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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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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