Roundup: No more gimmicky rules

In her latest installment of her occasional “Dear Process Nerd” column series, Kady O’Malley takes on the subject of heckling, and offers a sympathetic answer about the frustration of MPs who can’t get a word in edgewise given the way in which debates and QP are structured to all but discourage actual debate. And she’s right – that is a very serious problem that we should address. The problem? The solutions that she offered were not solutions.

As is so often the case with people who are looking to reform the system to improve the obvious deficiencies, the instinct is always to implement some new gimmick, and my learned friend is no different in this regard. In this case, O’Malley notes that we should give MPs more time to meaningfully engage with legislation (go on…) but decides that the answer lies in rejigging the daily schedule for un-structured, open-interaction with things like quizzing specific ministers on subjects or Urgent Questions.

And this is the part where I heave a great sigh, because my learned friend as completely missed the mark.

When you identify a problem, you shouldn’t go looking for a new gimmick to try and counterbalance it – you should go looking for the source of the problem and solve it there. In this case, it’s the way in which we started regulating speaking times in Canada so that when we imposed maximum speaking times, we incentivised MPs to use up that whole time. That meant speeches that went up to 40 minutes, then twenty, and the ten minutes allotted for questions and comments wound up being just as rote and scripted more often than not because MPs no longer know how to debate. So why not just tackle that problem instead? Restore the old rules – abolish speaking times and speaking lists, have the Speaker gauge how long MPs should have to speak to a bill or motion based on the number of MPs who want to speak to it, and allow for interruptions for questions in a free-flowing manner, and above all, ban scripts so that MPs will be engaged in the subject matter, talking for probably eight to ten minutes, ensure that there is free-flowing debate throughout, and most of all, it eliminates the impetus to read speeches into the record. Just tacking on new rules and gimmicks has made the situation worse over the years. Strip that away. Get us back to the fundamentals. That will help bring about actual change.

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Roundup: Renewing the tax change battle

Those proposed tax changes around private corporations were big in the news again yesterday, given that Parliament had returned and there was a sense that the fight was about to begin in earnest, now that everyone was paying attention. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation hired a plane to fly a banner above Parliament Hill that read “No Small Biz Tax Hike,” never mind that the small business tax rate isn’t being raised and that the proposed changes aren’t going to affect the vast majority of small and medium-sized businesses. Before the fight got started in earnest during QP, the NDP tried to insert themselves into the debate by trying to insist that the government should instead be attacking the “tax cheats” who use offshore tax havens – which, it must be pointed out, are also using legal instruments and thus are not actually “tax cheats” either, which is language that doesn’t help anyone.

In the Law Times, I have a story on how some lawyers are angry with the Canadian Bar Association over their opposition to the proposed tax changes – something that garnered a fair bit of attention. Global tried to work out what some of those tax changes amount to in terms of how it benefits those able to use the current provisions (though their use of the term “loopholes” rankled some of the economists they quoted). Colby Cosh takes on the semantic warfare in the proposed tax change debate.

And then the Twitter battles were renewed in earnest as well. Lisa Raitt was back at it, but Andrew Coyne took on her points with particular aplomb to show why they didn’t have any particular logic or intenral consistency.

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Roundup: Normalizing the system’s problems

On Monday night, I got into a bit of a Twitter argument over the issue of Manitoba MLA Steven Fletcher (former of the federal Conservatives) and his ouster from provincial Progressive Conservative caucus because he was *gasp!* doing the actual job of a backbencher and trying to hold the government to account, never mind that he’s a member of the governing party. It’s what he’s supposed to do, and he got punished for it. Why I gave the first punch in said Twitter fight was because of the notion that Fletcher should have shut up and been a good team player, because politics.

This devolved into a bit of tit-for-tat about which legislatures this occurs in, and despite providing Canadian examples, never mind the fact that this is actually the norm in the UK – the mother of our parliament – my dear opponent insisted that this is not the way things work in Canada.

And this irritates me. A lot. Because it’s washing our hands of the problems that have slowly crept into our country’s parliament and legislatures, and normalizes the bastardisations that have occurred over the years, usually under the rubric of “modernisation,” or “making things more democratic.” And the laws of unintended consequences being what they are, things get worse instead of better, and we now have very powerful party leaders in this country that have no accountability – something that should be anathema to a Westminster system.

Why should we be defending the current norms of party and leader-centred politics when it’s not the way our system is supposed to work, and in fact makes our system worse?

We are in an age where message control and leader-centred politics has reduced elected members to drones. We have very nearly reached the point where we could just replace our MPs with battle droids who could do just as effective a job of reading canned speeches into the record and voting the way the whip orders. Is this really the system that we want to normalise and defend? Or would we rather have elected officials who can think for themselves and do the proper job of accountability that the Westminster system is built on. I know which one I’d prefer.

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Roundup: A lack of scrutiny

While again noting that I don’t often write about provincial matters, sometimes they can be a microcosm or a vanguard of broader themes happening in different legislatures across the country, including the federal parliament, and this item out of Queen’s Park raises alarm bells because it is a telling sign. The province’s Financial Accountability Office – the provincial equivalent of the Parliamentary Budget Officer – tabled his annual report that essentially states that there’s not enough scrutiny happening within the legislature. And yes, that’s a very big problem.

While I am a bit surprised that his office is being underutilized, the fact that backbenchers aren’t doing the work of scrutinizing the actions of Cabinet – particularly on budget matters – is not unique to the province. Here in Ottawa, we see too many instances of MPs passing the Estimates with the barest of glances, and when ministers appear before committee to discuss them, they are generally bombarded with questions about issues of the day rather than what’s in the Estimates. That most of the scrutiny of the Estimates now happens in the Senate is Ottawa’s saving grace – something that provinces like Ontario can’t claim.

Part of the problem is that our civic literacy has so degraded that most MPs or their provincial counterparts (MPPs, MLAs, MNAs – style them how you will) don’t understand that their actual constitutionally mandated job is to hold the government to account by means of controlling the public purse. That, by definition, means scrutinizing budgets, the Estimates, and the Public Accounts. That MPs and their provincial counterparts don’t want to do that job – or at the very least are ignorant that it’s their responsibility – has meant the creation of more Officers of Parliament like the PBO, and the FAO in Ontario, to do that homework for them, and that’s a huge problem for the health of our democracy. But so long as MPs and their counterparts opt to stick their heads in the sand and play American lawmaker, spending all of their time and energy on private members’ business (when they’re not cheerleading for their particular leader), then our system suffers for it as governments aren’t held to account properly.

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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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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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