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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Roundup: Face it, strategic voting is a sham

With BC now in a provincial general election, the messages about “strategic voting” are again plaguing the social media channels. Brenda Fine, aka @moebius_strip, wrote a response to this constant complaints, and pointed out the huge folly in the various “strategies” being proposed, in part because they rely on dubious polling practices and because the groups organizing these “strategic voting” sites often have their own agendas (usually NDP partisans from my own observations) and will urge people to vote in ways that were wildly against the best chances for a non-Conservative (per the 2015 federal election), which in many cases was Liberal by a landslide. So yes, strategic voting is generally a foolhardy practice that has no actual basis is reality, but time after time, despite it being proven to be wrong, people continue to insist on it. Because this time, it’ll work for sure!

Part of what bugs me about the constant lamentations about strategic voting is that they are predicated on this notion that you should always be able to vote for ice cream with sprinkles in every election and get that result, even when ice cream with sprinkles is not always what’s on offer. Voting is about making a decision, and sometimes, it’s not an easy choice and voters are forced to put on their big boy/girl pants and make a tough decision given a bunch of unsavoury choices. Sure, it sucks, but it’s called being an adult in a democratic society, and you have a responsibility to make tough calls. And then, once you’ve made that tough call, you can look at what you did to contribute toward ensuring that there was a better choice on that ballot, whether it was participating in a nomination race to get better candidates’ names put forward, or joining a party to ensure that better policies were on offer coming from the grassroots membership. Of course, 98 percent of the population did nothing to ensure that there were better choices on that ballot, and then complain that they have to make an unsavoury choice. Aww, muffin. Democracy’s not a spectator sport where you get to just cast a ballot every four years if you’re not too busy. It means you actually have to participate if you want better outcomes. (And here’s a primer to show you that it’s actually not that difficult to do that and get involved).

Continue reading

Roundup: The phantom lobbying menace

You can already hear the grumblings over social media over the headline: “As senators become more independent, meetings with lobbyists hoping to take advantage tripled in 2016.” And immediately most people go “Ooh, lobbyists are bad, so this sounds like a terrible thing.” It’s not actually true, but it’s something we’re probably going to have to unpack a little better rather than cause some mass panic (once again) about how the newly “empowered” Senate is going to be the death knell for democracy in this country, or some other such nonsense.

For starters, not all lobbying is bad. With strict rules in this country around reporting and gifts, this isn’t like the free-for-all that we’ve seen in places like Washington, where lobbyists were meeting with Congressmen in the steam room of the Capitol Hill gym, or taking them on private plane rides and giving them holidays, or showing up on the floor of the House to watch them cast votes, all while funnelling money into their re-election campaigns. While I believe they tightened some of those rules down south, we simply don’t have that kind of lobbying culture here in Canada, so get that out of your minds first of all. Secondly, Senators in Canada don’t have re-election campaigns to finance, so the influence that lobbyists can try to gain with financial incentives of one variety or another are also non-existent here, so once again, don’t try to map an Americanism onto the process here. Third, lobbying is not all corporate influence. A lot of lobbyists represent charities or non-profits, so best to keep that in mind when you see the numbers grouped together.

Meanwhile, as for what they hope to achieve, well, remember that despite the newfound “independence” of the Senate, its powers are still fairly limited. Those hoping to use this newfound power to amend more bills or delay others will find that when it comes to any amendments, they would still need to be accepted by the House of Commons, and there has been very little acceptance so far of most amendments sent back by the Senate unless it’s a glaring error. And as for delays, if it’s a government bill there are tools like time allocation and closure to force them through the system. Just because Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative” – Senator Peter Harder hasn’t yet availed himself of those tools doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t. So really, your mileage with how effective lobbying efforts will be will certainly vary.

The uptick in lobbying is not unexpected now that the usual central channels for information flow have been disrupted. That’s to be expected, so this increase is hardly nefarious. I’m more concerned with cabinet ministers lobbying individual senators than I am actual lobbyists, to be honest, since those meetings are less open and transparent, and they have a lot more power to grant political favours. So really, let’s stay calm about this headline, but keep an eye on things nevertheless. Trudeau’s plans for a “more independent” Senate are certainly proving the rule around unintended consequences.

Continue reading

QP: Queen’s Park and conspiracy theories

While Justin Trudeau was off in Strasbourg, the rest of the Commons was filtering in, ready for the grand inquest of the nation. Rona Ambrose led off, asking what half-dozen things that the government had in mind that they said could be fixed about NAFTA. Bill Morneau responded by giving some vague generalities, and said that they would talk NAFTA when it comes up. Ambrose worried that the US was cutting taxes and red tape, but Morneau assured her that our economy was still very competitive. Ambrose railed about “Kathleen Wynne’s failed policies” and carbon taxes, to which Catherine McKenna listed companies creating sustainable jobs. Denis Lebel was up next, and worried about how the dairy sector would be impacted by NAFTA renegotiations, to which Lawrence MacAulay assured him that they supported supply management. Lebel switched to English to demand if the government still supported supply management, and MacAulay assured him once again that yes, of course they did. Thomas Mulcair was up next, raising the refugee claimants crossing the border. Ahmed Hussen assured him that there was no material change on the ground. Mulcair switched to French to claim that there were smugglers near the border, and this time Marc Garneau responded in French that they were working with authorities to address the situation. Mulcair then changed topics to accusations that the Liberals were accepting larger than legal donations, at which point Karina Gould reminded him that all parties have instances of overages and all parties pay them back. Mulcair persisted, insisting that the Liberals broke the law, and Bardish Chagger got up to remind him that any questions asked by the Ethics Commissioner would be answered.

Continue reading

Roundup: A hopeless court case

It’s one of the most predictable performative dances in Canadian politics, which is that when you lose at politics, you try to drag it to the courts to fight your battles for you. In this, case, a UBC professor (and local Fair Vote Canada) president wants to launch a Charter challenge around electoral reform. And in order to do that, he’s talking about getting pledges of around $360,000 in order to get through the legal process.

The problem? This is an issue that has already been litigated and lost. The Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear the appeal of the case that arose out of Quebec, which means it’s considered settled. The current electoral system is legal, it is constitutional, and while you get the odd prof here and there who tries to make an argument to the contrary, it’s settled law. And unlike some of the reversals we’ve seen the courts make over prostitution or assisted dying, there has been no great groundswell change in society that would justify the court in re-litigating the matter. In other words, he’s trying to raise money from people who are desperate to find a lifeline now that their political solution is gone that this is basically a scheme for lawyers to take their money.

This tendency to try and use the courts to overturn political decisions is a growing one, but it’s the same mentality as people who write to the Queen when they lose at politics. Have we had cases where governments have passed bad legislation and the courts have overturned it? Certainly. But political decisions are not bad legislation, and it’s not up to the courts to force governments to adopt what some people consider to be more favourable outcomes. It’s called democracy, and we have elections to hold governments to account for their political decisions. It’s also why I’m extremely leery of people calling for a cabinet manual, because it means that more groups will start trying to litigate prerogative decisions, and that’s not a good thing. It’s time these PR proponents let it go and try to fight it again at the next election. Oh, but then it might become clear that this really isn’t an issue that people care all that much about. Shame, that.

Continue reading

Roundup: Is there a regional trade-off?

Canadian public affairs blog In Due Course published a piece on the weekend wherein Joseph Heath offers a few things to consider with how a Conservative party would deal with Quebec under a proportional representation system where the calculations are different. It’s interesting and he raises a lot of very good points. And predictably, proponents of PR went to question all of his points, particularly about the fortunes of the Bloc Québécois (and to a lesser extent the Reform Party) under the current first-past-the-post system.

The problem with cherry-picking individual election results like 1993 is that it doesn’t take a broader view of the system’s resilience as a whole. Over the longer term, regional parties in this country may do well for an election cycle or two at the most, but they have no capacity or room for growth, and that’s why the big-tent brokerage parties will always regain strength and power. What it also does is say that when these kinds of regional movements do take hold, that their grievances and desire to punish parties in power (which some Bloc votes have been about) is illegitimate.

Indeed, as Emmett Macfarlane points out here, focusing on geography misses the point when you look at how the big-tent parties are forced to craft policies that will appeal nationally and won’t explicitly write-off regions.

Coyne is also dismissive of “safe” ridings or regions, but I’m sure that we’ve seen time and again that there is almost no such thing as a “safe” seat or riding, particularly when there are swings in the public mood. Again, that’s not a bad thing, and one could argue that in a properly functioning House of Commons, “safe” seats can be a bulwark against too much power in the leadership because MPs with “safe” seats that have no prospect of getting into cabinet are more likely to push back against what they see as intrusions by the leader because they have little to lose. (Granted, this is more keenly demonstrated in Westminster because their leaders don’t have the ability to sign off on nomination forms like they do here, and their leadership selection process has been different until recently, but the point still stands).

Part of the problem here, which Coyne does admit, is that defenders of different systems are approaching the issues in different ways. But defenders of the current system don’t necessarily foresee a future dystopia as warning that if you’re looking for changes to the electoral system to fix what is perceived to be broken here, you’re going to find that it’s not actually going to fix things, and it certainly won’t result in this kind of democratic utopianism that most PR advocates proclaim.

There is also the fact, and I cannot stress this enough, that Canada is not the same as most other countries. While we are not Israel in terms of its politics, we are also not a Scandinavian country either, so expecting their results to translate here is just as much of an over-reach and a fiction.

That’s why we need to approach this very carefully. (Well, I say we need to smother the electoral reform consultations entirely, but that’s just me). Too many people are simply pointing to Norway or Sweden and saying “Look! See how great it is!” when they should also look at the vast dysfunction of Belgium (which is a far better analogy if you look at our systems and cultures), or even Australia, where their proportionally-elected Senate is an utter gong show. But cherry-picking data – on both sides – doesn’t actually help further the debate.

Continue reading

Roundup: Cullen’s silver-tongued swindle

It should not surprise me, but Nathan Cullen’s capacity for deceptive stunts continues to both amaze and gall me at the same time. Previously it was conning Maryam Monsef into his “proportional” electoral reform committee composition (which was not proportional, but a racket that was designed to merely look more “fair” but was in fact a calculated gambit to give the opposition a disproportionate say in the process), for which we got a report that was a steaming pile of hot garbage. With Karina Gould now in the portfolio again, Cullen now proposes that they “co-draft” an electoral reform bill.

No, seriously.

I cannot stress how bad of an idea this is for both of their sakes. For Gould, this is Cullen trying to swindle her like he did Monsef. He played her – and the public – in trying to push proportional representation and ended up recommending (along with Elizabeth May’s whole-hearted endorsement) one of the absolute worst possible electoral systems possible. And now he’s trying to ensure that she puts it into legislation for his party’s benefit. This has nothing to do with bills being drafted secretly “backrooms” (otherwise known as the Department of Justice under the cone of Cabinet confidence) or with the spirit of bipartisanship. This is about Cullen trying to manipulate the process.

If that weren’t bad enough, what is especially galling is that he’s undermining his own role as an opposition critic in the process. He is not a minister of the Crown. His role, therefore, is not to govern, but to hold those to account who do (–William Ewart Gladstone). This is an important job because parliament depends upon accountability. That’s the whole purpose behind having a parliament – to hold government to account. And it would be great if our opposition critics would actually take that job seriously rather than pretend they were ministers with their faux-bipartisanship and private members’ bills that cross the line when it comes to acceptable bounds of setting policy. It would be great if MPs actually did their jobs. Perhaps most troublesome in all of this is that Cullen is his party’s democratic reform critic. If he can’t grasp this most basic fundamental point of Responsible Government, then can we actually trust him on attempting to find a different voting system? I’m pretty sure the answer to that is no.

Continue reading

Roundup: Gallagher and the electoral reform garbage fire

Yesterday’s release of the electoral reform committee report was a giant headache for all sorts of reasons – the way in which the majority report was cute in their recommendations, the Gallagher Index nonsense, Monsef’s being cute in reply to the ways in which both the Conservatives and NDP were over-reading their own report, and the repeated demands that the Prime Minister respect his ill-considered promise that 2015 would be the last election under First-Past-the-Post. It was an utterly exasperating day.

While are all aware that I am team status quo because the system is not broken and any problems are not the result of the electoral system, I will offer a few observations. Number one is that the Gallagher Index is one of those devices favoured by poli sci undergrads, electoral reform nerds, and sore losers to “prove” that their preferred system is “mathematically” better than others, but it’s predicated on a couple of false notions – that in evaluating the current system that it’s a single event when it’s actually 338 separate events; and that the translation of votes to seats in this as-close-to-perfect proportion is actually desirable when it is in fact distorting the meaning of the vote itself. When we vote under our system, we are making a simple decision on who fills an individual seat, and because there are more than two candidates (and we don’t use run-off elections), it tends to rely on a plurality result rather than a simple majority. When you start demanding proportionality, you distort the meaning of that simple decision, and yes, that is actually a problem. That the report wanted a system with an Index of 5 or less, that’s not actually a simple choice of one or two systems. (If you want an explanation of the math, read this thread). Simulations of the Index under the Canadian system can itself be distortionary because of the regional nature of our elections, which why some use a “composite” Index that can produce different results from a strictly national Index figure when you try to correct for those.

The NDP/Green “supplemental report,” aside from being nigh-unreadable for all of its collection of demonstrably false talking points, recommends either an MMP system or this “Rural-Urban Proportional,” but in order to get their Index scores below 5, it means a large number of new seats particularly for MMP, while the RUP concept in and of itself is unlikely to be considered constitutional – using two separate electoral systems depending on your geography is unlikely to pass the Supreme Court of Canada smell test, but this is a decision they wanted to put on the government without that particular context. It’s all well and good to wave your hands and say you want a more proportional system, but designing one that works for Canada’s particular geography and constitutional framework is not as easy as it sounds, nor does it actually respect what you’re actually voting for. And so long as the loudest voices on this file are mired in sore loserism who figure that it’s the system that’s keeping them down and not the fact that they simply don’t have policies and candidates that can appeal more broadly, we’re going to continue to be mired in debates based on a load of utter nonsense. But hey, the government needs to make it look like they’re going to keep trying to tackle this file for another few months before they give up rather than just smothering this Rosemary’s Baby in its crib right now like they should, and just take their lumps for a foolhardy promise.

And if you won’t take my word for any of this, here’s Kady O’Malley evaluating the report, what happened today, and the trap that the NDP and Greens may be setting for themselves. Meanwhile, The Canadian Press’ Baloney Meter™ asserts that Trudeau’s election promise was “full of baloney,” while it can credibly be pointed to the fact that they acknowledged the need for consultations which gave wiggle room.

Continue reading