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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Roundup: Cullen’s plan to launder accountability

The NDP used their Supply Day motion yesterday to call for a new process to vet nominations for Officers of Parliament using a newly created subcommittee of Procedure and House Affairs that would have one member from each recognized party to vet the nominees. And while you may think on the surface that this is innocuous, there are plenty of problems with this proposal that go to the core of our system of Responsible Government.

For starters, the original motion was absolutely a veto, despite Nathan Cullen’s protests, and that’s not entirely appropriate given our system. They negotiated an amendment to remove that section, but the Liberals decided they weren’t going to agree to the motion in any case, which is fine because the veto wasn’t the bigger problem.

The problem is that a committee like this will not actually bring other parties into the process to make it “non-partisan,” but rather, it will launder the government’s responsibility for the appointments so that it becomes impossible to hold them to account when things go wrong. Remember when the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, Christiane Ouimet, turned out to be a giant problem? Do you remember what the government said when it came up in QP? They said “We consulted and no one raised any objections then – not our problem,” which was untrue. Add this process in, and that “not our problem” becomes baked in. At least this government has enough of a shred of decency when it comes to our parliamentary system to not look to find a new solution to wash their hands of future accountability, because that’s all that this motion offers – aside from the ability for opposition parties to engage in shenanigans of their own on the nomination sub-committee. And this isn’t even mentioning the fact that for many of these Officers, they serve Parliament as a whole, so a process that excludes senators becomes even more problematic for the functioning of our system.

To try and tie this to what happened with Madeleine Meilleur is a bit of a red herring – through the established process, it became clear to everyone (except maybe Mélanie Joly) that Meilleur simply wasn’t suited, most especially after she managed to alienate Anglophone Quebeckers – an extremely difficult thing to do, and yet she managed, and with the Senate lining up to vote against her appointment, it pretty much proves that the existing system worked.

No, this is about this farcical notion that people like Cullen keep pushing about how this is all about “making Parliament work.” It already works when the players involved do their jobs, and creating new processes creates added complications and unintended consequences, like the laundering of accountability, which nobody thinks about or raises as an issue because few people bother to learn how the system works. This Americanized suggestion is flash in the pan, trying to capitalize on what was clearly a blunder that the existing system nevertheless corrected. And if people had any good sense, they’d stop listening to Nathan Cullen’s attempts to “improve” our democracy.

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Roundup: BC Speaker drama, part III

While the drama over the coming BC Legislature Speaker election draws closer, and we are faced with more stories of not only the likelihood of a partisan NDP Speaker, but also one who will take off the robes to vote as an MP in committee (which is unconscionable, frankly), we see yet more boneheaded suggestions being thrown into the mix, none more so than our friends at Democracy Watch who want to turn this into an opportunity to turn the Speaker into an independent appointment, like an Officer of Parliament.

Hell. No.

This all having been said, the Speaker is the servant of the House, and to do that, he or she must be a member of it. There’s a reason why when a Speaker is elected, they are “dragged” to the Chair, because Speakers in the 1300s sometimes faced death when Parliament displeased the King. That’s not an inconsequential part of the reason why we have a Parliament in the manner that we do, and it’s important that we keep that in mind as we practice our democracy.

We also need to call out that for a group that purports to be focused on democracy, Democracy Watch is a body that seeks to limit actual democratic accountability with the imposition of innumerable independent Officers of Parliament who are appointed and unaccountable, and which seeks to codify conventions in order that they can be made justiciable with a goal of ensuring that political decisions wind up in the courts rather than at the ballot box. Theirs is not a vision of democracy, but of technocracy, and that’s not something we should aspire to, no matter what you think of our politicians.

Meanwhile, Jason Markusoff thinks that the Liberals should suck it up and put forward one of their own as Speaker for the sake of the institution (and he draws some of the lessons of New Brunswick from 2003-2006), while David Moscrop says the potential to damage the institution is too great, and it’s preferable to have another election to resolve the situation (which I’m sympathetic to). As well, Rob Shaw charts a course for redemption for Christy Clark amidst this chaos.

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Roundup: More BC Speaker cautions

The question of the Speaker of the BC Legislature remains up in the air, and continued word is that the Liberals are keeping their own out of the race lest they lose another seat as they test the confidence of the legislature, and with the Greens ruling out one of their own as well, that leaves the NDP left holding the bag when it comes to electing a Speaker. They’re obviously reluctant to do so, but it also reduces their chances of toppling the government and installing one of their own. And with that reality in mind, there is dark talk about the NDP turning the Speaker into a partisan if that happens.

This kind of comment is a real problem, because in a Westminster system, the conventions are the rules. And when people don’t see an issue with the Speaker breaking the convention that they only vote to break a tie, and in a manner that either keeps debate going or to preserve the status quo, demanding that an NDP Speaker topple the Clark government is a very big problem.

And if an NDP Speaker is elected but doesn’t opt to topple the government (and they very well should not for the sake of our system), it could leave Clark with little ability to govern, especially when it comes to passing supply, but that could be exactly what Clark is waiting for – an ability to go back to the electorate with great public regret. That said, she is under no obligation to simply accept defeat and turn over power to the NDP, especially with a precarious situation (signed confidence agreement or not).

I will add that the BC Liberals are under no obligation to put forward a name for Speaker. Federally, the Conservatives served two minority terms under Peter Milliken, a Liberal Speaker, with no ill-effect. So no, nothing is over or settled on this yet.

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Roundup: Stop berating members for doing their jobs

It’s not often that I write about provincial matters, and especially not from Manitoba, but this one I felt like I should make a remark because of the way in which the story is framed, which infuriates me to no end. The headline is “Stephen Fletcher criticizes his own government’s bill in Manitoba.” Fletcher, a former Conservative MP and one-time cabinet minister, is currently an MLA in the province, and a backbencher in the governing caucus.

Because I know that the vast majority of Canadians didn’t get a quality civics education, let me spell it out – it’s a backbencher’s job to hold the government to account. Yes, even if they’re from the same party. And in this case, Fletcher had concerns about a bill and has been asking questions about it at committee meetings late into the night. In other words, he’s doing his job. We should be encouraging this.

But what does the local Canadian Press reporter ask the premier? Whether Fletcher should be removed from caucus.

Great Cyllenian Hermes, luck-bringing messenger of the deathless gods, give me strength before my head explodes.

We The Media keep insisting that we want more independent elected officials, and we constantly fetishise things like free votes, and the moment an MP or MLA starts asking tough questions of their own party or steps out of line, we freak out and start wondering if the leader is losing control of their party, or in this case, whether they need to be kicked out of the party. In this particular case, the article goes on to say that this is the first crack in party unity. Are you kidding me?

When we elect members under the First-Past-the-Post system, we are imbuing them with individual agency. That’s why we elect them to single seats and not giving votes to parties to apportion those seats out to their MPs. We privilege the independence of MPs and empower them to do their jobs. Whether or not they choose to do so is the bigger part of the battle, because of the pressures of looking like a team player, but We The Media make it worse because we pull bullshit like this all the time. Our insistence on these ridiculous narratives and demands that our elected members all act in lockstep constantly while at the same time demanding independence is doing the system in. It’s driving the need for message control which is poisoning our democracy, because our own journalists have a tendency to be too ignorant of how the system is supposed to work.

Let MPs and MLAs do their actual work of holding governments to account, and stop causing trouble. Seriously. You’re actively hurting democracy with this kind of bullshit.

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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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QP: Attempting a defence pivot

After the introduction of the five new MPs who won the recent by-elections — who were introduced into the Commons in the proper fashion (which doesn’t always happen), and QP got off to a very delayed start. Rona Ambrose led off, worrying that Harjit Sajjan didn’t attend a veterans dinner to apologise to them personally. Justin Trudeau noted that Sajjan unveiled the new defence policy today, and slammed the previous government for not spending enough on the military, to many cries of outrage by the Conservative. Ambrose railed about how the Liberals don’t respect the troops, but Trudeau insisted that his government was going to fix the problems of the previous government. Ambrose concerned trolled about Sajjan’s reputation with the troops, and Trudeau accused them of talking a good game with supporting the troops but not following through. Ambrose tried again, and Trudeau insisted that they were leading the way with restoring the Forces. Ambrose tried another helping of concern trolling, and got the same answer. Thomas Mulcair was up next, concerned about our dropping World Press Freedom index ranking and wanted protection for sources. Trudeau said that they believed in that protection, and Mulcair dropped mention of the VICE journalist fighting the RCMP in court, before barrelling along to his prepared question about the old Bill C-51. Trudeau noted the report released and that they would change the legislation in the coming months. Mulcair then called on Trudeau to personally call Putin about gay men being persecuted in Chechnya, but Trudeau did not commit to doing so, just to better sponsorship for LGBT refugees fleeing persecution. Mulcair accused the government of not doing enough, particularly with emergency visas, and Trudeau spoke about the need for permanent solutions to help refugees, not temporary ones.

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Roundup: Wise asses and the Wise Owls

The snickering and childish guffaws that accompanied the news that the Senate released a children’s book-style brochure about the Senate was predictable. Every single wise ass in the pundit sphere threw in their two cents, many of them in the tiresome form of children’s book verses of their own, detailing how sordid those awful owls really are, and aren’t we clever for subverting this book? Others decried the (meagre) expenses and time used to create such a brochure, never mind that these very same pundits kept wondering aloud why the Senate never promotes itself or its good works. And while a more grown-up brochure was also produced alongside it, nary a soul mentioned that one.

I will be the first to say that The Wise Owls is not without its flaws, particularly in how they allegorically depict how and why the Senate came about. It was not because the House of Commons wasn’t working, and it’s particularly disingenuous to suggest that was the case. The general audience brochure has a more accurate take on that history, but I will also add that one of the problems with that brochure is that it places the legislative role of the Senate above all others under the heading that “Senators are lawmakers.” The abuse of the term “lawmakers” in the Canadian context rankles me because it’s an Americanism owing to how their system works, while our parliamentarians in our system are about holding the government to account, and legislating they do is a by-product of that as opposed to their raison d’être.

Nevertheless, some of the reactions to the book have also been particularly problematic, from Elizabeth May complaining that it’s not good democratic education because it implies that those responsible for sober second thought are wiser than those who are elected, to journalists like Justin Ling, who complain that the message to children is that your elected officials can’t be trusted.

Putting aside the potential that this is petty jealousy – after all, it would seem to be the media’s job to keep telling people that our elected officials are not to be trusted – these complaints ignore the fact that the entire Westminster system is predicated on that very fact – that while it’s all well and good to have elected officials, we still need safeguards against the excesses of populism. It’s why we have a monarch who is a disinterested party that can hit the reset button in times of crisis. It’s why we have an upper chamber that is appointed and not pandering for votes and has the institutional independence to speak truth to power. It’s why our courts don’t rely on judges to tailor their verdicts with an eye toward keeping the public favour in order to seek re-election. The very foundation of our system is that sometimes elected officials need to be reined in, and not by yet more elected officials. It shouldn’t be scandalous that this very same message is what this book exposes children to.

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QP: Coming at Sajjan on two fronts

While a gas leak evacuated buildings a couple of blocks from the Hill, QP got underway undaunted. Rona Ambrose led off, immediately boarding the sanctimony train with regards to the Harjit Sajjan apology, and Justin Trudeau reiterated that he continued to have full confidence in his Minister. Ambrose demanded Sajjan’s ouster, and Trudeau reiterated that he was proud of Sajjan, and listed numerous accomplishments. Ambrose demanded to know if Trudeau knew of Sajjan saying this in 2015, but Trudeau got around it. Ambrose ladled on some more sanctimony before demanding his ouster yet again, but Trudeau praised Sajjan’s contributions again. Ambrose then accused the government of not supporting the military, but Trudeau was unmoved. Thomas Mulcair was up next, decrying that there was no inquiry into the Afghan detainees issue. Trudeau said that Sajjan spoke with the Conflict of Interest Commissioner and she closed the file. Mulcair reiterated, saying that it wasn’t the question, but Trudeau repeated that the file was closed. Mulcair tried to sort out whether Sajjan knew nothing on that file or if he was an architect of Op Medusa, and Trudeau reiterated praise for Sajjan. Mulcair then moved onto the Parliamentary Budget Officer, accusing Trudeau of attacking him, and Trudeau disputed that, insisted they gave him more resources and more independence.

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Roundup: Not the cures for what ails the Commons

The latest round of Barish Chagger versus the opposition House Leaders started up yet again yesterday, and while my thoughts will be out in my next Loonie Politics column (up later today), I figured I’d take the opportunity to respond to Andrew Coyne’s musings about this latest round.

To wit, of his seven proposed reforms, Coyne only gets about three of them right – re-empowering the Speaker with regard to doing things like splitting out omnibus bills, restoring the various party caucuses’ ability to choose their leaders rather than the party memberships, and to ban scripts from the House of Commons (while ripping out the desks and implementing benches instead, Westminster-style), and letting the cameras get wide shots and reactions while they’re at it – something I too would agree with.

But then Coyne starts veering off into problematic territory. Turning over control of prorogation to the House of Commons is a Very Bad Idea because it fundamentally undermines the point of prorogation, which is that it allows the government to control its own agenda. It’s not up to the Commons to decide when the government needs to come up with a new list of priorities, and giving them the power to determine when they can hit the reset button throws that relationship out of balance – not to mention the lack of logic in requiring a supermajority to prorogue when they can declare non-confidence with a simple majority. Likewise, limiting the use of confidence undermines the whole bloody system and is utterly boneheaded.

Halving the size of cabinet? While the current Ministry has far less fat than previous ones, I think this has more to do with Coyne’s personal bugaboos about Cabinet construction in Canada than it does the problem with not having enough backbenchers in this country that diminished hope for a cabinet post allows for greater independence. Insisting that ministers answer questions put to them rather than fobbing them off to a junior? It’s less of an issue now than it used to be, but while we could theoretically empower the Speaker to insist, I worry that this becomes open to abuse (not to mention the fact that their refusal to answer is fodder for We The Media in holding them to account).

Of course, Coyne caps it off with his biggest eye-roller of all – that proportional representation will be the cure for all of our parliamentary ills. It won’t be of course, and will simply create a host of new problems (the extent of which depends greatly on just how the proportional system is constructed), but we’ve had experience with minority parliaments before. It didn’t make MPs more cooperative – it simply entrenched positions even harder, which a state of permanent minority or coalition government is all the more likely to do. So while Coyne is on the right path on a few ideas, his problematic or outright dangerous ideas outweigh the good.

Kady O’Malley, meanwhile, goes through a point-by-point deconstruction of the complaints that Michelle Rempel made over Twitter on Sunday night with regard to what she felt the imposition of a weekly Prime Ministers Questions would do, particularly around the media cycle, and while I’m no real fan of imposing a PMQ here (precisely because the rest of our debating culture is so bastardized that it would just make these problems even worse), O’Malley makes some particularly good points about why the opposition shouldn’t be overplaying their hands on this one.

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