragmatic about relations as he walks the line between needing new markets with American protectionism on the rise and economic liberalisation slowly happening in that country. And when pressed, Trudeau made no bones about the fact that Castro was a dictator while still explaining making the statement that he did. Nevertheless, I will hasten to add that Trudeau’s statement has nothing on the leftist paeans being sung to Castro that I’m finding all over my Facebook timeline, praising his stand against Imperialism and how the love of his people protected him from CIA assassins, and so on. (And these are from the same kinds of people who considered Stephen Harper a dictator, so seriously, chill out). And then there was the digging up of statements that Stephen Harper had made after the deaths of the likes of the King of Saudi Arabia (“desired peace”) and Hugo Chavez, and lo, no outright condemnations in either of those statements. Should Trudeau have said something more? Probably. But I do get that he’s trying to walk a very fine line.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, people took to social media to bombard us with endlessly with the instantly tiresome meme of #Trudeaueulogies, while the whole of the Conservative leadership race decided that they too needed to take to social media to perform some outrage for us, demanding that Trudeau not go to the funeral, and beating at their breasts, wailing and gnashing their teeth about how terrible it was that he didn’t mention the executions or the persecution of gays, and it was like every single one of them was vying for a Tony award. And then they all emailed party members trying to crassly try to fundraise on this issue. Honestly, it’s just so tiresome because it’s just so transparently performative.

Meanwhile, John Geddes talks to a historian about the legacy of Pierre Trudeau and Castro with Canada-Cuba relations. Terry Glavin thinks that this proves that Trudeau is as vacuous as most people seem to think, while Charlie Gilles calls Trudeau’s statement “egregious whitewashing.”

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Roundup: Suck it up and fix 24 Sussex

Since this is apparently my week for being cranky about stuff, I’ll turn my ire today on the various naysayers regarding renovations to 24 Sussex. And I’m going to say off the bat that they need to basically shut it and just fork out the money because guess what, we have obligations in this country to both official residences and heritage buildings, and we have to stop being so petty about it. What becomes clear in the more detailed breakdown of the options available that was posted in The Huffington Post was that a lot of these additional costs are not about the building, but rather they are about security. That’s part of why I find the demands that they have a residence that will be open to tourists to be boggling, because I’m not sure what purpose that serves. Of the other official residences, only Rideau Hall and the Citadel are partially open to the public, and even then in fairly controlled circumstances, and those are also working residences – something that 24 Sussex, Stornoway, the Farm and Harrington Lake are not. And why 24 Sussex should have the capacity for state dinners is also a bit baffling because the PM doesn’t host state dinners – the Governor General does. That’s his job as representative of our head of state (being the Queen). Can some official dinners be held at 24 Sussex? Sure. But not state dinners. I also find the fact that they’re even exploring the possibility of turning 24 Sussex into a working residence to be boggling, right up to including a $562 million option of abandoning 24 Sussex in favour of taking over the National Research Council’s headquarters at 100 Sussex and turning that into a Canadian White House with PMO offices on top of an official residence. Baffling, really.

So while the calls to bulldoze 24 Sussex return in force thanks to performative cheap outrage, and we clutch our pearls at the ongoing maintenance costs of the building being vacant while the property itself doesn’t increase in value, I say we stop trying to turn this into a tourist trap or working residence, which means not building an annex over the pool house to turn it into an apartment so the main house becomes something they don’t live in, and instead just focus on renovating the house itself and keeping it strictly as an official residence. And no, we can’t just bulldoze it because it is an important heritage property, and would still be even if it didn’t house prime ministers, but it does, so now we are obligated to deal with it the right way. In fact, I say we restore its façade to its original, pre-1950s features to better respect its heritage and history. Add to that, we should not only better empower the NCC to protect our official residences and heritage properties so as to let successive prime ministers (and opposition leaders and Speakers) know that it’s not up to their discretion when renovations need to be done to these properties, but we should also empower them to go after the previous inhabitants for negligence in allowing the property to decay this much. Maybe that will send a message.

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Roundup: Peter Harder is trying to bamboozle you

Behold Senator Peter Harder, the “government representative” in the Senate. Faced with attacks from his (mostly) partisan detractors, he bravely mounted his steed, and galloped out to the webpages of Policy Options where he oh so bravely slew a straw man to defend his particular moves in modernising the Senate. And in case this wasn’t clear enough, let me spell it out for you – Peter Harder is trying to bamboozle you.

The particular straw man that Harder bravely faced was the notion that those who defend the Westminster model in the Senate are trying to keep it a mirror of the House of Lords. This, incidentally, is complete malarkey. Nobody has ever made this argument. The Senate of Canada has never borne any resemblance to the Lords (aside from the fact that each is an appointed upper body), and nobody has advanced an argument to make that claim. But Harder went on at length to prove how different the two chambers were (again, nobody claimed otherwise), and then went on to showcase all of the other upper chambers in Westminster countries and how different they were too. Look at how flexible the Westminster model is! Harder proclaims. And it’s all very “Father knows best,” as he schools everybody on parliamentary democracy. And then he starts his subtle subversion. Look at Nunavut, he suggests – they don’t have parties there! It’s a consensus legislature.

And this is the point where I want to punch someone in the throat. But I have that urge everyone someone brings up the Nunavut legislature.

The Nunavut legislature works (more or less) on a party-less consensus model because a) it has a mere 22 members; and b) it operates within the cultural context of its Inuit residents for whom consensus-making is a norm. The Nunavut legislature model is neither scalable nor portable, and anyone who tries to suggest otherwise requires a smack upside the head. The other part, which escapes Harder’s point, is that it still has an executive council and an ostensible opposition whose job it is to hold said Cabinet to account. And that’s the basis of the Westminster model that Harder quite carefully ignores in his defence of said model’s mutability. You see, the real basis of the Westminster model is that of Responsible Government, and the exercise thereof needs both a government and an opposition to hold it to account, and that can replace the government when they lose confidence. Oh, but wait – the Senate isn’t a confidence chamber, you might be saying. And that’s right. But they still have a part to play in the exercise of accountability, whether it’s asking questions of the government in their own QP (which is why the Leader of the Government is supposed to be a cabinet minister), and why they have an absolute veto, which is a necessary check on executive power.

Harder’s other suggestion – that perhaps instead of an official opposition, there instead be an “opposition representative” to mirror his role as “government representative,” is as much about undermining the ability of senators to organise opposition to the government agenda as it is about extending his own power base among the independents. 101 loose fish cannot be an effective opposition force just as much as they cannot be a consensus body (not that the Senate’s role is consensus). Harder’s attempt to delegitimise the role of partisanship in the Senate has nothing to do with trying to respect the chamber’s constitutional role (which he uses revisionist history to assert) and everything to do with his own ambitions, and he’s willing to slay as many straw men along the way as it takes to convince everyone that he’s on the right path. Don’t let him get away with it.

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QP: Oh noes, Chinese billionaires!

It was the one day that the PM was going to be in QP for the week, this being a busy travel season, but not all leaders were in the room. Rona Ambrose first tried to note that Trudeau had not been present since November 2nd — and got chastised for it — and raised the latest fundraising story with a Chinese billionaire present. Trudeau noted that the previous government  had a poor record for growth, and by the way, there was no conflict of interest at that fundraiser. When Ambrose tried to raise that said billionaire was connected with a bank seeking authorization, Trudeau noted that the previous government signed off on it, not his. Ambrose switched to the announcement about fighter jet replacements, and the process that the government just announced. Trudeau said that they were engaging in a full process but there was a capability gap. Ambrose tried another round but got the same answer. For her final question, Ambrose raised an Ontario court decision where a judge struck down a mandatory minimum sentence on child sex offence and if the government would ensure that those remained under mandatory sentences when they contemplate justice reform. Trudeau assured her that they respect the judiciary and would not politicize it. Alexandre Boulerice led off for the NDP, asking a pair of questions on that latest fundraising allegation, and Trudeau reminded him that $1500 was a level that everyone was comfortable with when it comes to financing without undue influence. Murray Rankin then rose on a pair of questions about the government not complying with a Human Rights Tribunal order on First Nations child welfare funding, to which Trudeau reminded him of their investments in Indigenous communities and they have a lot of work still to do.

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QP: A singular focus on CETA

While Justin Trudeau returned from the APEC summit somewhere around 5:30 this morning, it was not a real surprise that he wasn’t present in QP as a result. Then again, none of the other major leaders were present either. Denis Lebel led off, railing about the lack of new trade agreements signed and wondered if the government would fumble other agreements. Chrystia Freeland assured him that they ensured that CETA got signed, and when Lebel repeated the question in English, Freeland didn’t stick to her notes, but reminded Lebel that it was her government that got CETA signed for real. Lebel tried to switch to softwood lumber, but Freeland stuck to chastising him about CETA. Gerry Ritz tried to move the topic to the TPP, but because he mentioned CETA, Freeland stuck to those points with a reminder that they were still consulting on TPP. Ritz tried to press on TPP, and Freeland reminded him that there was a two-year consultation period on TPP, which they were pursuing. Tracey Ramsey led off for the NDP, railing about the flaws in CETA, and Freeland hammered on the progressive credentials of the agreement and the fact that socialist governments in Europe supported it. Ramsey pounded on the effect that CETA would have on drug prices, but Freeland stuck to her points about CETA’s progressive credentials. Ruth Ellen Brosseau then rose on a pair of questions decrying the inadequate compensation for dairy producers under CETA, but Lawrence MacAulay assured her that they sat down with the producers and designed a programme based on that, and that they were protecting supply management.

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Roundup: A badly needed review

The Criminal Code is a mess. The government knows it, and the judicial system knows it, but the question is whether anyone has the guts to do anything about it – particularly because it’s been a particularly easy target to do one-off laws without worrying about the broader consequences. The number of private members’ bills dealing with singular tweaks to the Criminal Code are innumerable, because it’s seen as something that individual MPs can use to take a stand on some issue or another while at the same time considering it to be something that won’t impose a cost on the government as no dedicated spending must be attached to it that would otherwise require a Royal Recommendation. (This is wrong – there are tremendous costs attached to it, but it’s a loophole in the rules that there is no appetite to plug either). And when governments want to increase sentencing to look tough on an issue, they pass new laws to “crack down,” to the point where there is no semblance of a logical sentencing grid any longer. I remember sitting in on a Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee meeting during the Harper years when they were passing another marijuana bill and the Liberal senators were expressing frustration that things were such a mess that these new pot offences were giving more jail time than some child sex offences.

The government’s recent move to repeal some archaic laws around gay sex (including an unequal age of consent) is an example of one place where the government is doing something about a “zombie law” – one that has been struck down by the courts, but remains on the books because Parliament has yet to take the time to actually repeal it. (This was another case were the Conservatives outright refused to when given the opportunity when they were raising the age of consent for hetero teens). But there are plenty of zombie laws still sitting on the books and nothing is being done about them. The CBC has a look here at some of those laws, and expert urging to deal with them – particularly given that murder trial in Edmonton where the judge accidentally handed down a verdict that was predicated on a “zombie” law and he had to go back and give a lesser verdict after the fact to correct the mistake. Clearly this is a problem, but the government isn’t promising much action beyond vague assurances that these sorts of things will be part of their broader criminal justice review – the same review that will be looking at doing away with a number of mandatory minimum sentences. But this is something that they really do need to get cracking on, not only dealing with “zombie” laws, but also sentencing reform so that there is a coherent sentencing grid once again. Part of the problem, however, is that the justice minister and her office are moving at a glacial pace. Everything they’ve been doing, from judicial appointments to moving on certain bills, is taking far longer than it reasonably should, and that’s concerning especially when this criminal justice review is so badly needed. Let’s hope we hear more about it sooner rather than later.

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