Roundup: A complex figure

I really didn’t want to write about this topic, and yet we’re swarming with stories and thinkpieces about it, so in the interest of that, I’ll say a few words, however clumsy and inexpert. On the subject of Sir John A. Macdonald and the current vogue of removing his name from things, I find myself annoyed by so much of it. Part of it is because the sudden rush to start doing this smacks of the me-tooism that so often plagues our political discourse, especially on the left or “progressive” side of things. Having a discussion about Macdonald and his role in the cultural genocide of Indigenous people is not the same thing as removing Confederate monuments in the United States, and yet there is a kind of equivalency being proffered, including by a number of self-righteous activists. They’re different conversations, and trying to equate them does nobody any favours.

Second, Macdonald is a complex figure on pretty much every level. While there has been increasing agitation in his role in promulgating residential schools, or the much-repeated quote about reducing food aid to starving First Nations on the prairies following the collapse of buffalo herd populations, all of that all of this ignores context. While people keep insisting that Macdonald was the architect of genocide, any reading of history that I’ve done is that Macdonald was trying to prevent it, having seen what happened south of the border. The problem is that there was little conception as to how to go about doing it, and there was a great deal of political opposition to his doing do, when there were a great many voices who would have preferred that they starve. That Macdonald mitigated these calls and actually did deliver food aid (which was something that governments were certainly not in the business of in the 1800s), and tried to come up with plans to get them to transition to farming once they couldn’t hunt bison any longer (which didn’t take), and to give them the vote in order to involve them in the political life and decision-making of the country despite that they didn’t own land and would otherwise not eligible under the existing electoral laws of the time (leading to howls that he was giving them “special” rights, which subsequent Liberal governments stripped) – it all should mean something. Yes, what we recognise now as being cultural genocide was an attempt at staving off actual physical genocide. It’s why Macdonald created the Northwest Mounted Police – to ensure that there were orderly treaties rather than the mass slaughter done by the Americans in order to clear lands for settlement. We know this now as the violence of colonisation, while it was trying to do this without the loss of life in the United States is a complicating factor.

So yeah, Macdonald is complex, and you can’t just mark him down in the column of “racist promoter of genocide” and leave it at that, which is why we need conversations about history, but most of what passes for it over social media, between the woke voices crying genocide and their opponents decrying the erasure of history, is not a proper conversation. It also requires a recognition that history is an evolving process, and that adding voices to the narrative isn’t erasing it – it’s adding to it, even if it makes the picture more complicated (not that I’m seeing a desire for nuance on either side). And we’re going to have a lot more conversations about this going forward, if this guide of problematic figures is anything to go by. But given the state of the debate right now, I don’t have high hopes that it’ll be constructive in the immediate term.

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Roundup: Mike Duffy, white knight

Oh, Senator Mike Duffy. For his suffering, he has decided to launch a $7.8 million lawsuit against the RCMP, the Government of Canada, and the Senate itself. It’s not just about the two years of suspension without pay, or the reimbursement or legal fees, or indeed about the further clawbacks of his salary that the Senate undertook for his abuse of expense claims, or about the lost income from speaking fees that he could have claimed had he not been dragged through the process. No, Duffy is so concerned about the lack of Charter rights for those who work on the Hill that he’s willing to take on this multi-million-dollar lawsuit for the principle of the matter.

Such a hero.

Now, I will be the first to admit that yes, the way in which Duffy’s suspension handled was hugely problematic, and that his rights to due process were trampled on because of political expediency, it cannot be argued that the Senate was illegitimate in the way it acted because as a self-governing parliamentary body, the Senate not only has the ability to police its own, it is in fact the only body that can police its members because of parliamentary privilege and institutional independence.

While Duffy’s lawyer was effusive in his characterisation of Duffy’s acquittal, I’m not sure that it completely passes the smell test – Duffy was found not to have met the criminal test for fraud and breach of trust, but you cannot say that no rules were broken. The Senate has pointed to numerous examples where this was the case and fined him appropriately, and while he claims that the rules were too loose and vague, that is certainly not the case with all of his rejected claims. And it will raise questions if this suit goes ahead because the judge’s ruling was indeed problematic (and I know for a fact that there are other judges on that same bench who were not keen on it), and without an appeal being raised, that could raise more questions with this trial – if it goes to trial.

Of course, we can’t deny that perhaps Duffy is looking for a settlement of a couple of million dollars, but I’m not sure that of the parties involved, the Senate would bite and go for it. They are still pretty sore about the whole thing and are keen to continue to prove that they are taking a hard line to those who abuse it. I would wager that they are more likely to fight this to the bitter end on principle, come what may.

Meanwhile, Susan Delacourt sees an odd parallel between Duffy and Omar Khadr in that their rights were violated (which is a bit of a stretch, legally speaking), while Christie Blatchford suggests that perhaps Duffy is indeed owed something because his rights to due process were robbed.

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Roundup: Senator Greene’s lament

Conservative-turned-independent Senator Stephen Greene took to the pages of the National Post yesterday to decry Andrew Scheer’s plans to return the Senate to a more partisan institution by making partisan appointments, should he ever form a government and be in a position to do so. Much of Greene’s op-ed makes a series of good points, but at the same time, I find myself a bit leery of his particular conclusion that partisanship is a bad thing period. I agree with his points that a too-partisan Senate can simply act as a rubber stamp, which there were many cases that it appeared to during the later Harper years, when they had a comfortable majority in the Upper Chamber and simply went on neglecting needed appointments while letting their caucus be whipped into continued votes in support of legislation, no matter how flawed.

Where Greene’s analysis falls down, however, is the fact that while the tendency in a more partisan Senate to whip votes means there is less pushback against the government of the day, it fails to take into account that to a great degree, it’s not so much the final vote that matters in the bigger picture than what goes on the record. Courts rely on the parliamentary record to help determine what parliament’s intentions were when they are asked to interpret the law, and in cases where opposition parties in the Senate are unable to get enough votes to push through amendments to a bill, they can at least attach observations to it, and ensure that their objections are on the record – something the courts find valuable. The other aspect is that having senators in the caucus rooms provides a great deal of perspective to MPs because the Senate is the institutional memory of Parliament. Not having those voices in the caucus room, behind closed doors, can mean even more power for the leader because there are fewer people who aren’t constrained by the blackmail powers of that leader to not sign nomination forms, for example, who can push back and who can offer the cautions to the other MPs when the leader is overstepping their bounds. Not having those voices in the caucus room diminishes them, which is something that the Liberals have been dealing with (while Trudeau’s office centralizes yet more power as a result).

Greene also doesn’t seem to appreciate the fact that not having party caucuses in the Senate means that opposition is harder to organize, thereby advantaging the government of the day. It also makes ideological scrutiny of government legislation more difficult because a chamber of independents, especially when you have a mass appointed by a government on ideologically similar lines. That is an underappreciated element of the Westminster structure in the Senate that most modernization proponents continually overlook.

While I sympathise with many of his points, and I do recognise that there have been problems with how the Senate has been operating for the better part of a decade, partisan caucuses weren’t the sole cause of those problems. Breaking up the two-party duopoly has been a boon to the Chamber’s governance and management, and that’s why having a “crossbencher” component has proven to be extremely valuable. But doing away with party caucuses entirely is short-sighted, and causes more problems than it solves.

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Roundup: The Canadian pathology meets Rolling Stone

Justin Trudeau was on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine yesterday, which set off the Canadian Twitter sphere along its usual predictable paths. Journalists sniffed at the overly fawning tone of the piece (dismissing it as “political fan fiction”), while also pointing out the factual errors in the piece (apparently, Trudeau leads the “Liberty Party”) and ranking its cringe-worthy moments. The woke crowd railed about how Trudeau really isn’t progressive and how much of a terrible promise-breaking failure he is. And the Conservatives, predictably, acted with usual partisan disdain, so much that it strained credulity (Lisa Raitt in particular took the bizarre track of insisting that this was more damaging to coming NAFTA negotiations than her fellow MPs racing to American media outlets to decry the Khadr settlement). So, really, it was a fairly standard day of social media faux outrage.

This all having been said, the one thing that kept going through my head while this was all going on was just how perfectly this whole thing fit into the particular Canadian pathology of demanding approval from the Americans – especially when it comes to our artists or actors. Until they’ve decamped for the States and make it there, we largely tend to treat them with disdain, that they’re some kind of Podunk bush leaguers who obviously aren’t successful enough to have left Canada yet. And yet, the moment they do go to the States and make it big, we turn around and go all tall poppy syndrome on them and tear them apart for thinking that they’re better than us, and how dare they. And this whole Trudeau-Rolling Stone thing smacked of that entirely. The Americans are noticing him, so yay, we’re on the world stage, let’s mark the occasion by writing wire stories about the story and magazine cover, but how dare he seek the spotlight, and how dare they comment on his looks, and how dare they write a puff piece, etcetera, etcetera. Same pathology entirely. It’s boring, guys. Get a grip.

Meanwhile, here’s Robert Hiltz to throw some more cold water on the whole thing.

https://twitter.com/robert_hiltz/status/890217322966904832

https://twitter.com/robert_hiltz/status/890217785137274880

https://twitter.com/robert_hiltz/status/890218700128874496

Trudeau, incidentally, also appeared on the West Wing Weekly podcast, and John Geddes dissects Trudeau’s responses and what they all portend.

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Roundup: Appointment backlog woes

The National Post has a really good piece looking into the current backlog of appointments and the effect it’s having on the functioning of government. It’s something that has been talked about a lot, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a good breakdown of those vacancies, and the effect that it’s having. It’s one of those subjects that sounds pretty easy to grumble about, but it’s also something that we should take a step back and realise that to a certain extent, the goals of reforming the appointments process has been laudable, and in many cases, overdue when it comes to increasing the level of diversity into these positions. Over the course of my reporting, a lot of civil society actors have praised the move (while still being concerned at the timeframe it took for getting the processes up and running) because they all know that the outcomes will inevitably be better over the longer term now that the bulk of positions aren’t simply being filled by straight white men.

That said, I also wanted to just put a bit of additional context around some of this backlog in saying that as much as the Conservatives are baying at the moon about some of these appointments right now, that they were no saints when it came to this sort of thing either, and reformed the appointment process for some of these positions themselves, creating massive backlogs in the process. The two that come to mind immediately are the Immigration and Refugee Board, where they took a functioning system and drove it to dysfunction when they changed that process to “de-politicise it” (with plenty of accusations that they just made the system easier to put their own cronies in) and turning a system where the optimal number of files was churning through into a massive backlog that they tried to blame their predecessors on (sound familiar?). The other was the Social Security Tribunal, which they completely revamped as part of their changes to the system overall, and I’m not sure it ever got fixed before they lost the election, only for the Liberals to turn around to reform the appointment process yet again. So yes, some of the backlogs are bad, but in some cases, ‘twas ever thus, and we should keep that in mind.

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Roundup: Trudeau laying in the Senate bed he made

There is a renewed round of wailing and gnashing of teeth about the Senate feeling it oats and flexing its muscles, and yesterday it was the Prime Minister doing it. Apparently deliberating and amending bills is fine unless it’s a budget bill, in which case it’s a no go. The problem with that is that of course is that a) there is no constitutional basis for that position, and b) if the whole point of Parliament is to hold the government to account by means of controlling supply (meaning the public purse), then telling one of the chambers that it actually can’t do that is pretty much an existential betrayal. So there’s that.

But part of this is not so much about the actual issue of splitting out the Infrastructure Bank from the budget bill – which Senator Pratte, who is leading this charge, actually supports. Part of the problem is the principle that the Senate isn’t about to let the Commons push it around and tell them what they can and can’t do – that’s not the Commons’ job either. As Kady O’Malley delves into here, the principle has driven the vote (as has the Conservatives doing their level best to oppose, full stop). But some very good points were raised about the principle of money bills in the Senate, and while they can’t initiate them, that’s their only restriction, and they want to defend that principle so that there’s no precent of them backing down on that, and that’s actually important in a parliamentary context.

As for this problem of Trudeau now ruing the independent Senate that he created, well, he gets to lie in the bed that he made. That said, even as much as certain commenters are clutching their pearls about how terrible it is that the Senate is doing their constitutional duties of amending legislation and sending it back, it’s their job. They haven’t substituted their judgment for those of MPs and killed any government bills outright and have pretty much always backed down when the Commons has rejected any of their amendments, and that matters. But it’s also not the most activist that the Senate has ever been, and someone may want to look to the Eighties for when they were really flexing their muscles, enough so that Mulroney had to use the emergency constitutional powers to add an extra eight senators to the Chamber in order to pass the GST – which was a money bill. So perhaps those pearl-clutchers should actually grab a bit of perspective and go lie down on their fainting couch for a while.

On the subject of the Senate, it’s being blamed for why the government hasn’t passed as many bills in its first 18 months as the Harper government had. Apart from the fact that the analysis doesn’t actually look at the kinds of bills that were passed (because that matters), the reason why things tend to be slow in the Senate is because the Government Leader – err, “representative” – Senator Peter Harder isn’t doing his job and negotiating with the other caucuses and groups to have an agenda and move things through. That’s a pretty big deal that nobody wants to talk about.

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Roundup: The disingenuous framing of a committee report

As you may have heard, the Heritage Committee released their long-awaited study on suggested ways to help the local media landscape in Canada. And I’m not here to talk about that, however, but rather how the narrative got completely spun into “Netflix tax!” or “Internet tax!” which wasn’t exactly what they were proposing either. Still, it became a convenient cudgel by which to try and bash the government with.

And that’s the bigger problem with this whole affair – that a committee report is being used to paint the government when it’s backbenchers who are on the committee. That separation between government (meaning Cabinet) and a committee of the legislature is important, and conflating the two is being wilfully disingenuous and makes the problem of not understanding how our parliament works even worse.

Paul and Aaron both have some very valid points. When the opposition frames it as “Netflix tax!” it’s sadly how most media will report it as well, and I didn’t see a lot of corrections going on about what the report actually said, and that’s a problem. But Aaron also has the point about how the media loves to jump on differences of opinion in parties, but when the parties themselves frame the issue, the media often gets swept up in those narratives.

Remember when there were those Conservative backbenchers trying to float some backdoor abortion legislation or motions that the government distanced themselves from but the NDP screamed bloody murder about hidden agendas and so on? This is not far from the same thing. And they know they’re being disingenuous, but they’re doing it anyway, no matter how much they’re actually damaging the perceptions of the institution.

That said, I could be really mean and point out that it may be hard for the Conservatives to tell the difference between backbenchers on a committee and the government seeing as during their decade in office, they essentially turned the committees into branch plants of the ministers’ offices with parliamentary secretaries ringleading the show and completely destroying their independence…but maybe I won’t.

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QP: Bell Island conspiracies

With Justin Trudeau on his way to the Microsoft conference in Washington State, and Rona Ambrose bowing out, there were only two leaders present for QP today. Candice Bergen led off, railing about the PM’s Xmas vacation — again — using the reach of a story about the island’s ownership to raise doubts. Bardish Chagger gave the usual reply. Bergen used this as a hook for a question to accuse Chagger of being the wrong person to be in charge of finding a new Ethics Commissioner, and Chagger reminded her that the process is open and anyone can apply. Bergen insisted that the government was simply looking for Liberal donors, citing Madeleine Meilleur’s nomination as Official Languages Commissioner. Diane Lebouthillier took this one, praising Meilleur’s record. Gérard Deltell was up next, worrying about the Infrastructure Bank and the search for a board despite the fact that it had not been created yet. Amarjeet Sohi reminded him of the value of the Bank, and that they wanted to gave board members ready to be appointed when the Bank’s creation was authorised by Parliament. On a second go from Deltell, François-Philippe Champagne took the opportunity to tout the Invest in Canada Agency that they were also looking for appointees for. Thomas Mulcair was up next, spinning a conspiracy about the tentacles of KPMG infiltrating everywhere, and Lebouthillier got up to note all of the measures they were taking to combat tax evasion. Mulcair asked again in French, and got the same answer. Mulcair then took a swipe at Meilleur’s appointment at Languages Commissioner, and Lebouthillier repeated her lines about Meilleur’s record. Mulcair demanded that Chagger recuse herself from the selection of the Ethics Commissioner, and Chagger reminded him of the open process.

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Roundup: Not a real QP fix

Earlier in the week, the NDP put a motion on the Order Paper that they plan to use for a future Supply Day. The text of it, presented in the NDP House Leader Murray Rankin’s name reads as thus:

May 9, 2017 — Mr. Rankin (Victoria) — That Standing Order 11(2) be replaced with the following: “The Speaker or the Chair of Committees of the Whole, after having called the attention of the House, or of the Committee, to the conduct of a Member who persists in irrelevance, or repetition, including during responses to oral questions, may direct the Member to discontinue his or her intervention, and if then the Member still continues to speak, the Speaker shall name the Member or, if in Committee of the Whole, the Chair shall report the Member to the House.”

As Kady O’Malley points out, this would actually be a binding Supply Day motion, as it involves the Commons moving changes to its own rules, and the effect of which is to give the Speaker much more power to police answers given by enhancing the orders around irrelevant or repetitive answers. And on paper, it sounds great. I’m just not sure that this will work in practice.

For starters, this is attacking a mere fraction of the actual problem that we face in the House of Commons. It’s not just the answers that are lacking – it’s the questions (which are as repetitive and irrelevant as the answers), and in many cases, they’re not actually questions, but meandering speeches disguised as rhetorical questions, or non sequitur accusations for which there can be no answer. Empowering the Speaker alone will not solve the problem – the whole ecosystem in the House of Commons needs to change, which means banning scripts, loosening up the clock, and doing away with the established speaking lists. The rigid structure and scripted nature is now all about creating a buffet of media clips, and simply empowering the Speaker to compel answers by means of naming and shaming is not going to fix the underlying problems.

The second problem is that this is something that can very quickly be abused. In fact, you can guarantee that if this were implemented that the very first series of questions that the Opposition would ask would be a trap for the Prime Minister – as much of a trap as their constant questions on Wednesday about the Ethics Commissioner investigation were. That Trudeau refused to step into said trap was a political calculation that has endeared nobody in the whole sordid affair, and everyone came off looking petty. Compelling the PM to walk into traps on a daily basis will quickly become a major problem.

A third major concern is that enforcement of this rule change is going to cause all manner of problems if the opposition doesn’t see the Speaker enforcing this to their liking. Accusations of favouritism or partisanship will soon flow, and there will be tears and recriminations. Nobody will win. So while I appreciate the sentiment of this motion, and would agree with it to a very limited degree, until we get the bigger and more important changes, this simply becomes a bigger problem than the one they’re trying to solve.

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Roundup: An unconstitutional motion

As stated for their upcoming Supply Day motion (currently scheduled for Monday, the Conservatives have drafted a resolution that would see the House of Commons express non-confidence in Minister Sajjan and Minister Sajjan alone. It’s the kind of thing that makes me want to bash my head into a wall before my head explodes because it’s so very boneheaded from start to finish.

First of all, you should read this post by James Bowden, who takes apart the motion to and shows that it is unconstitutional. What is more interesting is the fact that the NDP tried this tactic before when Rona Ambrose was minister of the environment, and the Speaker ruled it out of order then, just as Speaker Regan should this time. Why? Because one of the fundamental tenets of Responsible Government is that of Cabinet solidarity. Cabinet lives and dies as a single body – there is no dispensation given to ministers we like, or to simply cull the prime minister from the rest of them in these kinds of votes. It’s an important feature of why the system works the way it does, and trying to cherry pick it for the sake of political tactics makes one a bit queasy because this is our very system of government that we’re talking about and they should bloody well know better.

Look, I get that they’re trying to exploit what they see as low-hanging fruit with Sajjan, but along the way, they’ve been dangerously blurring the lines of civil-military relations by asserting that the troops want him gone (do they aside from a few cranks? Never mind that it’s not these soldiers’ call), and by referencing Sajjan’s actions in military terms rather than political ones. Trying to use the term “stolen valour” is also offensive, not only because it’s generally reserved for someone who dons a uniform or medals without having been in combat (which is not the case with Sajjan), but because they’re co-opting it from the military for political benefit. But now they’re trying to go against the fundamentals of Responsible Government to score what they hope will be a cheap win.

That Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is trying to burn the system to the ground to score a couple of points is a very serious problem, and one indicative of a party that is more focused on populist spin than they are in being principled. It’s  a disturbing pattern, and one that they should knock off before they go too far down this garden path.

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