QP: Circling back to Atwal, yet again

A frigid Tuesday in Ottawa, and all of the leaders were present in Question Period, for a change. Andrew Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and he immediately returned to the Atwal issue, wondering who was telling the truth about Atwal — him or the Indian government. Justin Trudeau stood up and said that he would always believe the advice of non-partisan public servants over anyone else. Scheer pressed, and Trudeau reminded him that Randeep Sarai took responsibility for proffering the invitation, but he trusted public service. Scheer tried again in French, and Trudeau repeated that same point about believing public servants. Scheer reverted to English, reset his preamble to provide a fresh media clip, and wondered if it was Chrystia Freeland who was telling the truth this time when she said it was an honest mistake. Trudeau reiterated the same point about believing public service. Scheer demanded an answer as to whether the “conspiracy theory” was baseless, and Trudeau reminded him that for ten years, the Harper government diminished and belittled the work of public servants, and the Conservatives hadn’t moved on from those habits. Guy Caron was up next, and worried about the Facebook data used by Cambridge Analytica. Trudeau noted that they take privacy seriously, and it’s why the Minister of Democratic Institutions was looking into electoral interference, and the Privacy Commissioner also indicated he was taking a look. Caron demanded that the issue of data protection be raised at the G7 meeting in June, and Trudeau assured him that they had already had these conversations and they would continue to do so. Hélène Laverdière raised the armoured vehicle sales to Saudi Arabia, and Trudeau first pointed asked her to ask her caucus colleague from London Fanshaw if she wanted them to cancel that contract, but that they were taking the issue more seriously than the previous government did. Laverdière demanded to know if human rights were for sale, and Trudeau took up a script this time to insist that they respect human rights obligations.

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QP: Concerned about Mali

While Justin Trudeau was present after two weeks away, Andrew Scheer was not, spending the day in Winnipeg instead. Lisa Raitt led off in his stead, mini-lectern on desk, and she raised the announcement of a peacekeeping mission to Mali, and the risks that it would entail given the rate of casualties there. Trudeau led off with some words about engaging in peacekeeping and that they were responding to a direct request from the U.N., and would work with the opposition on how to hold a debate on the mission — but didn’t really answer about risks. Raitt wondered about whether our troops there would be able to engage in direct combat. Trudeau took up a script, and recited about how personnel would have appropriate equipment and training, but they couldn’t eliminate the risk. Raitt demanded information on what the risk was, and how many soldiers were projected to be lost. Trudeau insisted that they would remain open and responsible rather than wrap themselves in the flag and use Special Forces troops for photo ops, as the previous government did. Pierre Paul-Hus took over in French, accusing the PM of being unconcerned for troop safety. Trudeau took up a script to remind him that they were alive to the risks and would ensure that troops had equipment and training that were necessary. Paul-Hus demanded the operational guidelines, but Trudeau reiterated the plan to hold a debate in the near future. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, also asking about the Mali announcement, and Trudeau read off some more details about helicopters and medical assistance. Caron switched to English to concern troll about how this promise fell short of the promises. Trudeau noted it was odd how the Conservatives thought we were doing too much with the military and the NDP not enough, before he went off the cuff about the upcoming debate. Tracey Ramsey was up next, demanding the government stand up to US tariff threats. Trudeau noted that he was pleased to meet workers in those industries last week, and to hear their concerns. Ramsey raised Trump’s made-up facts, and Trudeau reiterated how much he enjoyed hearing from workers in those industries.

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Roundup: No, committee studies shouldn’t guide government

And lo, from Toronto’s den of hipsterdom, comes the plaintive wail that a government ignoring the work of committees is a betrayal of democracy. No, seriously – this is the complaint of VICE’s parliamentary columnist (who does not reside in Ottawa, or ever darken the halls of Parliament Hill, but whatever). Brown cites the centralization of power in the PMO and the growing power of branding as the forces that eclipse these poor committees, but it’s possibly the laziest gods damned complaint you can imagine.

So, for Brown’s edification, here are a few points that he overlooked in his ignorance of how things actually work in Ottawa:

  1. The role of Commons committees is not to be driving government policy, as Brown seems to think. The role of Parliament is to hold government to account, and committees are the workhorses of doing that, particularly when it comes to scrutinizing legislation. Senate committees, it should be noted, do a much more robust job of looking at areas of concern and coming up with policy recommendations, but that’s because the Senate is Parliament’s built-in think-tank, and it operates on a less partisan basis than Commons committees, who often approach their committee work with the lens of validating their party’s pre-existing positions.
  2. Not all committees are created equal. He may cite the work of a few of the “high profile” committees, writing on “sexier” topics like pharmacare, but because those are higher-profile committees, you’re seeing more studies that are bound to attract attention but have little substance to offer. If he wants to get a better sense of really effective committees that do really good work, he should look at ones like Public Accounts, who do the real work that Parliament is supposed to be doing, which, again, is holding government to account.
  3. Committees coming up with reports that the government does not then follow is hardly a sign of PMO centralization – if he wants an example of that, it was how committees operated in the Harper era, where they were all branch plants of minsters’ offices, with parliamentary secretaries directing the government MPs to do their bidding, and having ministerial staffers providing direction throughout. Oh, and the minister would often direct the committee to study topics that were of convenience (while he or she went ahead and legislated before waiting for the committee report). The way committees are operating currently is a vastly different environment than it was just a few years ago. But he might know that if he was actually here and paid attention to these things.

You’ll excuse me if I have little time for facile analysis like this. Whinging about PMO centralization without looking at the complicity of MPs themselves in the problem is to miss the point. And to miss the whole point of Parliament in a column like this makes it clear that nobody should be paying attention to the musings of its author.

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Roundup: Scheer’s British adventure

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer is off to London to talk about a possible future free trade deal with a post-Brexit UK if he were to become prime minister. Which is odd, because the current government has already said back in September that they will lay the groundwork for this very kind of free trade deal once the path to do so is clear, and it won’t be clear until after Brexit happens because the UK literally can’t negotiate until then. (They also may not be able to afterward by the sheer fact that they don’t actually have any negotiators in their civil service, as they’ve all been working for the EU parliament since the 1970s). It’s an open question as to just how appropriate it is for Scheer to go over there to talk trade – even the hypothetical possibility thereof – given both his position and that of the UK government at present.

A couple of  other observations:

  1. Scheer’s people are trying to sell this as “relationship building,” right after they derided a trip by Trudeau doing the very same kind of work in India as a trip without substance and being dubbed a “family vacation” with a few meetings tacked on. (Oh, look – yet more disingenuous and mendacious framing. How novel).
  2. Said people are also trying to bill this as taking advantage of “generational change” as the UK gains “independence,” and as a new market for Canada to enter into in the age of a protectionist United States. Err, except the UK market is pretty small, and in no way could actually replace what the US market is for us.
  3. The Canadian Press story makes no mention that Scheer was a Brexit supporter at the time of the referendum, and it’s likely not a stretch of the imagination to see Scheer going there to try and lend succour to Brexiters in the midst of very live political debates, to assure them that they have Canadian allies should he become prime minister in a few years (and indeed, the fact that Scheer has used phrases like “independence” in relation to Brexit is telling). And again, the appropriateness of this becomes an open question.

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Roundup: Chickpea politics

One never thought that pulses – and chickpeas in particular – would be the cause of a supposed major political crisis in this country, and yet here we are. The problem is that the supposed problem is almost entirely fictional. News that India raised their tariffs on chickpea imports to some sixty percent was treated by the Conservatives as a direct response to the Jaspel Atwal incident and the supposition by certain senior officials in Canada that some rogue Indian factions arranged for him to be there in order to embarrass Trudeau as a way of demonstrating that the Canadian government is soft on Khalistani extremists. Except that’s not it at all – India raised their tariffs on all of their imports, and Canada barely exports any of those particular chickpeas to India. Australia is taking a bigger hit that Canada is on these tariffs, so if that’s somehow Trudeau’s fault, I’m open to hearing it.

Of course, there is a broader discussion that is being completely ignored with by most of the Canadian media, who are joining the Conservatives in trying to wedge this news into the pre-determined narrative. Indeed, Canadian Press wire copy went out that uncritically repeated that the Conservatives linked the tariff hike to the India visit without any actual fact-checking, or checking the situation on the ground in India. That situation being that there is a worldwide glut of pulse crops that has depressed prices, and the Indian government, in advance of an election, is trying to shore up their support by bringing in these tariffs to protect farmers. At the same time, there is a rash of suicides by Indian farmers in the country, which is no doubt causing India’s government some distress. “But Trudeau said he’d raise the tariff problem and he failed,” cry the critics. Sure, he raised it with Modi, but their discussions were apparently more about an ongoing fumigation issue than tariffs. And while the tariff issue may have come up, I’m not sure that Trudeau has the magical ability to solve the expansion of supply over demand or to fix India’s domestic agricultural issues, but tell me again how this is all about the Canadian pundits’ perceptions of that India trip.

Speaking of Atwal, MP Randeep Sarai spoke to his local newspaper to say that he didn’t know who Atwal was when his name was forwarded to him along with several others who were in the country and asked for an invitation – but he still takes responsibility for it, and volunteered to resign as the party’s Pacific caucus chair. He also says that he doesn’t know who Atwal is because he was a child at the time that Atwal committed his crimes, and his staffers are all younger than he is, which is a reflection of the generational change happening in Canadian politics.

On a related note, Supriya Dwivedi calls out the Canadian media’s amnesia when it comes to the history of Indian relations with Canada, especially as it relates to Sikh separatists, and for their complete lack of awareness of some of the Hindu nationalist politics being practiced in India by Modi’s government.

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Roundup: The obtuse Atwal angles

Because the Jaspel Atwal story refuses to go away, due to equal parts of inept messaging by the government and obtuseness on the parts of both the opposition and much of the media, it seems like we should dig into a few more aspects of it. If you haven’t yet, read John Ivison’s column that threads the needle on just what the senior bureaucrats were warning about with regard to the possibility of “rogue elements” in India’s government, and the invitation that MP Randeep Sarai extended to Atwal while Atwal was already in the country. If more people read this, we would have far fewer of the questions we’re hearing about how both “versions” of the incident can be true. And hey, people familiar with both Indian politics and security services are adding that this is more than plausible.

In the meantime, opposition parties are trying to use their parliamentary tools to continue to make hay of this. Ralph Goodale got hauled before the national security committee yesterday, and he was unable to give very many answers – completely understandably – and suggested that MPs use the new National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians to discuss classified issues like this. It didn’t stop the opposition from trying to call the National Security Advisor to committee, but that was blocked. But as Stephanie Carvin points out below, MPs are not great at this kind of thing, and risk doing even more damage (and We The Media aren’t helping).

In case you were wondering why the Conservatives dropped their planned Supply Day motion to try and wedge the government over support for a united India as a pretext to bash the Atwal issue some more, they faced an outcry of Sikhs in Canada and backed down (but are insisting that the motion is still on the Order Paper and can be debated on a future Supply Day).

In the meantime, India raised their tariffs on imports of pulses, and suddenly every single Canadian pundit joined the Conservatives in blaming it on Trudeau’s India trip and the Atwal accusations. Not one of them noted that India is having a bit of a domestic crisis with its farmers, and there is a global glut of pulse crops, which is depressing prices (for which India is trying to boost domestic production). But why look for facts when you can try to wedge it into a narrative you’ve already decided on? Cripes.


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Roundup: Getting a second opinion on the dominant narrative

It was a day full of Canadian pundits pontificating about Indian politics around Justin Trudeau’s trip, whether it’s around his use of traditional garb, the “snubs” by Indian politicians, and then the issue with Jaspal Atwal being invited to that reception. While MP Randeep Sarai has taken responsibility for Atwal’s invitation, the dominant narrative was that someone in PMO had to have known who he was, or that they somehow overrode the kinds of screening that the RCMP or CSIS would have put in place for an event like this. That, of course, got blown out of the water when media actually talked to security sources who said that they had no capacity to vet the 700 or so people invited to this event, so there went that theory. And yes, the Atwal thing is bad, and according to an Indo-American journalist that I spoke to about this, that probably set back Indo-Canadian relations by years, so well done MP Sarai. “Senior government officials” are also now pushing the theory that “rogue elements” in India’s government facilitated this, possibly to embarrass Canada for being “soft” on Sikh separatist extremists, so we’ll see if that compounds any damage.

First of all, if you did not do so yesterday, please take the time to read Kevin Carmichael’s look at the trip, and in particular how pack journalism narratives have formed, but he makes very relevant points about the political dynamics and the regional politics of India that the Canadian media is completely ignoring. My Indo-American friend made a few other observations about the coverage that we’re seeing, which is that he’s not actually being treated poorly over there, and it’s more that certain politicians and business leaders don’t want to be associated with members of the Indian Cabinet, which is controversial in large swaths of Indian society. As for the focus on Trudeau’s wardrobe, most of it is coming from the intellectual, international elite of India, who resent outsiders exoticising India, but the fact that Trudeau is allegedly wearing Indo-Canadian designers will garner plenty of positive reaction. She also added that the inside joke is that Indians outside of India have terrible taste, and are over the top and garish, but it’s also related to their own class stratification. Even tweets coming from verified accounts means that they’re coming from the social elite of India, and that journalism and public intellectualism in India, especially in Delhi, is oriented to socialites. So what Trudeau is doing will play incredibly well with many aspects of the stratified society. As for the Atwal issue, there will likely be competing narratives in India between the bureaucratic incompetence that allowed him into the country in the first place, tempered with “gloating over how a first-world country screwed up.” Regardless, I’m glad I reached out to get a different perspective on how this trip is playing out, because I’m not confident in the image being put forward by the Canadian punditocracy.

Meanwhile, back in the Canadian media sphere, Éric Grenier notes that the trip is likely a defensive action to bolster Liberal support in Indo-Canadian-heavy ridings, especially to counter Jagmeet Singh’s arrival on the political scene. Murad Hemmadi notes that the international press seems to have gotten over its crush on Trudeau, while Paul Wells gives a not wholly underserved whacking at the Liberal government over their handling of this trip (though I do note that many of Wells’ points would handily fall into the groupthink that may not actually reflect what will play on the ground in India).

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QP: Gathering angry media clips

Two competing dynamics played out in the Commons today — because Parliament is not sitting tomorrow out of courtesy for the NDP’s policy convention, it was Friday on a Thursday, only slightly better attended, but there weren’t any leaders (save Elizabeth May) present. It was also a Conservative Supply Day, where the motion demanded an apology to veterans for the alleged “insult” by the prime minister during that Edmonton town hall regarding his response to why the court action against the Equitas group was still ongoing. Candice Bergen led off, reading concerns about veterans and demanding action from the prime minister. Dominic LeBlanc got up to answer, saying that they do support veterans and have put in place a pension-for-life option as well as other investments. Bergen concern trolled that the government voted down a veterans-themed private member’s bill yesterday, and LeBlanc listed the sins of the previous government when it came to respecting veterans. Alain Rayes took over in French, quoting the prime minister’s election promise, not that LeBlanc was having any of it. Rayes tried again, and LeBlanc raised the spectre of Julian Fantino when it came to how the Conservatives had respect. Rayes listed examples of the government’s profligacy except for veterans, but LeBlanc called out his contradiction before reiterating their respect. Ruth Ellen Brosseau led off for the NDP, reading questions on the same topic in English, and LeBlanc gave a less punchy response about how much they have done to date. Brosseau switched to French to read about the documents provided to the PBO around the tax gap, and Marie-Claude Bibeau got up to insist that they would study the tax gap, unlike the previous government. Pierre-Luc Dusseault heaped some condemnation on new tax treaties, and Bibeau read points about international information exchanges to fighting tax evasion. Peter Julian got up to rail about tax havens that are funding cannabis operations, but Bibeau reiterated the points about combatting tax evasion. Continue reading

Roundup: Promising a new framework

The big news yesterday was Justin Trudeau delivering a major policy speech in the House of Commons about creating a new legal framework for the rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada that aims to fully implement the treaties that have not been properly enacted, and that will build toward self-governance by creating the capacity within individual First Nations and other Indigenous communities that will enable them to take up that governance space at their own pace. Trudeau insisted that this would not require constitutional change but would rather put some meat on the bones of Section 35 of the Constitution, and the existing treaties. And yes, criminal justice reform including how juries are selected was also part of the promise (and I’ve heard that we might see new legislation around that in March). Trudeau said that this announcement comes with a new round of consultations, but the aim was to have legislation tabled by the fall, with the framework fully implemented before the next election.

Reaction from Indigenous leaders is cautious so far, because there aren’t a lot of details – and there probably won’t be many until something gets tabled later in the year. The flipside of that, of course, is that there’s room and space for these leaders to give their input during the consultative process that is to come, seeing as Trudeau is promising to work together to develop this framework. There are other questions when it comes to lands and resources, which I’m not sure if this framework itself will cover or if the framework will guide how those issues are to be solved going forward, and that’s also likely going to depend on the cooperation of the provincial governments, but there does seem to be some momentum. That will also depend on Parliament moving this forward, and while the NDP seem to be onboard, the Conservative response to Trudeau’s speech warned about being too ambitious, which should probably be some kind of a warning signal. But it’s early days, and we’ll see how the next few months unfold.

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QP: A smarmier version of Matlock

The first proto-Prime Minister’s Questions of the New Year, with Justin Trudeau finally in town on a Wednesday, and Andrew Scheer was once again no longer present. That left Lisa Raitt to leave off, who was worried that offshore investment into marijuana companies was not the front companies for organised crime. Trudeau stumbled off the block, and gave his worn points about why they are legalising marijuana. Raitt called out the talking points, but along the way, equated former Liberal fundraisers with organised crime, but Trudeau didn’t vary his response. Alain Rayes was up next, and in French, accused Liberal fundraisers of trying to line their pockets though cannabis and accused the government of interfering with debate in the Senate,  it Trudeau stuck to his points in French. Rayes tried again, and this time, Trudeau said that they could assure people that they were not letting organised crime into the system. Rayes went one last round, asserting that legalised marijuana was somehow the new Sponsorship Scandal, but Trudeau reminded him that the previous prohibition model failed. Guy Caron was up next, and kept on the same line of attack, highlighting tax havens, and this time, Trudeau picked up some notes to say that they have been coming to agreements with provinces to provide transparency on corporations and that they were doing background checks on any significant investment in cannabis companies. Caron went again in French, railing about Liberals and tax havens, but Trudeau repeated the assurances in French. Pierre-Luc Dusseault asked the same question again, to which Trudeau assured him that they had an information network to combat tax avoidance and evasion, and when Peter Julian asked one more time, Trudeau picked up his notes again to assure him that there would be mandatory security checks with companies.

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