Roundup: Unifying the prohibitions across departments

The federal government has issued new guidelines for foreign intelligence likely obtained through torture, so that it now covers the Canadian Forces, the Canadian Security Establishment, and Global Affairs Canada. This means that they are prohibited from using such information, except if it’s going to save lives either from an imminent terrorist attack or protecting Canadian troops on an overseas mission. This appears to harmonize direction handed down earlier to the RCMP, CSIS, and CBSA, so that all national security agencies (which are now under the same parliamentary oversight regime and will soon be under an independent arm’s length national security oversight regime) will have the same rules and restrictions. For some, it’s reassuring that the government is taking the issue seriously, but for others, the caveat isn’t good enough, and they need to issue a full prohibition, no caveats, no exceptions, full stop. Stephanie Carvin has more reaction to the announcement here:

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Roundup: The Order Paper is not a race

The House of Commons has risen for the season, but still has a number of bills on the Order Paper slowly working their way through the process. And as usually happens at this time of year, there are the big comparisons about how many bills this government has passed as compared to the Conservatives by this point. But those kinds of raw numbers analyses are invariable always flawed because legislation is never a numbers game, but is qualitative, as is the parliamentary context in which this legislating happens.

Part of the difference is in the set-up. Harper had five years of minority governments to get legislation in the wings that he couldn’t pass then, but could push through with a majority. He went from having a Senate that he didn’t control and was hostile to his agenda to one where he had made enough appointments (who were all under the impression that they could be whipped by the PMO) that it made the passage of those bills much swifter. And they also made liberal use of time allocation measures to ensure that bills passed expeditiously. Trudeau has not had those advantages, most especially when it comes to the composition of the Senate, especially since his moves to make it more independent means that bills take far longer than they used to, and are much more likely to be amended – which Trudeau is open to where Harper was not – further slowing down that process, particularly when those amendments are difficult for the government to swallow, meaning that they have taken months to either agree to them or to come up with a sufficient response to see them voted down. And then there are the weeks that were lost when the opposition filibustered the agenda in order to express their displeasure with the initial composition of the electoral reform committee, the first attempt to speed through legislation, and the government’s proposal paper to “modernize” the operations of the Commons. All of those disruptions set back legislation a great deal.

This having been said, Trudeau seems to remain enamoured with UK-style programming motions, which he may try to introduce again in the future (possibly leading to yet more filibustering), because it’s a tool that will help him get his agenda through faster. So it’s not like he’s unaware that he’s not setting any records, but at the same time, parliament isn’t supposed to be about clearing the Order Paper as fast as possible. Making these kinds of facile comparisons gives rise to that impression, however, which we should discourage.

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QP: One last go at the PM

On what promises to be the final sitting day of 2017, all of the leaders were present, and duelling Christmas poems by Mark Strahl and Rodger Cuzner, things got underway. While some of Strahl’s lines raised eyebrows (particularly the line about Scheer’s virility), Cuzner’s annual poem didn’t disappoint.

Andrew Scheer led off, railing about the “devastating” small business tax changes. Justin Trudeau reminded him that small business taxes were being lowered, and restricting income sprinkling was about ensuring that people couldn’t take advantage of loopholes. Scheer insisted that the changes spelled doom, and Trudeau responded that the opposition had become so partisan that they treated a small business tax cut as a bad thing. Scheer listed off the supposed ways in which the government has apparently attacked taxpayers, but Trudeau insisted that they were doing everything to grow the middle class, and noted how many jobs had been created. Scheer pivoted mid-retort to decry Trudeau’s “erratic behaviour” on the trade file, to which Trudeau reminded him that they weren’t going to sign any deal, but only wanted good deals for Canada. Scheer was concerned that Trudeau was endangering the NAFTA talks, to which Trudeau reminded him that capitulation was not a trade strategy. Guy Caron was up next to bay about the nomination process for the new Ethics Commissioner, and Trudeau noted that they started engaging the opposition for criteria of this process last June, and if they didn’t have confidence, they should say so. Caron insisted that their dispute was with the process not the candidate, and that they couldn’t trust a process where the committee was dominated by cabinet staff. Trudeau responded with a defence of that process, with a slightly disappointed tone. Alexandre Boulerice was up next, and he railed that the Commissioner wouldn’t promise to carry on current investigations and insinuated that the government was trying to sweep everything under the rug. Trudeau insisted that the process was merit-based, and when Nathan Cullen got up to list the alleged ethical violations of the government, Trudeau responded with disappointment that the opposition was relying solely on personal attacks.

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Roundup: A new Chief Justice

The justice minister announced yesterday morning that the prime minister would be naming Justice Richard Wagner as the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, thus both respecting the tradition of alternating between a Common Law and a Civil Law judge as the Chief, as well as picking an accomplished jurist who has 15 years left on the bench, ensuring that there is a long enough period of stability on the Court. Wagner is well respected in the Quebec courts, where he hailed from, and it is noted that he doesn’t really fit into the left-right divide – something that is not only indicative of our Canadian system, but is one of those things that people point to when they note how a Liberal PM can elevate a judge chosen by his Conservative predecessor.

A trip to the Maclean’s archives finds this piece by Paul Wells on the day that Wagner was named to the Supreme Court was also the day that Justin Trudeau threw his hat into the ring for Liberal leadership, and that both men had famous fathers in political circles. Tasha Kheiriddin notes the choice of Wagner is a safe one.

It’s also worth noting that Wagner also becomes Deputy Governor General with his elevation to Chief Justice, and he can grant royal assent to bills in the event that the GG herself is ill or absent; he opens Parliament before a Speaker is elected; and he will head the committee in charge of nominating people to the Order of Canada. The practice since 1939 also used to be that the Chief Justice would close a session of Parliament instead of the Governor General following some particular manoeuvring by Mackenzie King while the GG was out of town, until the government stopped with prorogation ceremonies. (If you ask me, they should restore the ceremonies, but with the GG doing them).

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QP: Trade, jets and jeers

The final Tuesday QP of the year, and all of the leaders were present — even past leader Thomas Mulcair was present, for a change. After each side offered statements of congratulations for their by-election wins, Andrew Scheer led off, mimi-lectern on desk, and he read some condemnation of the PM going to China and his willingness to allow foreign takeovers without security reviews. Trudeau chose instead to offer congratulations to the by-election winners, as well as everyone who put their names forward. Scheer offered his own breathy congratulations, then accused the PM of erratic behaviour and incompetence on the trade file. Trudeau insisted that they worked hard to get deal that “work good” for Canadians, and that things like environmental and labour rights be respected. Scheer sniped that the PM comes home empty handed, and then raised another instance of someone complaining about Kent Hehr’s comments. Trudeau said that the minister took the allegations seriously and apologized. Scheer then moved onto the fighter jet question, and the decision to purchase used interim jets. Trudeau said that the reality was that the military needed new jets years ago but the previous government didn’t deliver, but his government had launched an open process with interim jets to fill capacity gaps. Scheer noted the problems with those jets identified by the Australian Auditor General, and offered Trudeau an old minivan. Trudeau reiterated that the previous government botched their processes. Guy Caron was up next, and was concern trolling about the problems with getting new officers of parliament. Trudeau noted the open, transparent process, and that he had confidence in the nominees put forward. Caron insisted that the process was not transparent, and demanded the names on the selection committees and short lists. Trudeau said that the appointment processes take time, and have put in place processes that people could trust. Nathan Cullen repeated the same question with added sanctimony in English, and Trudeau reiterated that they would continue to consult with the opposition on appointments, and then after another round of the same, and Trudeau said that if they didn’t have confidence in the nominee they should just say so.

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QP: Concern trolling about the Commissioner

After a week away, Justin Trudeau was back in the Commons after a week away, and Andrew Scheer was also back, as the final sitting days of 2017 ticked down. Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and he raised the current investigations by the Ethics Commissioner, and concern trolled that they wouldn’t be completed before her term was up. Trudeau noted that he had recused himself from any discussions around the Commissioner, but he was confident that the House Leader would do a good job. Scheer, breathily racing through his script, worried that MPs would not be consulted or have a chance to vet the new appointee, but Trudeau reiterated that he had confidence in the House Leader. Scheer moved onto the backlog of veterans awaiting disability benefits, to which Trudeau noted that while the previous government closed veterans officers, they were reopened under the current government along with new investments. Scheer insisted that this was solely the problem of the current government, to which Trudeau said that veterans had abandoned hope of getting help under the previous government while they were coming forward now that the current government was reaching out and reinvesting. Scheer tried to then wedge this into a “mean-spiritedness” onto the disability tax credits, and Trudeau assured him that they were looking at the issue carefully to ensure that Canadians were getting the benefits they deserved. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, and he too returned to the issue of the backlog of veterans benefits, and Trudeau reiterated that these were applications by those who had previously given up hope. Irene Mathyssen and demanded to know if the new veterans disability plan would be released before the House rises, and Trudeau offered assurances that they were taking the issue seriously. Caron turned to demand a Netflix tax and defend the press, and Trudeau insisted that they would not raise taxes on Canadians. Pierre Nantel was up next to demand the same Netflix tax in French, and Trudeau assured him that no Quebec demanded that he raise their taxes.

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Roundup: A couple of reality checks

As we head into the final week of the Commons’ sitting for 2017, there have been a couple of recurring themes in the past few weeks that could each use some good dose of Stephanie Carvin. The first issue remains that of returning foreign fighters, and the way in which the Conservatives keep repeating in Question Period that the Liberal strategy is apparently “poetry and podcasts,” which a) nobody has seriously suggested, and b) deliberately confuses preventative deradicalization programmes with those geared toward rehabilitating those who have returned from foreign warzones who may not have been active combatants (most of whom are dead by this point).

And then there is the Prime Minister’s trip to China, where a free trade deal wasn’t secured, which Carvin is an acknowledged China sceptic about from a national security standpoint, particularly because China doesn’t like to play fair, and will use tactics that include imprisonment and de facto hostage-taking in order to try and get their way in trade disputes.

Let’s hope that the opposition has a chance to listen to some of what Carvin has to say before they ask some more…dubious questions this week.

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Roundup: Embattled ministers sticking it out

With three cabinet ministers currently “embattled” (to various degrees), Aaron Wherry wondered about the drop-off in actual ministerial resignations, and found the comparison to the days of Brian Mulroney, who was far quicker to accept resignations than is customary these days. Mulroney came to regret this, mind you, but it can’t be denied that the demands for resignations have never left us, and in fact are pretty rote performance by this point. That the Conservatives made their demand for Bill Morneau’s resignation without any real damning evidence as to why it’s necessary has made it seem as unserious as it actually is, making it harder for them in the future to make a legitimate demand.

But with that having been said, I’m going to say that there’s something that Wherry has left out in his analysis, which is the way in which Cabinets are constructed is a different calculation now than it was in Mulroney’s day, and that matters. Back then, the dominant concern was federal construction, so while you had to ensure that you had enough ministers from certain regions, and some token diversity in terms of religious or cultural background, with a woman or two in the mix, it was easier to swap out white men for one another when it came to accepting resignations and replacing them. That’s not really the case right now. Trudeau’s pledge for a gender-balanced cabinet that is also regionally representative as well as diverse in terms of race and ethnicity means that there are far fewer options for replacing ministers when it comes time to either accepting resignations, or swapping them out for fresh blood. What that ends up doing is creating an incentive for a prime minister to stick by an “embattled” minister (though I’m not sure just how serious any of the allegations against any of the current ministers really is – the attacks against Morneau are largely baseless, while Lebouthillier has done her due diligence with regard to the AG’s report and has technically been correct in what she’s said regarding the disability tax credit; Hehr, meanwhile, has been chagrinned but I’m not sure there is a cardinal sin here in the grand scheme of things). Sure, there will be a few tough days in the media, but eventually, when there turns out to be nothing to what is being said, the storm passes. It passed with Harjit Sajjan and Maryam Monsef (who was given a promotion for sticking with the flaming bag of dog excrement that was the electoral reform file), and I’m pretty sure it’ll pass for the current three. Until Parliament itself is more diverse than it is now, the demands for a representative Cabinet means that there are fewer options available for a Prime Minister to accept a resignation. What it does mean, however, is that they need to get a bit better around communications and managing the issues that do come up, but also seems to be a recurring theme with this government.

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QP: Lebouthillier has had enough of your accusations

With Justin Trudeau on his way back from China, and Andrew Scheer again absent, it was left up to Lisa Raitt to once again carry the day. Raitt led off, concerned about tax changes affecting small businesses, and demanded specifics. Dominic LeBlanc reminded her that they were cutting small business taxes, and details on income sprinkling would come before January 1st. Raitt then mocked the government for spending on advertising, to which Scott Brison got up to remind her that when she was in government, they spent a lot more on advertising, while the current government changed the rules to ensure that it wouldn’t be partisan. Raitt raised the concerns of small business owners in New Brunswick communities she visited, and LeBlanc, himself from the province, noted that the member of that riding had already made those concerns known and the government was listening. Alain Rayes was up next to offer the concern trolling on small business taxes in French, and LeBlanc assured him that they listened to concerns before they are implemented. Rayes tried again, and LeBlanc assured him the details would be known shortly. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, and railed about the American decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel, and wanted louder condemnation from the Canadian government. Mélanie Joly assured him that they were allies of Israel and that the status of Jerusalem could only be determined in larger negotiations. Hélène Laverdière tried again in English, and got the same answer from Joly in English. Caron was back up, and referred to the Auditor General’s report on the CRA and wondered when they would be accountable to Canadians. Diane Lebouthillier listed off the measures that were being undertaken to correct the situation, and Caron tried again in English, and Lebouthillier repeated her response.

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Roundup: A revealing confession

When I saw the initial tweet, I can’t tell you how hard my eyes rolled, precisely because this sort of shtick is David Akin’s specialty – asking non-sequitur questions at inappropriate moments to try and generate a different headline, oftentimes to manufacture outrage (and oftentimes to the detriment of other reporters who had serious questions to ask when questions were limited). And some of the reactions to said tweet were pretty great too.

But reading Trudeau’s response, it was a bit of a warning klaxon for me, because of how this has been quietly playing out over the course of the past couple of years in the ways that Trudeau and his government has been trying to “reform” the way that business happens in the House of Commons – you know, to “modernize” the way that it functions.

…As we look at electoral structures, which is one of the questions that was specifically asked, we’ve had a certain level of discussions around electoral and democratic reform in Canada that leave me looking to the mother of all parliaments. Obviously, the U.K. does a significantly better job than us in programming legislation and getting that through the House. I think there is issue to admire on that. On the other hand, we were glad to adopt the prime minister’s question period model from the U.K. I think there’s lots to draw on when you look at our democratic structures from the mother of all parliaments.

The two key takeaways there are programming legislation, and prime minister’s questions. This isn’t the first time that programming motions have come up – back in the spring, the opposition filibustered the government over a proposal to include programming motions as part of Bardish Chagger’s “discussion paper” on suggested changes to procedure, and it seems that Trudeau hasn’t given up on the notion. I know that some people like programming motions because it helps create more orderly debates, and helps to move legislation though the chamber a lot more swiftly. But that’s partially why I’m not a huge fan of it, because creates the default assumption that the Commons is there to process legislation instead of holding government to account. Granted, we’ve gotten a bit dysfunctional in our parliament because opposition parties (and the NDP in particular) have an inability to let debate collapse in a reasonable timeframe which brings up the need for time allocation, and programming motions are just that – time allocation for all stages of a debate as it gets tabled. We should be trying to get parliament back to a better state of debate rather than resorting to programming, because that will help snuff out what little life remains in our parliament – it will make the speeches that much more rote and pro forma rather than having a miniscule chance for actual debate. As for PMQs, Trudeau’s grand experiment with it here has not proven to be that illuminating, and has instead created a perverse incentive for the Conservatives to instead bombard him with the same question eleventy times than to use it productively, and even when backbenchers do ask varied questions, they get mere platitude responses rather than substantive ones. It’s not like the UK’s, and so I find Trudeau’s response to Akin far more dubious as a result.

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