Roundup: Demands for MP parental leave

Some MPs are looking for changes to the Parliament of Canada Act in order to better accommodate parental leaves, given that they have no provision for them, and MPs start getting salaries clawed back if they miss more than 21 sitting days. (Mind you, records of those absences aren’t made public, so we have no way of checking). And while I’m sympathetic to the notion that there is no parental leave, I find myself sighing because there is this constant need by MPs and the press to describe Parliament as a “workplace,” and try and ham-fistedly force a number of hackneyed comparisons to justify it.

No. Parliament is not a “workplace.” And MPs most certainly are not employees.

I understand that it’s a job that’s not the friendliest for new parents. And I get that there is this desire to get younger voices into parliament, and there is a need to facilitate them, which is great. But I get very, very nervous every time MPs start talking about how they want to start changing things to make the place more “family friendly,” because every time they’ve done that to date, they’ve made things worse. Eliminating evening sittings to be more “family friendly” had a devastating effect on collegiality because MPs no longer ate together three nights a week. Now they’re looking to avoid coming to Ottawa altogether, instead appearing by videoconference instead, and no doubt they’ll demand to be able to vote remotely as well. And that is a bridge too far.

When you get elected, it’s to do the job in Ottawa. Work in the riding is secondary to your role as an MP, and that role is to hold government to account. Meeting constituents, while good small-p politics, is a secondary consideration to your duties. And the added danger in appearing remotely is not only a further breakdown in what remains of collegiality, it’s that the lack of facetime with other MPs and with witnesses who appear at committees means that there is no ability to forge connections or have off-script conversations, which are the lifeblood of politics. You need to show up to do the job. Your job is to be in Ottawa to vote and be seen voting, and to attend debate and committees. You knew that when you ran for office, and you knew that when you decided to have a child while in office. Trying to do this job remotely means that soon every MP will start to demand it, until the Commons is reduced to a small cadre of people there to fulfil quorum while everyone else attends to the “very important business” in their ridings.

The other point is that these MPs are not lacking in resources when it comes to finding childcare solutions – they are very well compensated, and can afford options that most Canadians can’t. That does matter in the equation, and why my sympathy has its limits.

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Roundup: Some actual accountability

If there’s one committee of the House of Commons that I wish I could spend more time following, it’s the Public Accounts committee. It may not be one of the sexier committees tackling the hot issues of the day, but instead, it’s the heart and soul of what parliament is about – holding the government to account. Alas, my day-to-day work means that I don’t have the time to follow it like I did in years gone by, but I try to keep an eye on them when I can.

In the wake of the latest Auditor General’s report, the committee’s vice-chairs – NDP and Liberal, as the Conservatives chair this particular committee, as one might expect for a committee dedicated to holding the government accountable – are vowing that they will hold hearings on each chapter of the latest report (rather than just selected ones) because they are concerned about his level of frustration that departments aren’t keeping their focus on how services are delivered to citizens (rather than their own internal processes), and more than that, they plan to keep calling back senior civil servants to ensure that they’re shaping up. This can only be a good thing.

Over the past few years, that committee has been more stringent in ensuring that they get progress reports from departments on implementing recommendations from AG reports, but now it looks like they’re willing to go a bit further, which is encouraging. This is the kind of work that frankly, we don’t see enough of from MPs, so I’m glad it’s not only getting done, but getting a bit of attention. That can only bode well for parliamentary democracy.

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Roundup: The Meilleur problem

The feigned outrage over Madeleine Meilleur’s nomination as the new Official Languages Commissioner, combined with the disingenuous concern over the search for a new Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, is really starting to annoy me – particularly because of the way in which things are being spun, and the abject hypocrisy of it all. As for Meilleur’s surprise that this has become an Issue amidst a snake nest of partisans looking to stir things up and try and throw as much mud on the PM as they can, I have to say Oh, come on. You were in Queen’s Park. You know that they’ll play politics over this. Because seriously.

To start with, I will take note of Meilleur telling an interviewer that she had initially thought about applying to be a Senator to continue to contribute to public life now that she had resigned from Queen’s Park. While I continue to object to the self-identification process that this government has put into place (because why not try to get every narcissist in the country to hand in a CV?), the fact that she was told by the head of the selection committee that recent politicians were verboten in the “newly independent” Chamber is kind of infuriating. Why? Because the Senate is Parliament’s institutional memory. It’s a Good Thing to have some experienced political players in there, from both federal and provincial sides, so that they can be of use to Parliament as that institutional memory. That Trudeau seems keen to destroy that function of it is a problem.

As for Meilleur meeting with Gerald Butts and Katie Telford, I’m far less sold that this is somehow suspicious partisan work. They are contacts she had from their mutual time at Queen’s Park, and she was looking for ways to contribute, and hey, they’re people who would have some ideas. You realise that trying to make a Thing out of it is childish, right? Is the fact that she was once a provincial Liberal a problem for the job? Perhaps, if she didn’t have the qualifications for it. But by all accounts, she is more than qualified, which makes the partisan gamesmanship all the pettier. And to hear the party that appointed Vic Toews to the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench rail on about how terrible this is, I have little patience for their arguments.

Meanwhile, as for the Conservatives’ demands that the process for the new Ethics Commissioner be turned over to a third party, I have a couple of things to say: one is that this is a democracy and not a technocracy, so stop trying to offload political decisions to outsiders; two is that you get to hold the government to account for the choices that are made; and three, demanding a retired judge make the selection, when the criteria specifies that the new Commissioner should be a former judge or head of a tribunal, you’re just creating a new conflict of interest because you’re asking said judge to appoint a former colleague. How is this any better? Seriously, do you people not stop to think for one second about your supposed attempts at being clever? Honest to gods, you people.

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Roundup: Ontario’s “basic income” scheme a bit suspect

The province of Ontario decided that it was going ahead with a three-year pilot project around basic incomes in three municipalities around the province – Hamilton, Thunder Bay, and Lindsay, each testing different circumstances and local conditions. But there are problems with the way this is all designed, which Kevin Milligan (who has been studying this issue) outlines:

In other words, this isn’t really basic income, which makes it all that much harder to actually evaluate its efficacy, and if it’s not displacing existing welfare or benefit programmes, then it’s not really recouping those costs which makes this hideously expensive. And that’s really been the biggest problem with basic income proposals – the cost. While the idea is that they would displace current benefit programmes, there is less money to be had in cutting the red tape and bureaucracy than one might think, and I’m pretty sure that Bill Gates’ idea of taxing robots to pay for basic income for the workers they displace isn’t really feasible either.

Oh, and then there are the political considerations.

With an election not too far off in this province, we’ve seen a few moves by this government to try and out-left the NDP in places, hoping to cobble together the same sort of winning voter base that they managed to in their last election, and which their federal counterparts similarly managed in 2015. While I get the merits of basic income, I remain dubious of its feasibility, especially when this pilot project appears to be so poorly designed. But then again, I’m not an economist.

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Roundup: $3 billion or else

Rarely does a day go by that the government doesn’t like to rub the Liberals’ noses in their past on defence spending, and that line “decade of darkness” is uttered. Never mind, of course, that it was Paul Martin that started the major recapitalisation of the Forces – no, the Conservatives like to take ownership of it. The problem is that all the money they poured into the Forces was almost immediately clawed back as their own spending restraints kicked in, most of the capital projects have been for naught thanks to botched procurement process after botched procurement process, and now, they’re facing the real killer – inflation. While sure, they may have poured in a high dollar amount of money at one point, those funds are being eaten away at by inflation as it goes unspent on said aforementioned capital projects, and it buys fewer and fewer ships and planes than it might have when it was supposed to go forward. Now, the Parliamentary Budget Officer is warning that the current spending is unsustainable, and unless the government can pour at least another $3 billion every year into the Forces, that they’re going to have to start cutting capabilities within three years. It must be pretty sobering, but even when these kinds of figures have been presented in the past, the government’s response is always “DECADE OF DARKNESS! MOST MONEY INTO THE FORCES EVER!” without those figures ever really bearing out. But hey, so long as they look like the only party to care about the armed forces, right?

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Roundup: Contradictions over a niqab policy

It’s definitely starting to look like there’s a either a rift forming in the NDP when it comes to their position on the niqab, or they’re saying one thing in English and another in French, trying to please both audiences in contradiction to the other. Alexandre Boulerice went on Quebec media to talk about the need to keep it out of the civil service, and that we need a national Bouchard-Taylor-esque commission to determine reasonable accommodation for religious minorities around the country – because that worked so well in Quebec, and apparently the rest of the country has the same insecurities around multiculturalism that we need to develop some kind of nonsense term like “interculturalism” to cover for assimilationist policies. Meanwhile, in English, MPs like Paul Dewar and Pat Martin are saying there’s no issue with the niqab and no party policy around it, and Thomas Mulcair has been dancing around the issue when asked directly, talking only about how the Federal Court judgement on the citizenship ceremony issue went to process – a ministerial decree – than the substance of the niqab issue. And if you thought that Boulerice was just freelancing that opinion, it was being tweeted out by the party’s official French Twitter Machine account, and give the degree to which communications are centralised in that party (possibly worse than the Conservative centralisation), it would seem to indicate that such a message has been officially sanctioned, and that the party looks to be trying to please different audiences in the country with contradictory messages. Meanwhile, The Canadian Press took their Baloney Meter™ to the Conservative claims around the niqab ban for citizenship ceremonies (spoiler: It’s full of baloney).

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Roundup: Expats voting restored

An Ontario superior court judge has struck down provisions that prevent Canadian ex-pats from voting in federal elections, despite living abroad. Considering that we vote for local constituency MPs, and not parties or leaders, one does wonder how we will determine who these ex-pats will vote for, seeing as they don’t have a current riding for whom they are choosing an MP to represent them in. While some jurisdictions that allow expats to vote decide this on the basis of their last Canadian address, it does make one wonder about that kind of determination as riding boundaries change and you have more people voting at that address than are currently registered. Or maybe I’m letting reality and the rules of the way things work get in the way of more abstract feelings about democracy once again.

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QP: Shuffled sparring partners

After two weeks away, MPs were back and ready to carry on with the Grand Inquest of the Nation. With Harper still off in Europe, it was a question as to whether there would be a front-bench babysitter answering questions, or just ministers and parliamentary secretaries in the leaders’ round. Thomas Mulcair led off by asking about the situation in Ukraine, and David Anderson read a pro forma statement about travel bans and economic sanctions. Mulcair then turned to the Supreme Court ruling on the Nadon reference, and wondered if the government would accept the ruling. Peter MacKay stood up to reiterate that they got legal opinions beforehand, that they were surprised by the decision, and they felt that Nadon was a legal expert, and would study the decision. Mulcair then asked if the new minister of finance would abandon the national securities regulator project. Joe Oliver, in his debut answer in his new role, but said that he would wait for the new critic to ask in order to be fair to him after he took such a major pay cut. Mulcair then moved onto the elections bill, and Pierre Poilievre invited Mulcair to call witnesses before the committee, saying the bill would “protect” our system of democracy. Scott Brison led off for the Liberals, and asked about the coming cuts to infrastructure funds. Denis Lebel answered that they were increasing funds. Brison reminded him that the funding commitments were back-end loaded and that communities would have to hike property taxes in the interim, but Lebel insisted the preamble was wrong. Marc Garneau took another stab at the question in French, and got the same answer from Lebel.

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Roundup: Denying a green light

Drama in the Liberal ranks in preparation for a by-election in Trinity Spadina, as the nomination front-runner was apparently refused a green light from the Ontario Campaign Co-Chair because Christine Innes and her husband, former MP and junior minister Tony Ianno were accused of intimidating and bullying volunteers. Apparently they were telling these volunteers that their futures in the party would be over if they were on the “wrong side” of a nomination battle, meaning the future riding redistribution and their support for Chrystia Freeland. Innes put out a statement alleging backroom strong-arm tactics and that she refused to be “assigned” a riding to run in, which went against the promise of open nominations. The party responded that it was a request to keep candidates focused on the by-election, and not future nomination battles against incumbent MPs, which sounds like what the intimidation was about. As the battle waged over Twitter, the partisan concern trolling from all sides got cute, but the accusations of sexism because she was denied the green light over the actions of her husband do seem a bit over the top.

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Roundup: Reading his own report wrong

Harry Neufeld, former chief electoral officer of BC and author of a report on voter irregularities in the last federal election wants it to be made clear that said report didn’t say there was fraud. Pierre Poilievre, who likes to cite that report, decided to double down and actually say that Neufeld was reading his own report wrong. No, seriously. Neufeld, incidentally, says that many of the incidents of “fraud” that people insist happen are urban myths that have been repeated so often that people start to believe them without actually witnessing it happen. Andrew Coyne shreds the Fair Elections Act and quite correctly points out that while there are a few good points in the bill, the closer one looks at it, the worse it gets and becomes untenable.

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