Roundup: Union concoctions and opportunism

In the event that you’ve tuned out of the Bill Morneau/Bill C-27 conspiracy theory – and if you have, I don’t blame you – there was a big fuss a few days ago made of the fact that the postal employees’ union made a big deal about trying to get the Ethics Commissioner to investigate this weeks ago, and now that Nathan Cullen managed to get Mary Dawson to turn her attention to it, they’re crowing with a bit of victory, and still demanding that the bill be withdrawn. Given how ludicrous the whole story remains – remember that government bills are tabled on behalf of the cabinet as a whole, and that ministers don’t sponsor bills because they have a personal interest in them, but rather because they need to answer on behalf of their departments – I’ve largely just rolled my eyes at ongoing coverage, but it was flagged to me a couple of times yesterday that Terence Corcoran wrote a piece about how this little episode proves some of the underlying dynamics behind this ongoing campaign against Morneau and his integrity – that it’s less about any actual ethical issues than it has been about trying to get him to withdraw Bill C-27, because it’s antithetical to the interests of unions and their desires to ensure that everyone has a defined benefit pension plan (even though the economics of that demand aren’t there, and that the actuarial tables will show that they haven’t been sustainable because people stopped smoking two packs a day and are now living longer).

The problem with Corcoran’s piece is that it really only applies to the NDP’s interests. After all, the Conservatives were talking about targeted benefit pensions for years, and were making moves in that direction, which is why Morneau, in his previous life, was talking about their virtues – a cardinal sin in NDP eyes. But for the Conservatives, this is simply a matter of opportunism – they think that they can wound him, and if they have to play along with the NDP to do it, so be it they will. And thus, we are enduring day after day of attacks in QP that are showcased with mendacious framing devices and disingenuous questions, unrelated facts arranged in ways to look damning, never mind that they don’t line up with reality or with our parliamentary norms (such as this absurd demand that the Ethics Commissioner should have somehow vetted this before the bill was tabled. That’s now how our system works, and it would have been a violation of cabinet secrecy and parliamentary privilege). But even as opportunistic as this is, one has to wonder how much longer this will last.

One of the most veteran reporters sat with me in QP yesterday, and asked me this very question – how long can they hope to stretch this story? There’s little basis to it, and yet day after day, they carry on with these absurd demands for information that are already publicly disclosed, and outrage that is running on fumes. Meanwhile, actual, verifiable problems that should be addressed are going unsaid, day after day. It’s a little mystifying when you actually stop to think about it.

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Roundup: Caretakers and emergencies

The situation in BC, where there is an emergency situation of wildfires and evacuations in the midst of a change of government, can be pretty instructive as to how our system of government works. Right now, as with during an election period, the machinery of government goes into “caretaker” mode, and because Christy Clark remains the premier until the moment John Horgan is sworn in, she is able to respond to the situation as she is doing now.

This is why, after Clark’s visit to the lieutenant governor, the statement from the LG was that she “will accept her resignation,” not that Clark has resigned on the spot.

Why is this important? Because the Crown must always have someone to advise them, especially in circumstances like this. Add to that, we have a professional, non-partisan civil service means that they are already in place, and don’t need to have a massive new appointment spree to fill the upper layers like they do in the US. That means that they can respond to these kinds of situations, and while the caretaker government gives the orders, the incoming government’s transition team is being briefed so that they can handoff the files when they form government. It’s an elegant system that we’re lucky to have.

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Roundup: Lighting a fire under the minister

It’s been a year since the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Jordan, which set upper limits for trial delays, and so The Canadian Press had a couple of good pieces on it today, both looking at the fallout in terms of what needs to change in the justice system, as well as looking at the numbers of cases that have applied or been granted a stay of proceedings owing to delays that have been deemed unreasonable. I will note that while justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould says that the decision “lit a fire” under her, she’s been agonizingly slow in responding.

I write a lot for the Law Times, and I talk to a lot of players in the legal community, and there has been a sense of mystification as to what all of the delays are. The fact that it took her a year to start the process of reforming how judges are appointed was baffling, and that slowed down the process for making said appointments – especially as some of the committees advising on appointments still aren’t up and running, six months later. While more appointments are finally being made, it’s taken a long time and it’ll take even longer for those judges to be fully prepared and worked into the system.

There is the legislation that has been coming out in drips and drabs. For example, they made a big deal about a bill that would finally equalise the age of consent for gay sex, but then abandoned said bill to roll those provisions into a larger bill on doing away with “zombie laws” that have been struck down but remain on the books. How much time and energy was spent on that abandoned bill? We keep hearing about the big promised justice reforms promise – looking at the Criminal Code, sentencing, bail, the works, but we’re nearly two years in, and there’s still no sign of them. Yes, they’re big files, but this is nearly the halfway point in the mandate, and big, complicated files like that are going to take time to get through Parliament – especially in the more independent Senate where they will face pushback from law-and-order Conservatives who are looking to hold onto the “reforms” of the previous government.

And then there are the whispers about Wilson-Raybould’s office. There is a constant churn of staff, but not before great delays when it comes to actually filling positions, like the judicial affairs advisor – a pretty key role that took months and months to fill. And if these kinds of necessary staffing decisions are taking forever, what does that mean for the managerial skills of the minister? There are whispers in the legal community, and they’re not too flattering. So when Wilson-Raybould says that Jordan lit a fire under her, one shudders to think about the pace of progress had it not.

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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: A reasonable plea for restitution

Retired Senator Sharon Carstairs is looking to be reimbursed for some $80,000 in legal fees after being caught up in the Auditor General’s report on expenses, and it’s a tale that exposes how shabbily many senators were treated in the wake of that report. To recap, that AG report essentially made up a bunch of rules that did not exist, particularly around how many days a year constituted “primary residency,” which Carstairs got caught up in. And in a rush to show the public that they were taking this report seriously, the Senate turned over the report directly to the RCMP, and Carstairs was left trying to keep her reputation intact, hence retaining counsel and trying to explain that she hadn’t broken any rules.

What needs to be repeated again with this story is just how problematic that AG report was. When the Senate later retained its own counsel to go over that report to see if they should try to sue any of the senators who had refused to repay or seek arbitration for the identified sums (which included Carstairs), that legal review laid bare the arbitrary rules that the AG imposed as part of his review, and essentially how shoddily it was done. And I know several senators who simply opted to pay back the sum rather than keep fighting it because they wanted it to go away – Carstairs refused, and it looks like she’s going to be punished for it, whether financially with the loss (the maximum reimbursement for legal fees under Senate rules is generally $25,000), but also with the loss of reputation. I would hope that the Senate has had enough time since the audit that they can now revisit this case and offer the apology and what restitution they can, and admit that they were hasty in their actions because they were trying to appease a public that was baying for blood post-Duffy, for what good it did them. I would also hope that more of my media colleagues would also start calling out the AG for the problems in his report when cases like Carstairs’ come up again in the media, but I suspect that won’t happen, as we pay far too much deference to him as being untouchable and infallible, when clearly that’s not the case.

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Roundup: Let’s not efface Langevin

A group of Indigenous MPs, along with the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, are calling on the government to rename the Langevin Block – the building that houses the PMO – because it is named after one of the architects of residential schools. And while I understand and respect their feelings on the matter, I would like to add that I think this would be a mistake. Why? Because the average Canadian doesn’t know who Hector-Louis Langevin was, and what his role in residential schools was (let alone that he was a Father of Confederation), so to further efface his name is actually a disservice to the spirit of reconciliation, which they say that this is a part of. What I would suggest instead are additions to the plaque explaining the building and the name, and for signage inside the building, to remind the denizens about the consequences of actions that may be have been well-intentioned at the time. And we have no reason to think that Langevin himself was especially malevolent, but was merely a product of his time. There was all manner of racist policies by the government because that was how they understood the world to be. It’s also a question of who’s next after Langevin? Sir John A Macdonald? I think that we would all be better off to confront Langevin’s legacy and to spell it out to people that what a party does in government can echo for generations and be completely devastating. It would be a reminder for all time that deeds and misdeeds have consequences. And the PMO being confronted with that on a daily basis would seem to me to do more for reconciliation than simply effacing the name and giving it something trite like the “Reconciliation Building” (as Calgary renamed their Langevin Bridge). Let’s teach history – not bury it, which removing the name would be.

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QP: Demands to denounce Trump

A less somber day in the Commons, and things were getting back to normal. Such as normal is in this place. Rona Ambrose led off, declaring that Justin Trudeau broke the Conflict of Interest Code with his vacation with the Aga Khan, and Trudeau reminded her that all questions from the Ethics Commissioner would be answered. Ambrose said that this was a distraction from him doing his job to create jobs, and Trudeau disputed this, stating that he was focused on the middle class and recited actions taken such as tax cuts. Ambrose worried about the possibility of taxing dental and health benefits, but Trudeau repeated his question. Ambrose reiterated the question on benefit plans, and Trudeau merely told her to wait for the upcoming budget. Switching to French, Ambrose then asked about changes coming to the US plunging Canada into a recession. Trudeau noted the beneficial trade relationship that we have with the States, at they would be reiterating this. Thomas Mulcair was up next, demanding that Trudeau stand up to Trump’s racism and hatred. Trudeau noted this twin challenges of ensuring Canadian jobs, and standing up for Canadian values. Mulcair wanted an unequivocal yes or no in French, but Trudeau wouldn’t give him one. Mulcair then switched to the issue of electoral reform and whether the promise was dead, but Trudeau said that they would keep working on it. Mulcair asked again in English, and Trudeau reiterated his happy talking points about working with Canadians to improve our democracy.

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Roundup: Lamenting the regional ministries

Agriculture minister Lawrence MacAulay told his local paper that he’s not too concerned that the minister in charge of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency isn’t from the region, but that he’s a Central Canadian, but hey, he’s gotten results so it’s all good. And then people went insane because how dare the government not have a regional development minister from the region, ignoring that the policy of this government has been to eschew the tradition of regional ministers writ large, and that all regional development agencies all report to the same minister – the industry minister – rather than spreading it around to a number of ministers of state (and bloating the size of cabinet while you’re at it). And then from there comes the perennial outrage that we have regional representation at the cabinet level, which ignores that cabinet positions are not actually something that requires subject matter expertise, but that it’s a political position that is largely based on managerial competence, which is fine, particularly under a system of Responsible Government that the legislature can hold them to account for the performance of their duties. After all, they have the civil service to do the subject-matter expertise part for them, and it’s the job of ministers to make decisions that they can then be held to account for. But a few of the exchanges were at least worth noting.

Most of those were all well and good, but this one from Candice Bergen caught my eye, because it actually highlights something that has largely been ignored.

While it may be a little overwrought, the point about centralizing power in the PMO is actually quite astute, and fits the pattern of centralization that Trudeau has been entirely underreported. Within the Liberal Party itself, Trudeau has convinced the party to abolish its regional powerbases and centralize it all within his own office under the guise of “modernization” and “being more responsive.” Once could very well argue that eliminating regional minister has a similar effect. That said, one could also argue that the purpose of regional minister was about pork-barrelling and doing the partisan work of securing votes from those very same regions for the government’s benefit, so their loss wouldn’t be too deeply felt in a move to make a system built to be more responsive to evidence than political consideration. Regardless, the propensity of this prime minister to consolidate power should not be underestimated, and this is something we should absolutely be keeping an eye on.

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Roundup: A warning or a betrayal?

Justin Trudeau made some comments to Le Devoir about the reduced sense of urgency around electoral reform, and a bunch of people – notably the NDP – freaked out. Trudeau said:

Under Stephen Harper, there were so many people unhappy with the government and their approach that people were saying, ‘It will take electoral reform to no longer have a government we don’t like’. But under the current system, they now have a government they’re more satisfied with and the motivation to change the electoral system is less compelling.

And then comes the parsing of the rhetoric – is he trying to walk back on his election promise that 2015 was the last election under first-past-the-post, or is he trying to give signals to the electoral reform committee as they begin to draft their report after their summer of consultations across the country? To the NDP (and Ed Broadbent of his eponymously named Institute), Trudeau’s comments are a betrayal because to them, he can only deliver proportional representation or bust. Their working premise is that Trudeau was saying that because the system elected Liberals it’s fine, but when it elected Conservatives, it was broken. But I’m not sure that’s what Trudeau was actually saying, because the prevailing popular discussion pre-election was that reform was needed because any system that delivered Conservative majorities was deemed illegitimate – one of those kinds of talking points that gives me hives because it presumes that electoral reform needs to be done for partisan reasons. And to that extent, Trudeau is right, that the sense of urgency has decreased because the Conservatives are no longer in power, so there’s less clamour for it to happen. There is also the theory that what Trudeau was signalling was that there are degrees of acceptable change, and that without as much broad support that smaller change like ranked ballots could be something he would push through (seeing as we all know that the committee is going to be deadlocked).

Kady O’Malley, on the other hand, thinks that Trudeau is signalling to the NDP and Greens that they should be willing to compromise on PR during the committee deliberations, or he’ll deem it a stalemate and either walk away or put it to a referendum, where it would almost certainly be doomed. Rona Ambrose says that it could signal that Trudeau is backing down, which the Conservatives would like (and to be perfectly honest, I would too because the system is not broken and electoral reform is a solution in search of a problem). That he may have found the excuse to back down and admit this election promise is a failure – and then move on – would be the ideal move in my most humble opinion.

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Roundup: Unseen consequences and consolidating power

In discussions around the Senate modernization report earlier this week came the question of fallout from Justin Trudeau’s decision to kick his senators out of national caucus, and how that spurred part of the reform discussion within the upper chamber (the interminable Duffy-and-company related expense issues being another of those triggers). While Paul Wells notes some of those consequences and how the decision was a good foretelling of Justin Trudeau’s management style, comments made by Senator Serge Joyal also caught my attention, particularly around the unintended consequences of the banishment.

One of the things about having senators in national caucus is that they have the benefit of being the institutional memory of parliament, because they’re there over the course of several parliaments and aren’t prone to a lot of turnover like the House of Commons is. That means they’re not always finding their feet like MPs are, or concerned about their own re-election, like MPs are, and they’ve also been there and done that with a lot of proposals that keep coming around. Kicking senators out of caucus is to forgo a lot of that knowledge and experience which is bad enough, but Joyal pointed to another problem, which is that it points to even greater centralisation of power by the leader’s office because there are no longer senators in the room to tell newbie MPs when they are or aren’t bound to follow leaders’ orders. And that’s actually a pretty salient point considering the context of Trudeau and the his own power consolidation.

By being chosen in the manner that he was – by “supporters” as opposed to caucus or even party membership, Trudeau is accountable to nobody, his selection base being so diffuse and nebulous that it could not be replicated. That allows him to argue that he has the “democratic legitimacy” to do what he wants, and demands that caucus fall into line as a result. One of his earliest actions was to kick out senators, while ostensibly about making the upper chamber “more independent,” which in a sense it will, but it also removes those voices from his caucus that can speak up about any way in which he may be inappropriately using his powers as leader. Add to that the way in which he and his team managed to push through changes to the party’s constitution that centralises policy-making into his office (under the rubric of being “more responsive” and “more modern”) and eliminated any regional power bases that could challenge his supremacy as leader, well, the picture starts getting all the more clear, that he has consolidated a very great amount of power at the expense of his party’s grassroots and caucus, more than any other party leader has in this country thus far, and that should be concerning to anyone who respects the particular accountability mechanisms inherent in the Westminster system. Joyal is right to make this point, but one suspects that few people are willing to listen, chalking his concerns up to the wounded feelings of being turfed. They’re not, and we should be paying attention to this consolidation of power.

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