Roundup: Adjourning until Tuesday is not a problem

Expect a weekend full of concern trolling about the Senate not having passed C-14 before Monday’s Supreme Court-imposed deadline, and people shaking their head or clutching their pearls that the Senate chamber is not sitting on Monday. I fully expect a pundit or three to wonder aloud why the Senate isn’t sitting Monday, and demands that senators do their jobs like they’re paid to do. And if you hear anyone say something boneheaded like that, smack them upside the head and remind them that the bill is at committee, which will be sitting Monday and Tuesday, and there’s no point in the full Senate sitting on Monday to pass the bill when it’s at committee, and no, they’re not going to rush that process any more than they already are. Meanwhile, if there’s anyone to blame for it not passing on time, it’s the House of Commons, and the Liberals playing stupid games with the debate schedule and not bringing forward the bill for debate so that votes could happen more expeditiously (and yes, their attempts to control that debate calendar with tactics like Motion 6 failed spectacularly before our eyes, but that doesn’t explain why they didn’t bring the bill forward on subsequent days either). If people think that the Senate should just rubber-stamp a bill like this one without any actual debate or scrutiny, well, they need to take a remedial civics course because that’s not why the Senate exists. And yes, this is exactly the kind of situation for why we have the Senate, where a bill that is constitutionally dubious is going to get a more thorough hearing than it did in the Commons, and we are likely to see some more substantive debate on its merits and particularities so that even if it does pass in its dubious state, there is a parliamentary record that the courts can then use in their deliberations when the matter inevitably comes before them.

Add to that, this is a case where we are likely to see amendments that will head back to the House of Commons, which put the whole timetable into question. Part of what is going to be at issue is where the votes will lie in the Senate for which amendments – the ones from the more socially conservative who want greater restrictions, or those who want to see at minimum the “reasonably foreseeable death” criteria struck out in favour of the language in the Carter decision. I suspect the latter will have the more votes and we will see those amendments head to the Commons, where we will see if the government decides to dig in its heels or not given that it’s a criticism that has fairly broad support in the Commons about the bill. It also gives the government a bit more political cover in that the Senate is “forcing” them to adopt those measures – particularly that the Senate is much more independent and the Liberals have given up any levers therein to try and bully through bills – so they can insulate themselves from criticism that they have gone too far. I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s why the ministers keep insisting that they are open to amendments when they rejected them all in the Commons – because putting the blame on the Senate is the next best thing to putting the blame on the courts. If they do decide to dig in their heels and we reach an impasse between the chambers, there is always the possibility of a conference between them, which Kady O’Malley has dug up the procedural details for here:

If you missed the second reading debates in the Senate, they’re available here, and they are absolutely substantive and far beyond anything we heard in the House of Commons, and dealt with the real substance of the bill rather than the usual “This is deeply personal/what about palliative care?/conscience rights, conscience rights, conscience rights” narrative that we heard ad nauseum.

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Roundup: Another day talking in circles

We’re in for yet another round of wailing and gnashing of teeth on the subject of the electoral reform process, and this time it’s from the NDP who are moving a supply day motion to try and get the proposed parliamentary committee to reflect their particular gamed composition rather than a composition that reflects the House of Commons – which, I will remind you, was elected entirely fairly and correctly under how our system is supposed to operate, where we elect individual seats in separate and simultaneous elections. Demands that the committee should reflect the popular vote ignore the facts that a) the popular vote is a logical fallacy that does not actually exist since there were 338 separate elections and not just one, and b) the composition that the NDP are demanding is not actually proportional to the “popular vote,” as they are giving the Bloc and the Green Party an oversized share of the seats and votes. And rather than just thirty minutes of this endless repetition as we might hear in QP, no, it will be the whole day in the Commons, minus one hour for private members’ business. And we’ll be subjected to the sanctimonious speeches of the NDP (of which they will read the same speech in English and French ad nauseum, only changing the riding names mentioned), followed by baying from the Conservatives that what we really need is a referendum, and the odd interjection from Elizabeth May that she deserves a vote on the committee and that no, we don’t need a referendum because it’s not a constitutional issue (except that certain kinds of electoral reform are actually constitutional issues, albeit likely with the simplest amending formula). And then there are the Liberals, where we’ll get some of the usual saccharine from Maryam Monsef, some sharper rebukes from Mark Holland, and the odd backbencher repeating the talking points about Canadians demanding a change to the system. There won’t be any substantive issues discussed, and while I will be the first to say that yes, process is important, so long as each side tries to game the process to fit their own purposes, we’ll just keep talking in circles and go nowhere. Which, really, is where this discussion should go and we should instead invest in a programme of civic literacy instead so that people can actually learn how the system works. But in the absence of that, I’m ready to declare that we should nuke the whole thing from orbit.

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Roundup: A short history of trans rights bills

The government is unveiling their promised trans rights bill today, and throughout the day, you’ll be reminded that other trans rights bills have been introduced in the House, and twice died in the Senate, and there will be a general sense of the NDP trying to anoint themselves in this glow of having been the fearless pioneers on this file. And it’s true – they did introduce previous trans rights bills, some of them more successful than others. But there is more to the story than is usually presented, and as someone who used to cover this file extensively (back in my Xtra! and the much lamented Outlooks days), it’s a little more complicated than is often presented. And yes, the NDP have largely introduced iterations of this bill but the sponsor, then-MP Bill Siksay, was too far down the Order of Precedence for it to be ever debated. During the 40th Parliament, however, he was high enough on the Order that the bill came up for debate, and narrowly passed the Commons. By the time it reached the Senate, however, it had mere days before the government was defeated. The Senate has no mechanisms by which to accelerate a private members’ bill, and the justice committee – where it would have been sent to – was jammed full of “tough on crime” bills and a private members’ bill never would have been able to come up for debate (as government bills always take priority). Nevertheless, the Senate was blamed for “ragging the puck” and it died when Parliament dissolved and an election was called. By this time, Siksay had announced that he was not going to run again, and Liberal MP Hedy Fry had said that she would re-introduce the bill in his stead if re-elected. She was, and fulfilled his promise. The NDP’s newly elected MP Randall Garrison was named the party’s new LGBT critic, and he was incensed that Fry had re-introduced the bill and decided to table his own version, but because you can’t have two identical bills on the Order Paper, he needed to come up with some creative drafting in order to differentiate the two bills. And then, by sheer fate, his name came up right before Fry’s on the Order of Precedence when the lottery was drawn, so he went ahead with his poorly drafted bill, while Fry’s version of the same bill was not put forward (and she went on to introduce a cyberbullying bill that was defeated). Not only did Garrison’s bill go ahead, but he decided to introduce amendments that would partially gut the bill and do things like put in definitions for “gender identity” into the text (something that would put it out of step with any other protected grounds in legislation). The resulting bill was a dog’s breakfast, and he managed to squeak it past the Commons, but he actually lost some Conservative support because it was such a hot mess. And when it reached the Senate, there were concerns. Conservative Senator Don Plett had some particular concerns and wanted to raise amendments, and while this whole “bathroom bill” nonsense began circulating, his amendments, while not great, were blown out of proportion by supporters of the bill as being far more odious than they were. And that bill eventually died on the Order Paper when Parliament dissolved, but while the NDP railed against the Senate as “killing” a bill that the Commons passed, they ignored the fact that it was objectively a bad bill and this was more of a mercy killing. And now, we have a government who has committed to making this one of their priorities, and they are, which we should applaud.

Update: The differences between Fry’s and Garrison’s bill weren’t as pronounced as I remember the debate being. Apologies to all involved, and thanks to Justin Ling for the correction. The amendments, however, were a dog’s breakfast.

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Roundup: Six months later

The Liberal government is now six months old, so everyone is checking in on the list of their promises kept and broken. This one list, compiled from the “Trudeau Meter,” however, is a bit nitpicky on some of those “broken” promises, calling them broken because there was no mention in this year’s budget when there are three more years of budgets left in the current mandate, and it’s pretty hard to expect everything to have happened in the first six months of a government, when there are a lot of moving pieces to keep track of. In other words, give them a little more time before you declare all of these promises broken. The deficit figures for this year continue to look better than anticipated as the Fiscal Monitor shows continued surpluses into the spring months (which the Conservatives will be insufferable about in QP next week, I can promise you), but that may be because CRA is apparently having a banner year in terms of collecting lapsed taxes, up to an extra $1 billion so far. So there’s that. The Conservatives, meanwhile, have the challenge of trying to stay united during this period of transition for their party, particularly as the leadership contest starts to intensify. As for the NDP, they’re now struggling to remain relevant six months later. So there’s that.

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Roundup: Enter Peter Harder

Those seven new independent senators are now sworn in and installed, and it seems the Conservative spared no time in trying to insist that they were all secretly Liberal partisans, particularly the new “government representative,” Senator Peter Harder. In response to questions during a restored non-ministerial Senate QP, Harder said that he was recommended for appointment by the Institute for Research on Public Policy, and that he had no communication from the government about it. He also claimed he didn’t intend to be partisan, but be a kind of bureaucratic presence who could field questions on behalf of the government, while relaying concerns to cabinet on occasion. Harder also said that the new practice of bringing ministers to the chamber to answer questions would continue, and be expanded to 40 minutes, which is not a bad thing. What I am a bit more concerned about is the fact that Harder is talking about making amendments to the Parliament of Canada Act to start formalizing some of these changes that Trudeau has imposed on the Senate, but I’m not seeing much in the way of collaborating this with the other efforts to modernise the Senate’s operations. That this would be a discussion around the cabinet table and not involve senators themselves, based on Harder’s statements, is concerning because it does seem like meddling in the way the Senate operates – something Trudeau has already been doing with little regard for the consequences – despite the fact that none of them are in the Senate, particularly under this new regime. I don’t want to go so far as to say that he’s meddling in the Senate’s privilege, but it’s getting close to the line in some cases. The Senate is the institutional memory of parliament, and is supposed to have a longevity for a reason, which is why Harder insisting that it’s not unusual for governments to tinker with the Act to reflect stylistic preferences rubs me the wrong way. I also have some sympathy for the concern that “government representative” is a fairly American term that’s not really reflected in our Westminster traditions (though perhaps Australia’s “Washminster” system may find a more analogous term. We’ll see what Harder starts implementing soon enough, but I do retain a sense of scepticism.

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Roundup: Cullen tries to game the debate, again

Nathan Cullen is at it again with his attempts to try and skew the electoral reform debate in his direction. Not content to try and game a future Commons committee with “proportional” (but actually not even remotely proportional) membership, Cullen insisted yesterday that the government set up a citizen’s assembly to run a parallel kind of consultative process in order to really make sure that they’re hearing from all the right voices, and so on. Of course, what Cullen isn’t saying is that this is but one more dishonest tactic in trying to hijack the process into delivering the system that his party prefers. But how do I know that this is what the outcome would be? Well, a couple of things, the first is of course the bias for reform that these kinds of assemblies are set up with, and in the kinds of “eminent Canadians” that Cullen seeks to lead this assembly. You can just about imagine the names on his shortlist (Ed Broadbent, Craig Scott, etc), but one really doesn’t have to look very far. Political academia is very much biased in favour of reform, as is the majority of punditry in this country. The fix is very much in when it starts. Also, the experience of the citizens assembly in Ontario that recommended MMP in advance of the ill-fated Ontario referendum on a new electoral system is a kind of demonstration as to how these assemblies become convinced as to the magic that these new systems will apparently bring – they are in an environment where the current system is not adequately explained or represented, and they wind up favouring a system which purports to maximise on the supposed benefits, in this case MMP. Fairness! Local representation! Cooperation! Votes counting! Forget the usual caveats about logical fallacies and magical thinking that these proponents engage in, they are essentially being sold a time-share in Mexico, and make no mistake that by the end, they will sign up for it. It also feeds into the narrative that PR-enthusiasts like to dine out on, about how people just don’t understand how great PR/MMP is, but because those in the citizen assembly really got to learn about it, they understood just how awesome and magical it is, so they really get it. Cullen is trying to tap into all of this – convince your assembly that the preferred MMP system is the way to go, you suddenly have moral authority to pursue it in parliament for all it’s worth, particularly if the government is reluctant to put it to a plebiscite. Cullen is more transparent than he thinks he is, which is why this new plan deserves to be treated with scepticism.

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Roundup: Cullen pens a hot mess

NDP MP Nathan Cullen penned an op-ed for National Newswatch over the weekend, and it’s a total hot mess. Hot. Mess. Where to begin, where to begin? Let’s start with the opening paragraph:

One of the recurring conversations I’ve had over the years, with folks of all political leanings, is the condition of our democracy and how our voting system doesn’t reflect their voices at the national level.

Demonstrably false, since what we vote for are who to fill individual seats. People who are elected to those seats are the reflection of the wishes of that riding. Ergo, our voting system actually is reflective of voices at the national level. The entire second paragraph is a gong show:

It’s not a new charge that the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system too often produces false majorities. Our current voting system is broken. Too many Canadians simply feel their vote does not count. Something is deeply wrong if our very voting system encourages people to tune out of our democratic process.

Nope, nope, nope, and nope. There is no such thing as a “false majority” because the popular vote is a logical fallacy. You can’t extend 338 separate and simultaneous elections, mash them together and come up with a figure when you don’t have the same number of parties running in all ridings, nor does it reflect the fact that we elect individual seats, not parties. The voting system is not broken – it accurately reflects that we elect individual seats in individual ridings. Canadians feel their vote doesn’t count because of sore loserism, and apparently votes only count when the person you voted for wins, which is childish and wrong. Our voting system does not encourage people to tune out of our democratic process – our appalling lack of civic literacy does. From there, Cullen goes on to defend his idea of a “proportional” Commons committee to consult on electoral reform, except it’s a) not proportional, b) it’s designed to play up his desire for proportional representation (if the committee can be proportional…) and c) it’s designed to game the process, while he professes new ways of doing things. From there, Cullen meanders into a defence of the NDP as “progressive opposition,” which sounds more defensive by the day as the Liberals continue to outflank the party on the left, and finally, the piece moves into a defence of Thomas Mulcair as party leader, with Cullen professing support – you know, to look like he’s not angling to replace him should Mulcair happen to fall well short of expectations at the upcoming leadership review vote. After all, the federal NDP have a culture of it being unseemly to not be in complete and total lockstep at all times when the cameras are on. So there you have it – a complete hot mess. What is that old journalistic expression? Get me rewrite.

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Roundup: Oversight and transparency

Oh, look – it’s the first Senate bat-signal of the year, this time with an interview with Senator Beth Marhsall on CBC Radio’s The House. The treatment of the interview does raise some of the usual problems when it comes to reporting what’s going on in the Senate – namely, that journalists who don’t follow the institution, or who haven’t actually given a critical reading of the Auditor General’s report mischaracterise it as showing “widespread abuse” when it certainly was not, and a good number of the report’s findings were in fact suspect because they were value judgements of individual auditors, many of whom were perfectly defensible. Marshall, however, thinks that the AG’s suggestion of an independent oversight body is a-okay, despite the fact that it’s a massive affront to parliamentary supremacy. The Senate is a legislative body and not a government department – it has to be able to run its own affairs, otherwise out whole exercise of Responsible Government is for naught, and we should hand power back to the Queen to exercise on our behalf. I can understand why Marshall might think this way – she is, after all, a former provincial Auditor General and would err on the side of the auditor’s recommendations regardless, but the fact that no reporter has ever pushed back against this notion and said “Whoa, parliamentary supremacy is a thing, no?” troubles me greatly. I still think that if an oversight body is to be created that it should follow the Lords model, as proposed by Senator McCoy, whereby you have a body of five, three of whom are Senators, and the other two being outsiders, for example with an auditor and a former judge. You get oversight and dispute resolution, but it also remains in control of the Senate, which is necessary for the exercise of parliamentary supremacy. Marshall’s other “fix” is the need to televise the Senate for transparency’s sake. While it’s a constant complaint, and yes, cameras will be coming within a year or two, the notion that it’s going to be a fix to any perceived woes is farcical. Why? With few exceptions, people don’t tune into the Commons outside of Question Period, despite our demands that we want to see our MPs on camera to know they’re doing their jobs. Cameras, meanwhile, have largely been blamed for why QP has become such a sideshow – they know they’re performing, and most of the flow of questions these days is atrocious because they’re simply trying to get news clips. I’m not sure how cameras will improve the “transparency” of the Senate any more than making the audio stream publicly available did, never mind that committees have been televised for decades. If people really wanted to find out what Senators do, there are more than enough opportunities – but they don’t care. It’s easier to listen to the received wisdom that they’re just napping on the public dime, and the people who could be changing that perception – journalists – are more than content to feed the established narrative instead.

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Roundup: Unrest without modernization

Oh, look – it’s the Senate bat-signal, shining one last time for me this year. Here we go: Senators Greene and Massicotte, who have been trying to organise some internal reforms to the Chamber, are warning that if modernisations don’t happen within the caucuses that they may see more defections from frustrated Senators, and swelling the ranks of Independents – particularly relevant with more senators on the way chosen by this new process (though nothing says that all of these new senators will sit as Independents, or that they won’t opt to sit in one of the two existing caucuses). Many of the reforms that the two are proposing are pretty modest – electing chairs and vice-chairs of standing committees, replacing Question Period with “Issues Period,” electing caucus officers, televising Senate proceedings; larger communications budgets to promote the Senate and its work (particularly committee reports); and electing the Speaker. Some of these are already in the works, like televising/webcasting procedures, which will happen in a year or two, once they get the technology sorted. Similarly, work to reform Senate Communications has been ongoing, and will continue, and I’m sure no one will argue that more money would help. Some of them – electing caucus officers – already happens in the Senate Liberal caucus, and sounds like is starting to happen in the Conservative ranks. The issue of committee membership is a topic that is currently being debated, and no doubt work will be undertaken on this in the Senate Rules committee, where it will start getting hammered out because the growing number of Independents does make this a priority issue for them. Some of the ideas, however, are more problematic, such as electing the Senate Speaker. Why? Because the Senate Speaker is actually the titular Head of Parliament; it makes sense for this to be a government appointee as a result, and because of this titular position, it comes with diplomatic and protocol responsibilities. Having the Senate elect their own that could be in opposition to the government of the day would be a serious problem, which few people seem to be grasping. As for “Issues Period,” I find it to be the weakest suggestion, particularly as asking questions of committee chairs a) is already possible, and b) doesn’t happen often because there’s not a lot to ask of them. As I explained in my piece in the National Post last week, Senate Question Period is about holding government to account, and with there being no Conservative Atlantic Canadian MPs in the Commons, it gives those Atlantic senators an opportunity to play that role. Or rather, it would if they had someone to hold account. In the absence of that, the Senate loses out on one of its functions, which will become a problem, and it’s something that “Issues Period” won’t solve.

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Roundup: Fill in the blanks

None of what happened with the Amherst branch of the Royal Canadian Legion announcement yesterday was out of the ordinary or unexpected, but it was one giant confirmation of what we are seeing daily in the debasement of our politics. Conservative MP Scott Armstrong mistakenly sent out a press release that still had all of the track changes, and it showed very clearly that it was a fill-in-the-blanks job. Because gods forbid an announcement was made that wasn’t pabulum. Pretty much all political speech has become this – checklists of talking points that need to be ticked off in whatever the context. Giving a members’ statement? Here are the talking points you need to say – or better yet, here’s the fill-in-the-blanks statement we’ll hand to you. Going on a panel show at 5 o’clock? Here are the lines you can deliver, and the slogans you need to recite. The funny thing is, I’ve met MPs who’ve gotten media training – which they paid for out of their own pockets – and they can do without all of this box-checking, blanks-filled-in pap that they would recite otherwise. But those MPs made the choice to not do what their fellows were doing, and proved they could speak on their own without sounding like a babbling idiot. But most MPs don’t take the time to learn how to speak in public, or in the media, or how to write a speech on their own. It’s mostly just a handful of veteran MPs who can do it these days, and that doesn’t bode well for the future seeing the number of incumbents who aren’t running again. Unless MPs start to do something about their own situation – or better yet, voters demand that they do – we’ll wind up with a parliament of MPs reading more of these scripts like robotic simpletons.

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