Roundup: Gaming the system a second time

So the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party’s nomination committee has allowed Patrick Brown to run for the leadership contest, despite the fact that he was kicked out of caucus (which also rescinded his nomination as a candidate in his riding), which is going to go super well for everyone involved, be it Brown claiming that he’s been vindicated from the allegations (he hasn’t), or the other candidates who are trying (and failing) to come up with new policy on the fly as they try to distance themselves from Brown’s campaign platform. But what gets me are all of the pundits saying “It’s up for the party members to decide,” which should provide nobody any comfort at all, because the reason the party is in the mess it’s in is because Brown knew how to game the system in order to win the leadership the first time. He has an effective ground game, and can mobilise enough of his “rented” members, likely in more effective distributions (given that this is a weighted, ranked ballot) than other, more urban-centric candidates can. He played the system once, and has all the means necessary to do it again. Saying that it’ll be up to the membership to decide is an invitation to further chaos. This is no longer a political party. It’s an empty vessel waiting for the right charismatic person to lead it to victory, which is a sad indictment. Also, does nobody else see it as a red flag that Brown’s on-again-off-again girlfriend is 16 years his junior and used to be his intern? Dating the intern should be a red flag, should it not? Especially when one of his accusers is a former staffer.

Meanwhile, here’s David Reevely previews the party’s civil war, while Andrew Coyne imagines Brown’s pitch to members as his running as the “unity candidate” in a party split because of him.

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Roundup: What Stephen Harper knew

Some more explosive revelations last night, as Maclean’s acquired and published the internal emails of the Conservative campaign team when it came to their dealing with the matter of Rick Dystra’s nomination in the midst of his allegations that he sexually assaulted a staffer in 2014. Shortly after that was released, statements were put out by Ray Novak and then Stephen Harper himself to give their own versions of what they knew and the decisions they took at the time, and why they justified keeping Dykstra on (though he eventually lost his seat in the election).

Amidst all of this, Jen Gerson has a very incisive column on the culture of politics, where sex and booze are the comforts of people away from their homes and families in a cloistered environment that has a frat-boy air to it all. And why nobody acts when it comes to allegations that “everyone knows” about, such as those related to Patrick Brown, is in part because gossip is part of that culture, and where information is power, compounded by the tribalism that comes with partisans who want to protect their own – while spreading dirt about their enemies – makes it difficult to know what to take seriously (and which is why the Erin Weir situation is probably an overreaction, whether justified or not). It’s a worthwhile read that tries to put the past couple of weeks in some better context than we’ve been getting with piecemeal stories coming out, and discussions around the environment on the Hill that don’t take cultural context into consideration as to why it persists beyond just simple power imbalances.

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Roundup: The emancipation of Lynn Beyak

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, along with his Senate caucus leader, Senator Larry Smith, announced last night that troublesome Senator Lynn Beyak had been kicked out of caucus after she refused to remove blatantly racist “letters of support” from her website. In true Scheer form, he not only didn’t effectively manage the situation, but waited until there was a media storm before he backed down, just as he did with deciding not to give any more interviews to Rebel Media post-Charlottesville, or having to back down somewhat on his campus free-speech zealotry in the wake of another incident (though he did get back on that bandwagon again after the whole Lindsay Sheppard incident).

While this move was met with a number of people saying “better late than never,” I’m not so sure. In fact, I think that he’s just created a monster now that Beyak no longer has any kind of adult supervision. Indeed, I suspect that he’s just made a martyr out of Beyak, who can now claim that she’s a victim of “political correctness run amok,” and she will quickly attract a group of odious racists and free speech absolutists, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that she’ll be yet another Jordan Peterson-like figure (though likely without the need for the Patreon account, given her Senate tenure).

But that Senate tenure is exactly why this situation should have been better managed, and why expelling her from caucus was possibly the wrong thing to do. At least inside of caucus, she could have been managed, and if they had been on the ball, they should have had a better handle on what she was posting to her website and had it locked down long before now, using whatever means of coercion are available to party and Senate caucus leadership. After all, taking her off of committees didn’t seem to do the trick, but I’m not sure what kinds of measures they were using to manage her once that happened, if any. And that’s key, because as someone who has institutional independence and can’t be fired, managing her was the best possible thing that they could have done rather than letting her continue to court racists. (This being said, the fact that she was viewed as a Pollyanna figure by some of her fellows was probably why they didn’t think they needed to manage her as closely, and look what happened as a result).

Beyak is likely to continue to sit as a non-affiliated Senator, as we can be assured that the Independent Senators Group will want nothing to do with her, especially as they have a new rule that means that they need to have a two-thirds vote to admit her into their caucus. While people will howl for her to resign, I sincerely doubt that she will, given that she’ll have a new crowd of adherents that will flock to her now. She can’t be expelled from the Senate unless she’s convicted of a serious crime or is found to be in violation of Senate ethics rules, and there’s nothing to suggest that she would be (not to mention that there will be great reluctance to push her out for what she’s said, no matter how odious it may be, because free speech is greatly valued in the Senate). Trying to have her charged with hate crimes isn’t likey to work as I doubt she meets the bar for that, and dragging her before the Human Rights Tribunal will make her an even bigger martyr with the free speech absolutists. And so now we’ll be stuck with her until February 2024, because the party leadership couldn’t figure out how to properly manage a problem like her. Well done, guys.

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Roundup: Share sales and the sputtering outrage cycle

As the full-blown moral panic into what financial assets cabinet ministers own continues, we see the news that Bill Morneau has indeed sold off his shares in Morneau Shepell, for what it’s worth. Not that it will stop any of the chatter at this point – the outrage cycle continues to exhaust itself, and until some new outrage crops up, we’ll continue hearing about this as it sputters and runs on fumes.

And hey, why not find out what every other cabinet minister owns? The Star did, and I’m not really sure how edifying this whole exercise was in the end. Never mind that once again we’re reaching the point of absurdity with all of this. Are there problems with the ethics and conflict of interest legislation? Probably. Were loopholes identified previously? Yup. Did MPs do anything about it then? Nope. Do they really have an interest in closing any of them now? Probably not (and no, the NDP motion that the government voted down was not indicative of anything because it also contained a bunch of other stuff, as these things so often do, that was designed to embarrass Morneau and the government had they voted for it. Because in politics, we can’t have nice things). And once you add in all of the tall poppy nonsense, we’re left with the same tiresome moralizing that we’re always left with when it comes to “perceived” conflicts that aren’t actually there but which were invented out of whole cloth with the convenient lining up of “facts” that don’t pass the bullshit filter. And then we complain that nobody wants to get involved in politics.

Meanwhile, the Liberals are pointing out that Andrew Scheer has assets in Real Estate Limited Partnerships that are really only for the wealthy. Predictably, the Conservatives cite that he’s worth only a fraction of Morneau, and then cries of hypocrisy flew from both sides, and the outrage cycle continues to chug along.

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Roundup: Abandoning a fiscal anchor

In yesterday’s National Post, economist Stephen Gordon cast a critical eye on the fall economic update and the government’s excuse for running deficits, and the decision to abandon the fiscal anchor of balanced budgets in favour of a declining debt-to-GDP ratio. And rather than worrying about the non-existent debt-bomb, Gordon is mostly looking for answers why the policy shifted post-election. Fair enough. (He also does the math on how much more a government can spend by shifting the fiscal anchors like the government did here).

Enter fellow economist Kevin Milligan, who digs through and finds an answer. Enjoy.

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Roundup: Harper unhappy with NAFTA talks

Stephen Harper has apparently written an angry memo to his clients about the governmetn’s handling of the NAFTA negotiations, accusing them of bungling them by not evaluating American demands seriously (err, you have seen how many of their demands are literal impossibilities, right?) and of ignoring a softwood deal (which officials say was never on the table), and of aligning themselves too much with Mexico when they were the targets of America’s ire. Canadian officials are none too pleased, and consider it a gift to the Trump administration.

Alex Panetta, the Canadian Press reporter who broke the story, has more commentary below.

Paul Wells offered a few thoughts of his own on the news.

Incidentally, the PM has also vocally disagreed with former Conservative minister James Moore’s assertion that trade talks with China are hurting our talks with the Americans.

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Roundup: A failure to communicate

The state of the “debate” around this latest round of tax nonsense in Canada has me despairing for the state of discourse in this country. From the CRA’s opaque memo, to the Conservatives’ disingenuous and frankly incendiary characterization, followed up by terrible government communications and attempts at damage control (Scott Brison doing the rounds on the political shows last night was painful to watch), and throughout it all, shoddy and inadequate reporting on the whole thing has me ready to cast a pox on all of their houses. If anything was more embarrassing than Brison’s inability to explain the issue while reciting well-worn talking points on the middle class, it was David Cochrane quoting the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and asking if MPs need to reconsider their own benefits in light of this.

Hermes wept.

It also wasn’t until yesterday that CTV came up with an actual good fact-check on the issue, what it actually relates to (including how it relates to a 2011 Tax Court decision), and how it’s not targeting the bulk of the retail sector. But that took days to get, during which time we’ve been assaulted by all manner of noise. News stories in the interim that interviewed MPs and the Retail Council of Canada were distinctly unhelpful because they did nothing to dissect the actual proposals, which were technical and difficult to parse, so instead of being informed about the issues, we got rhetoric, which just inflames things. And I get that it’s tough to get tax experts over a long weekend, but Lyndsay Tedds tweeted a bunch of things on it that should have pointed people in the right direction, rather than just being a stenographer for the Conservative hysteria/government “nothing to see here, yay Middle class!” talking points.

Here’s a look at how the government scrambled to get a better message out around the Canada Infrastructure Bank, in order to combat those same media narratives. Because apparently neither side is learning any lessons here.

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Roundup: Not a real QP fix

Earlier in the week, the NDP put a motion on the Order Paper that they plan to use for a future Supply Day. The text of it, presented in the NDP House Leader Murray Rankin’s name reads as thus:

May 9, 2017 — Mr. Rankin (Victoria) — That Standing Order 11(2) be replaced with the following: “The Speaker or the Chair of Committees of the Whole, after having called the attention of the House, or of the Committee, to the conduct of a Member who persists in irrelevance, or repetition, including during responses to oral questions, may direct the Member to discontinue his or her intervention, and if then the Member still continues to speak, the Speaker shall name the Member or, if in Committee of the Whole, the Chair shall report the Member to the House.”

As Kady O’Malley points out, this would actually be a binding Supply Day motion, as it involves the Commons moving changes to its own rules, and the effect of which is to give the Speaker much more power to police answers given by enhancing the orders around irrelevant or repetitive answers. And on paper, it sounds great. I’m just not sure that this will work in practice.

For starters, this is attacking a mere fraction of the actual problem that we face in the House of Commons. It’s not just the answers that are lacking – it’s the questions (which are as repetitive and irrelevant as the answers), and in many cases, they’re not actually questions, but meandering speeches disguised as rhetorical questions, or non sequitur accusations for which there can be no answer. Empowering the Speaker alone will not solve the problem – the whole ecosystem in the House of Commons needs to change, which means banning scripts, loosening up the clock, and doing away with the established speaking lists. The rigid structure and scripted nature is now all about creating a buffet of media clips, and simply empowering the Speaker to compel answers by means of naming and shaming is not going to fix the underlying problems.

The second problem is that this is something that can very quickly be abused. In fact, you can guarantee that if this were implemented that the very first series of questions that the Opposition would ask would be a trap for the Prime Minister – as much of a trap as their constant questions on Wednesday about the Ethics Commissioner investigation were. That Trudeau refused to step into said trap was a political calculation that has endeared nobody in the whole sordid affair, and everyone came off looking petty. Compelling the PM to walk into traps on a daily basis will quickly become a major problem.

A third major concern is that enforcement of this rule change is going to cause all manner of problems if the opposition doesn’t see the Speaker enforcing this to their liking. Accusations of favouritism or partisanship will soon flow, and there will be tears and recriminations. Nobody will win. So while I appreciate the sentiment of this motion, and would agree with it to a very limited degree, until we get the bigger and more important changes, this simply becomes a bigger problem than the one they’re trying to solve.

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Roundup: “Prominent” Canadians demand unicorns

Yesterday, the “Every Voter Counts Alliance,” which is a proportional representation umbrella group that includes our friends at Fair Vote Canada got a group of “prominent Canadians” to call on the government to implement a “made-in-Canada” PR system. And while most of these “prominent Canadians” are the usual suspects, they got a few added names including a former Chief Electoral Officer (whom I will note has tried promoting a “rural-urban proportional system” that the Supreme Court would immediately frown upon). Meanwhile, here are a few reminders about just what a “made-in-Canada” PR system is referring to.

Handwavey. Nonsense.

The reason why people like these keep going back to his notion that there’s a “made-in-Canada” system that we can somehow devise that will somehow manage to overcome the constitutional obstacles and at the same time providing their precious proportionality and will somehow deliver all of the supposed goodness that comes along with it despite the fact that we’re a vast country with a sparse population and fairly entrenched regional divisions, is because they don’t actually know how it will look. They just expect someone to figure it out and then present it to them, and it will be so wonderful that there will be no unintended consequences, we won’t wind up with thirty splinter parties, that it won’t give rise to far-right parties like pretty much every other PR system has, that it will lead to stable coalition governments that won’t have big policy “swings” every few years, and there will be no problems. No actual trade-offs. Just a new golden age of democracy.

But if they’re trying to pin their hopes on the Electoral Reform committee and its work, well, I wouldn’t hold my breath. As I’ve discussed elsewhere about why it’s a bad idea from a governance and accountability point of view, and as Kady O’Malley reminds us that the committee never actually came to any kind of consensus, and as I will remind you yet again, their report was a steaming pile of hot garbage. It’s not going to happen. What they’re asking for is magic. Unicorns and gumdrops, and not reality.

It’s time to let the demands for proportionality go. They won’t actually improve governance or representation, because it’s built solely on the emotional response of sore-loserism. We have a system that functions (and would function even better if we undid the “reforms” that were supposed to improve things but only made them worse). Trying to break it even further to satisfy this emotional need for perceived “fairness” which is not actually a Thing is only going to do just that – break it. Time to grow up and actually learn how the system works.

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Roundup: Sound the independent thought alarm

Every time I read these headlines, I sigh and shake my head a little, because here we go again. “Indigenous Liberal MP breaks ranks with government on BC’s Site C Dam” it reads. The MP is Robert-Falcon Ouellette, and by “breaking ranks,” he has questions for the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans – who grants approvals for these kinds of things – and he plans to ask him in caucus next week. Oooh, someone had better sound the independent thought alarm!

It seems that most of my fellow journalists have forgotten that it’s the job of backbenchers – even those of the governing party – to hold the government (meaning cabinet) to account. They’re supposed to ask questions and to not just give them a pass. Ouellette is doing his job. But by sensationalizing it (which this headline clearly does), and portraying it as “breaking ranks” (which he’s not – there have been no votes that he’s gone off-side with) is both demeaning to his job, and it reinforces the notion that MPs are supposed to be drones parroting the lines of their leaders, which is absurd. Not only that, but We The Media nevertheless insist that MPs are supposed to do their jobs and represent their constituents and address issues and not just parrot talking points, and yet we call them out the moment that they do just that. Why? Seriously – why are we doing this? We’re actively being destructive to our democratic system when we pull this kind of nonsense. There are far better and more effective ways that this story could have been framed that don’t privilege party discipline (which again, not actually being broken here) and this notion that MPs must be in lockstep. It shouldn’t be that difficult to do. And yet here we are.

Honestly, we need to do better if we expect better democratic outcomes in this country. We are part of the problem, and we should stop being just that.

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