Roundup: Holding companies and crying wolf

The fixation on Bill Morneau and his family wealth is becoming mind-numbing, with new conspiracy theories and allegations of conflicts of interest arriving daily. While the Conservatives made him the subject of their Supply Day motion, demanding he produce all documents he shared with the Ethics Commissioner while continuing to promulgate the absurd conspiracy theory that he was pushing through the private corporation tax changes for the benefit of his company, while the NDP crowed about more alleged “appearances” of conflicts with his tabling a pension reform bill that his family company could, in theory, benefit from. And the subject of whether or not he still controls shares in said family company went through the media cycle like a tornado, with confirmation from the Ethics Commissioner in committee testimony that she didn’t tell Morneau to place his shares into a blind trust – because, as it turns out, he doesn’t control them, having already offloaded them into a holding company that he doesn’t control (apparently his wife does), and none of this is subject to current rules under the Conflict of Interest Act. In response to it all, Morneau sent a letter to the Commissioner requesting a meeting to see if there’s anything else he can do to further comply with the rules that he’s already complying with per her advice.

Two things here – one is that the Commissioner has raised this exception to the Act in the past, and when the Act last came up for review in 2014, she flagged it then and it wasn’t acted upon. Guess who was in power then? The Conservatives, who also pushed through all of those changes to various accountability legislation in 2009, along with the NDP. The second point is that we have constantly been bombarded with constant baseless accusations about the “appearance” of a conflict of interest for everything under the sun. And with these various conspiracy theories being put forward, even Occam’s Razor will tell you that the idea that these changes being put forward, either to pensions or private corporation taxation, for the benefit of Morneau’s company are absurd on the face of it. Pension reforms have long been debated, and there are reams of data about the problems that these private corporations are being used for reasons they were not intended to be by wealthy individuals in order to avoid taxation. Trying to use Morneau as an excuse to make the government back off on either is absurd and shows just how debased our ability to debate is in this country if debate is being replaced by personal attack. Never mind the fact that there has been a whole lot of crying wolf. If everything is a conflict, then nothing is a conflict. Sooner or later a wolf will come, and nobody will care anymore, having been completely numbed by the constant cries beforehand.

(Incidentally, Dawson also called on the government to amend their fundraising bill to include parliamentary secretaries as those who must report, for what it’s worth).

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Roundup: The demise of Energy East

The news that TransCanada decided to cancel their plans for the Energy East pipeline yesterday created a predictable firestorm of reaction, from the gloating of Montreal mayor Denis Coderre, outgoing Saskatchewan premier getting in his last kicks, to the histrionics of the Conservative caucus. The government’s line is market conditions have changed since the project was first proposed – and they’re entirely correct. But that doesn’t stop the rhetoric, either from TransCanada itself, or from the Conservatives, who are peddling some incredulous, mind-boggling lines to vilify the government.

But seriously, there are plenty of charts and graphs that show how the market conditions have changed beyond just the world price of oil (which is a bit part of it), but that the capacity with the other approved pipelines changes the equation for the hole that Energy East would have filled, and it’s no longer clear that it was a clear-cut decision after all.

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Also, it should be mentioned that as much as TransCanada is blaming government regulation, they did balls this up on their own end more than once, and do need to take some of the blame along the way. But why take that blame when you can shake your fist at the government?

And this having been said, there is a proud Alberta tradition that is underlying all of this. Because some zombies refuse to die.

Meanwhile, Paul Wells looks at the current record of the government in trying to attract investment, and wonders if we really are a place that will get the big things built, or if it will all collapse in tears and recriminations, driving investors away.

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QP: Local businesses for local people

With Justin Trudeau off to the United Nations for the rest of the week, we weren’t expecting fireworks, but rather the continued caterwauling about the proposed tax changes, that are sure to doom the whole economy. Andrew Scheer led off, worried about what the tax changes would do to “local businesses,” coincidentally the very new campaign that his party has launched. Bill Morneau reminded him that the changes were about ensuring that the wealthiest Canadians couldn’t use these mechanisms to pay less tax. Scheer talked about two local craft brewers who were “middle class,” and Morneau quipped that he was sure that Scheer was happy to defend the wealthiest Canadians. Scheer wondered how many jobs these measures would create, but Morneau stuck with his points. Alain Rayes then picked up the line of questioning in French, and Morneau insisted, in French, that he was listening and would ensure that the system was fair. After another round of the same, Thomas Mulcair rose for the NDP, worried that th government was looking to do away with the “bilingual bonus” in the public service, to which Dominic LeBlanc assured him that they would ensure a bilingual public service. Mulcair pressed in French, and got much the same response. Mulcair moved onto the topic of Canadians being barred from entering the US post-marijuana legalisation, to which Ralph Goodale reminded him that we can’t dictate to the Americans who they let into their country. Mulcair then asked about cannabis edibles, and Goodale assured him that work was ongoing.

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Roundup: Freeland brings the vague

The morning belonged to Chrystia Freeland yesterday, starting with her speech on NAFTA renegotiation at the University of Ottawa, followed by her appearance before the Commons trade committee to answer questions – however vaguely – about what the country’s priorities were. And while she did list ten things that Canada is looking for (compared the American wish list of 100 items), she didn’t bow to opposition pressure to negotiate in the media, or to lay out which of the items on that list were merely for show, whether that’s the proposed chapter on gender or Indigenous issues. It was driven home several times that yes, Supply Management is going to be defended (no matter how many times the different opposition parties have tried to play the game that only they truly love the system). And as for talk about things like harmonizing regulations – a constant promise that never seems to make much progress no matter which government is in power in either country – it has become clear that this is something that the government began doing their homework on since Trump began raising trade issues in the 2016 US election.

Meanwhile, Paul Wells evaluates Freeland’s deliberate vagueness in what she was trying to convey about the talks, while Andrew Coyne wonders if the Canadian government’s wishlist isn’t a deliberate attempt to sandbag the talks from the start, possibly in the hopes of keeping things status quo.

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Roundup: Concern trolling over tax loopholes

There’s been a great deal of concern trolling going on over the past few days when it comes to the planned changes to self-incorporation to close the tax loopholes found therein. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer tweeted out another of his disingenuous messages yesterday, talking about “hiking taxes” on doctors – who are leading the concern trolling charge against this closure of self-incorporation loopholes – which is not surprising, but nevertheless not exactly the truth about what is going on.

Meanwhile, economist Kevin Milligan has been dismantling the concern trolling arguments with aplomb, so I’ll let him take it from here:

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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: Amendment and attempted intimidation

As the spring sitting of Parliament draws to a close, and the Commons is getting tired and cranky as MPs are restlessly looking to get back to their ridings, all eyes are on the Senate to see if they’ll pass the budget bill unamended so that MPs can leave, or if they’ll be forced to stick around to deal with delays. It looks like the latter is going to happen after the Senate voted to adopt changes made at the committee that would remove the automatic escalator on beer and wine taxes. (There is some debate around this – while on the one hand there is the argument that increases won’t be scrutinized in future years by Parliament, there is also a reminder that the indexation fight was settled years ago).

So while this means that the Commons wasn’t able to rise last night, and may have to stick around until Thursday, depending on whether or not they pass it at Third Reading tonight, and how fast it takes the Commons to turn around a vote on accepting or rejecting (almost certainly the latter) the amendment.

But that’s not the only curious part of this tale. Apparently when the vote was about to happen, all manner of Liberal MPs and ministers arrived in the Senate to watch the vote happen – but not in the gallery. No, they were instead on the floor of the Senate, behind the bar at the entrance.

While this attempt at intimidation is quite unseemly in and of itself, I’ve also been hearing complaints that Senator Peter Harder, the Leader of the Government in the Senate – err, “government representative,” is admonishing senators not to amend bills this late in the game because recalling the House of Commons to pass or reject those amendments “is expensive.”

I. Can’t. Even.

Telling Senators not to do their constitutional duties of reviewing and amending legislation because it might inconvenience a few MPs is gob-smacking in and of itself, but couching it in dollar terms is beyond the pale. Apparently, we can only have parliamentary democracy if it’s done on the cheap. Why have oversight or hold the government to account if it’s going to cost any additional dollars? I guess we might as well pack it all in and roll over for the government – costs too much otherwise. Sweet Rhea mother of Zeus…

Update: It seems there were some Conservatives there as well.

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QP: Tired jabs and deficit questions

Nearly all the desks were filled on what was possibly the final QP of the spring. Andrew Scheer led off, concerned about the “astronomical” debt the Liberals were leaving behind (which, in absolute terms, is one of the envies of the world because it’s quite low). Justin Trudeau reminded him that they won the election on promises to invest. Scheer tried again, giving a lame “budgets don’t balance themselves” quip, and Trudeau again reminded him that they needed to invest after the previous government didn’t and hey, lower taxes for the middle class and the Canada Child Benefit. Scheer railed about all of the new taxes being levied (most of which were not new taxes but cancelled tax credits that had little efficacy), and the PM reiterated that he lowered taxes. Scheer jabbed that Trudeau had never been part of the middle class, and Trudeau hit back that boutique tax credits and lower taxes on the wealthiest didn’t help those who needed it the most. Scheer then turned to the new national security bill, saying it removed needed tools for law enforcement agencies. Trudeau noted that they were balancing community safety with rights and freedoms, and that they welcomed recommendations for amendments. Thomas Mulcair was up next, grousing that the government broke their promise on allowing Access to Information requests to ministers offices and the PMO. Trudeau simply noted that they made the biggest reforms to the bills and increased proactive disclosure. Mulcair tried again with added mocking, but Trudeau didn’t budge, and Mulcair then railed that they kicked journalists out of a party fundraiser. Trudeau reminded him that they have raised the bar on transparency and that other parties weren’t doing. Mulcair tried again in French, but Trudeau’s answer didn’t change.

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QP: Demands to split the bill

While it was a Monday with the Prime Minister present, the other major leaders weren’t, curiously enough. Alain Rayes led off for the Conservatives, demanding to know when the budget would be balanced. Justin Trudeau reminded him that they had a lot of priorities that they got elected on that they were delivering on after ten years of underinvestment by the previous government. Rayes then wondered why the government wouldn’t split out the Infrastructure Bank out of the budget bill, and Trudeau insisted that it was a centrepiece of the campaign and that there was a need for the Bank and its investments in infrastructure. Rayes tried again, got much the same answer, and then Candice Bergen tried again in English, calling it a slush fund. Trudeau repeated his same points about the need for investment in English, and when Bergen demanded a date for a balanced budget, Trudeau listed the ways in which voters repudiated them in the last election. Ruth Ellen Brosseau led off for the NDP, railing about NAFTA negotiations — including Supply Management, because it wouldn’t be a question from her without Supply Management — and Trudeau insisted that they were looking forward to sitting down with the Americans once negotiations start, but they would defend Canadian interests. After Brosseau asked the same in English and got the same answer, Matthew Dubé demanded that the Infrastructure Bank provisions be split out of the budget bill, and Trudeau noted that it was still a budgetary measure so it wasn’t an abuse of omnibus legislation and that he expected the Senate to pass budget bills passed by the Commons. Dubé switched to French to concern troll about how the Bank affects Quebec, and Trudeau responded that at some point, they needed to deliver on promises, and that was what the Bank was doing for Quebec and Canada.

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Roundup: Holding BC’s horses

The fact that the BC NDP and the provincial Green party has come to a “confidence agreement” has everyone buzzing about what could possibly happen in that province, and whether it spells the end of the BC Liberals’ long reign, and the obligation on the province’s Lieutenant Governor. But because most people – including most of the journalists covering this story – don’t have a clue about government formation in our Westminster system, let me offer a few pointers.

The first point is right now, this agreement changes nothing. Clark is still the premier and has not resigned. The LG can’t simply dismiss her because there is a potentially viable alternate government with an added extra seat in the wings. It doesn’t work that way. All that this changes is that if Clark tests the confidence of the legislature and loses, the LG has an added option to consider when it comes to whether or not to grant dissolution and a new election. While yes, there is this agreement, the LG will also have to consider the stability of an alternate government and you’ll forgive me if I treat the promise of a four-year agreement on the Green supporting supply and confidence votes to be dubious at best.

Why? Because this is politics. First of all, the difference in seats is so slight that once the Speaker is taken into consideration, there may not be an appreciable difference in stability. MLAs will have to have perfect voting attendance lest the government fall on bad math or the inability to come to some kind of “gentleman’s agreement” on paired votes when MLAs are forced to be absent. And let’s face it – the Greens will only abide by this agreement so long as it suits them, and this being politics, the thirst for more influence comes quickly. How long before they decide they don’t like the other items on the NDP agenda? Before they have a personality clash with the NDP leader (which the Green leader made a big deal about during the election campaign, despite their big smiles during their press conference yesterday). How long before the NDP tires of Green demands? The agreement is a political promise, and is easily broken for the sake of politics. The LG likely knows this and would be advised to take the “four year” promise with a shaker full of salt.

It’s also notable that the two parties didn’t enter into a coalition agreement, which is part of what makes stability a real issue. The Greens were unlikely to want to be in a genuine coalition because of the issue of needing to adhere to cabinet solidary (and secrecy). They probably feel that they can throw their weight around more when they can public threaten to hold their breath until their “partners” accede to their demands, and this is significant for the sake of stability, despite the protestations that they want to make this work as a test case for proportional representation (even though PR generally necessitates actual coalitions).

And let’s not forget that Christy Clark is a formidable retail politician, and what’s going to matter is how she sells defeat or a request for dissolution. The narrative she builds will matter in the end, and we can’t underestimate that.

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