No, Elizabeth May, that’s not what “loose fish” means

(Note: This had been submitted as an op-ed that wasn’t picked up. I’m posting it here instead).

In Monday’s National Post, a section of Elizabeth May’s chapter in Turning Democracy Inside Out: Practical Ideas for Reforming Democracy was republished, in which May called for parties to essentially be abolished, and for the prime minister to be elected from the Commons as a whole at the beginning of each parliament. The problem? That May was wrong in both her history and her understanding of what Responsible Government means, which undermines her argument and spreads dangerous misinformation about how our democratic system is supposed to work.

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Roundup: Earnest Scott Simms

As is becoming a daily occurrence, we have yet another voice weighing in on the Standing Orders debate, and this time, it’s the mover of the motion that’s causing so much Sturm und Drang in the House of Commons (and the Procedure and House Affairs committee) right now – Scott Simms. Simms, I believe quite earnestly, insists that we need to give reform a chance, and he lists all of the wonderful things he hopes to happen out of Bardish Chagger’s discussion paper, and I believe he’s earnest because he has recently co-edited a book on parliamentary reform with noted notoriously wrong-headed would-be reformers Michael Chong and Kennedy Stewart.

Of course, nothing in these proposals will fix what ails parliament, and will only create more problems than it solves. We’ve established this time and again, and I’ve written a book to this effect, but the problems are not structural. MPs, however, don’t necessarily see that because they’re trapped in a sick and dysfunctional parliamentary culture and looking around for fixes, they see some levers that look easy to pull, never mind that those levers will make things worse. Digging into the underlying cultural problems are harder to see and do, and that’s why MPs have been assiduously avoiding them, but we shouldn’t let them get away with it. Granted, it would be far more helpful if more members of the media could see that fact as well and not get lured by the shiny reform ideas that keep getting floated around, followed by the drama of the outrage, which is all too easy to get sucked into. Because who doesn’t love drama?

So with all due respect to Simms, no, the time for being open-minded about these reform ideas has passed. We’ve lurched from one bad reform idea to another for the past half century (century if you want to count the granddaddy of all disastrous reforms, which the Liberals promulgated in 1919 when they changed the leadership selection process) and things haven’t gotten any better. It’s time to take that hard look at where things are situated, and means slapping MPs’ hands away from those shiny, easy-looking levers. It’s time to have a meaningful re-engagement with the system, and nothing in these discussion paper ideas does that. In fact, it does the opposite.

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Roundup: Two yays and a nay

The government announced its decisions on three pipelines yesterday – no to Northern Gateway (and a tanker ban on the north coast of BC was also reaffirmed), but yes to Kinder Morgan expansion and Line 3 to the United States. There are a lot of people not happy on either side – the Conservatives are upset that Northern Gateway also didn’t get approved, saying this was just a political decision, and the NDP and Greens (and the mayor of Vancouver) unhappy about the Kinder Morgan announcement, Elizabeth May going so far as to say that she’s willing to go to jail for protesting it.

None of this should be a surprise to anyone, as Trudeau has pretty much telegraphed these plans for weeks, if not months. And as for the critics, well, Robyn Urback makes the point that I do believe that Trudeau was going for:

In fact, Trudeau said as much yesterday in QP when he noted that they were sitting between a party demanding blanket approvals on everything, and another party opposed to approving anything, so that was where he preferred to be. He’s spending some political capital on this decision, including with some of his own caucus members who are not fans of the Kinder Morgan expansion, but he has some to spare, so we’ll see whether he’s picked up any support in the west, or lost any on the west coast when this all blows over.

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Roundup: Referendum lies and demagoguery

So, the electoral reform committee was back again yesterday, and they heard from two academics – one was an avid proponent of proportional representation that Elizabeth May fangirled over so hard, while the other was a former Quebec MNA who spearheaded that province’s failed attempt at moving to a multi-member PR system. There wasn’t much takeaway from either, other than Arend Lijphart (the former of the two) was a big fan of multi-member ridings in Canada (because apparently the problem of enormous rural ridings escapes him), and the fact that he felt that we should avoid a referendum because like Brexit, it would fall victim to demagoguery and “outright lies.”

To which I immediately have to ask – whose lies? The proponents of the status quo, or those of the advocates of PR? Because having seen both in the state of the debate so far, they’re equally odious. How about the lies that majority governments formed under our system are “illegitimate?” Because Lijphart was peddling that one. Or the lies about “38 percent of the vote gets 100 percent of the power”? Because a) the popular vote figure doesn’t actually exist (it’s a logical fallacy based on a misreading of our elections as a single event when they’re 338 separate but simultaneous events), and b) even in proportional systems, parties don’t get a share of power equal to their share of the vote, particularly if they are not part of the governing coalition and even if they are, the “share” of power will not be equal to their vote share. How about the lies about how voter turnout will suddenly blossom under PR? Because research has demonstrated that the most increase we might see is maybe three percent (because declining turnout in Western democracies is a widespread problem that has nothing to do with the electoral systems but rather a great many other factors). How about the common lies of PR advocates that votes are “wasted” and that they don’t count if the person they voted for doesn’t win, and that they system is so unfair? Are those lies any better than the ones about how a PR system would turn us into Israel or Italy and we would have nothing but unstable governments, and the sun would become black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon become as blood? Or are the lies that PR advocates tell okay because they’re well intentioned and lies about a future full of rainbows, gumdrops and unicorns better than lies about doom and destruction? Is pro-PR demagoguery morally superior to the demagoguery of status-quo doomsayers? That’s what I’d like to know.

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Roundup: Taking yet more wrong lessons

Another day, another column with a plaintive wail that Proportional Representation (PR) is really nothing like its critics say – really! And like Andrew Coyne last week, this defence by Devon Rowcliffe for relies again on comparisons that are problematic. The argument that small parties better reflect our diverse society ignores that large brokerage parties that exist in this country are adaptable and diverse in their own right, and seek to attract diverse candidates. Many countries that rely on PR systems are fairly ethnically homogenous, and I would be concerned that a system that privileges smaller ideological parties would also favour parties founded on ethnic nationalism – a party of Sikh voices or Ismaili Muslims, for example. There are plenty of stories that exist among people who currently organise in our system about attempts by these communities to turn themselves into voting blocs for one party or another, and in a system that privileges those kind of blocs with the promise of outsized power – as opposed to one that diffuses these differences among the many factions being brokered into a big tent – there would be the danger of rewarding sectarianism, which would do nothing for social unity. And no, Canada is not New Zealand, so trying to force that comparison is yet another attempt to draw lessons that may not be applicable.

Rowcliffe also cites that there’s no real fear of unstable coalition governments, and then cites the Danish political drama Borgen as an example of this in action, apparently taking the wrong lessons as every other episode of Borgen that I’ve seen (granted, I’m only into the second season currently) has the coalition being in danger of falling apart because one party or another that forms it is looking to leverage their way into more power or influence. Look at the Liberal Democrats in the UK! You mean the part where the party was virtually wiped out in the next election? Shouting “Stephen Harper!” as an excuse to implement PR ignores that there was a significant following for Harper and his policies at the time, and it should not bear repeating but trying to change the voting system to keep out a party you don’t’ like is a very poor reason to do it because that leads to all manner of unintended consequences. Pointing to the 1993 election as examples where the current system has failed ignores both the circumstances around it and the fact that it was a blip and not the norm (not to mention that once again, the logical fallacy of the popular vote is cited as being a real figure when it is not, and hence the epithet of the system being “broken and archaic” is reliant on a lie).

One last point, which is that constantly whining about how unfair the current system is to the Green Party (as Rowcliffe borders on) ignores that the Green Party is not a grown-up political party. It’s a loose collection of conspiracy theory-minded hippies and bitter Red Tories with a policy development system that consistently falls prey to marginal groups like “Men’s Rights Activists,” and their inability to effectively organize or come up with a coherent policy book is not the fault of the system. Pretending otherwise ignores the facts for the sake of sore loserism.

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Roundup: Begrudging a day off

There was a good piece in Policy Options yesterday from Jennifer Ditchburn which talked about the problem of “vacation shaming” politicians, in light of Justin Trudeau making his first public statements about the Aaron Driver case almost a week after it happened, as part of Trudeau’s Atlantic Canada tour. There is a problem with expecting the PM to be on call for cameras at a moment’s notice, as the Conservatives certainly seem to be demanding, decrying his absence when bad economic numbers came down a few weeks ago, or when the Driver incident happened. But relevant, competent ministers stood up when those things happened, and it’s not like the Prime Minister could have said or done anything that would have added to the situation other than to be the face of it, when he’s made it clear that his is a government by cabinet, and that means that the responsible ministers get to be the ones that get in front of the cameras when things in their bailiwick happen, and guess what – they did.

Ditchburn also makes the very apt points that for everyone who says that they want better work-life balance, especially for MPs, demanding that they be every present fro the media goes counter to that desire, particularly when we badmouth them for being open about taking a day or a week off. The wailing and gnashing of teeth over the day off he took during the visit to Japan was outsized and ridiculous, and we’re seeing much the same thing here, compounded with the beating of breasts over the international coverage that people catching a glimpse of said PM with his shirt off. It’s excessive and it’s only fouling the well. Politics is close to being a 24/7 job as it is, and that can be a problem for all sorts of reasons (high divorce rate among politicians being a chief one), and it becomes just one more outlet for cheap outrage when we demand that our politicians now must forgo vacations, as well as forgo the bulk of their salary, pensions and benefits, and expenditures, as so many clueless wannabe pundits will declare over social media. Let’s grow up about our expectations and not begrudge them a vacation or a day off. We’re better than that.

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Roundup: Petty, unhelpful suggestions

The fact that Mike Duffy’s expenses have reignited an old and frankly tiring debate on whether Senators should be able to claim for their legitimate work expenses, or whether it’s this particular shameless senator whose expenses, however legitimate, are forever tainted. We can look and see competing editorials from the likes of Robyn Urback, who is justifiably dubious about the whole thing given the history and cloud that remains around Duffy’s primary residence, and Kady O’Malley, who notes that Duffy’s current expense claims are entirely legit so we should stop begrudging them (while not forgiving past transgressions either). But of all the commentary that I’ve seen in the past week, the least helpful comes from within the Senate itself.

When asked about the whole Duffy ordeal, the Conservative Senate leader, Claude Carignan mused about how the Senate’s rules may still need to be updated, which I’m not quite sure how much more stringent they need to be at this point considering how much they’ve come in the past two years (and for years before that), and it sounds a lot like he’s trying to play along with the attempts at cheap public outrage over the whole thing, while simultaneously ignoring the fact that Duffy’s residency issue remains a problem from the manner in which Stephen Harper appointed him, and a Harper loyalist, Carignan is almost certainly loathe to criticise that decision. But it got worse. Carignan then basically dumped the problem into the lap of Senator Peter Harder, the “government representative” as though he were somehow able to do something about it. As Carignan, a former Government Leader himself should know, it’s not up to the Government Leader to shepherd rules changes considering that Senate Rules are the domain of the appropriately named Senate Rules committee, and that expenses are the domain of the Internal Economy Committee, and last I checked, Harder is not a member of either committee, nor does he have a caucus that has senators who sit on those committees. In other words, he has no senators that he can use to exert any kind of influence over in order to make those changes. With these facts in mind, I’m not sure why Carignan would suggest that rules changes need to be spearheaded by Harder except that it’s more petty politicking, trying to undermine his (already shaky) legitimacy, while looking to absolve himself of any responsibility event though Carignan controls the largest caucus in the Chamber. If we need to have a discussion about how the residency rules need to continue to evolve, then great, let’s do that. But to try and play this particular game about it is really beneath Carignan’s position and he should know better.

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Roundup: The shameless Duff

Senator Mike Duffy is back in the news again, once again claiming his housing allowance for his long-time residence in Ottawa, because of course he is. There are a couple of problems here, but the first one is the way in which the story is being reported.

“Hasn’t the Senate tightened its rules?” is usually the first plaintive wail that we hear, and yes, they did. They have put rules in place around what constitutes proof of a primary residence in the province that a senator represents, and those rules include things like driver’s licence, health card, CRA tax assessment – things that Duffy didn’t have when he was first appointed and yet started claiming his housing allowance for the residence he lived in for years already. Duffy has since acquired the necessary documentation to “prove” that his primary residence is PEI. It’s also problematic to start devising a formula for how many hours one has to spend in their primary and secondary residence because it is generally a qualitative and not a quantitative measure, complicated by the work that senators do, and in some cases, there are senators who can’t travel back to their primary residences because of health concerns and are essentially forced to spend more time in Ottawa than they would otherwise. They may yet assign some kind of hour or day measure, but my understanding is that there is not one at the moment.

The bigger problem here is not the rules or the Senate itself (and for the love of all the gods on Olympus, I wish that my journalistic colleagues would stop treating this issue as a problem of the institution than its actors), but rather that Duffy himself is completely and utterly without shame. If he had any shame or decency, he wouldn’t keep claiming for his Ottawa residence, because he would know that it’s what got the whole issue rolling in the first place. But no – he is entitled to his entitlements, and has taken the fact that he was not convicted of criminal fraud and breach of trust as validation rather than the fact that he was nevertheless condemned for his behaviour while recognizing that it didn’t quite meet the test of being criminal. And that’s why this is really a Mike Duffy problem and not a Senate problem. He never should have been appointed as a PEI senator, and yet here we are.

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Roundup: Send in the narcissistic clowns

It happened on Thursday, but I’m still fuming about it. Power & Politics interviewed a couple of would-be Senate candidates based solely on what I’m guessing is the sheer power of their narcissism, and not once was the actual Senate itself brought up for discussion. It was pretty much inevitable that this would happen – the moment the government announced that they would allow their advisory committee to allow self-applicants into the process, you were guaranteed to find a bunch of people who felt that somehow they had the right stuff to be a senator, and lo and behold, these people have been making themselves known, like the one guy from PEI who is going around and door knocking to get people to sign a petition about how swell he would be as a senator, never mind that a) it’s not how this works, and b) if he’s so keen about knocking on doors, maybe he should seek a party nomination to run to be an MP. Just maybe. Or the woman in Nova Scotia who thinks that just because she’s championed a couple of petitions to twin highways that she has the right stuff to be in the Senate. Never mind that neither of them have any particular policy expertise that they want to bring to the job. Never mind that both of these clowns are way too young to even be contemplating a position that is generally seen as a way that allows people who have excelled in their fields to contribute to public service as their careers are winding down. They feel that because they’re honest and have integrity (and really, who doesn’t think that they do), that makes them good material for the Senate. Okay, then.

What burns me the most, however, is the way that the media treats the narcissistic clowns and uses this as some kind of human interest story rather than to demonstrate that the Senate is actually pretty serious business. Not once were these wannabes asked what they think the Senate actually does, and how exactly they plan to contribute to a chamber that is full of subject-matter experts. None of them were asked if they know how the legislative process works, though they seemed to think that they had ample time for on-the-job training (and to a certain extent yes, that may be the case, but generally you would have some kind of other expertise going into this rather than you think you’ve got a good character). And by treating the Senate seriously in that you’re not asking people who think they should populate it about the chamber itself, it betrays the fact that We The Media seem to have learned nothing about it despite all the stories about it over the past two or three years, from the ClusterDuff fiasco to the solid debates that were had over the assisted dying bill. And that’s really sad, because you would have hoped that we would have learned something about how interesting and vital a place it is in our democratic process, but no, we remain fixated on spending scandals (for whose coverage and pearl-clutching was hugely out or proportion to what had actually taken place for most senators), and not on the actual work of the chamber, and we are all poorer for it.

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Roundup: Segal’s misplaced demand

Oh, Hugh Segal. While I can understand your concern for your former colleagues, and that there were problems around due process for the trio of formerly suspended senators, I have to say that your demand for a formal apology from the Senate to Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau seems a bit…off-base. The three were suspended in large part because of the ill repute that they brought to the Senate, and just because the Crown abandoned charges against two of them in the wake of Duffy’s acquittal, nobody is saying that none of them did anything wrong. A finding that Duffy’s actions were not criminal is far from finding that there was no wrong that had been done – the Senate’s own rules were broken, even in Donald Bayne managed to convince a judge that the rules were vague. Segal is also off-base when he says that the Senate should have spent their energies fixing those rules instead of throwing people under the bus – in fact, the Senate has been working on updating their rules for years, even before the Duffy expenses were brought to light, and that trial hastened the reform process that had already been underway. Saying that they are owed back pay and again forgets that they brought disrepute onto the institution, and were punished for it within the rules of the Senate. Yes, as stated, there were problems with the due process of it, but rules were broken. Expenses were claimed when they should not have been. Calendars were altered, meetings were claimed that did not happen. Official addresses were made where senators did not live. These facts are not really in dispute, and the Senate had an obligation to do something about it, if not for any other reason than to be shown to be addressing the problems that were addressed rather than letting them slide and opening themselves up to even more criticism about letting people get away with it just because they’re senators. Was it embarrassing for everyone involved? Yes. Is it “torture” to still demand that Duffy repay expenses that were proven to have broken the rules? Hardly. Is it the Senate’s fault that the RMCP and the Crown didn’t do a thorough enough job? Not really. In light of all of this, I find Segal’s insistence on apologies to be hard to swallow.

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