Roundup: Tracking the dissenters

The CBC’s Éric Grenier has posted an analysis of free votes in the Commons in the current parliament, determining which party’s MPs dissent the most often. Part of this kind of analysis bothers me in part because it’s quantitative rather than qualitative, in part with how it was carried out. Rather than actually going through each vote to see a) what kind of vote it was, and b) the substance of the vote, he relied on the measure of how the cabinet voted to determine if it was a whipped vote or not, which is a poor measure, seeing as this would capture all manner of procedural votes (albeit, there haven’t been nearly as many in the current parliament as there were in the previous one). I’m not sure that there are any particular surprises in here in that the Liberals have been given a freer hand with their free votes, which was largely the case with the Conservatives in the previous parliament as well – having a majority usually lets a give their backbenchers a little added room to blow off a bit of steam when necessary. It’s also not unexpected in the fact that the Liberals are a party that doesn’t have a core ideology that they feel compelled to adhere to in the way that most Conservatives and the NDP most certainly do. It also shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that leadership candidates in the Conservatives are breaking ranks more often, given that they’re trying to put their own stamp on the party, so this is their latitude to start doing that. And as for the top “dissenting” voters, the top two are Liberals Nathaniel Erskine-Smith and Robert-Falcon Ouellette, who have a history of being a bit…naïve, if I may be blunt, in some of the positions they’ve taken to date. Erskine-Smith, if you recall, recently got pulled from a committee because his attempts to do more consensus-building wound up getting him manipulated by Tony Clement into voting against his own party’s interests when it came to amendments to a government bill, and Ouellette is often seen saying…not terribly thought-out things in the media. So, does it surprise me that they’re the two who voted against their party the most? No, not really. But Grenier doesn’t have any kind of context around this numbers, and that’s all he does – post numbers because he’s the numbers guy, which can be interesting in reporting, but it also only tells a fraction of the actual story, which is why stories like these do rub me the wrong way.

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Roundup: Laying the groundwork for deadlock

Over the past couple of days, we’ve seen the markers being placed, and the groundwork is now being laid for the likely deadlock that will be the committee report on electoral reform. With the last of the cross-country consultations taking place this week, the parties started marking their turf this week – the NDP with their vacant report showing “overwhelming” support for proportional voting – along with demands for local representation, which means that they’re going to demand Mixed-Member Proportional, which was their intention all along. The Conservatives, meanwhile, have no position other than they demand a referendum, and yesterday they released the results of their surveys which came back “overwhelmingly” in favour of such a thing. (Never mind that both the Conservatives and the NDP had pretty much zero rigour when it comes to how they achieved those results, and the selection bias was pretty evident, they’re only interested in shock-and-awe headline results). Oh, and the Conservatives insist that they’re willing to find a consensus on a system – really! – but without a referendum, it’s no way no how.

In the middle of this, the Liberals are all going to start turning in the reports from their town hall meetings, all of which focused on “values” rather than specific systems, in the likely hopes that they too will have enough loose data that they can fudge into justifying whatever system they want – or, in the likely event of a deadlock, to justify that the current system already reflects those values (except of course for proportionality, but we all know that demand is based on a logical fallacy, and it would be great if they would actually admit that), so they can wiggle out of their commitment to reforming said system wholesale. Kady O’Malley thinks that this will really come down to the NDP deciding on whether to stick to their guns on proportionality or if they’ll put some water in their wine and accept ranked ballots, but given their completely specious rhetoric on the subject to date (“First-past-the-post on steroids!”), I think that’ll be too hard of a pill for them to swallow.

So, with any luck, this whole thing will blow up in everyone’s faces, and the government will have to swallow their pride, admit defeat, and move onto other, more important issues. One can always hope, anyway.

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Roundup: Anxiety and resentment

As the United States continues to be subjected to demagoguery in their electoral gong show, Bill Morneau is warning about “canary in the coal mine” that Trumpism is representing, which can be echoed in other places with the Brexit vote or the rise of Bernie Sanders on the left in the US. Morneau attributes it to anxiety and resentment over the belief that globalisation is not benefitting the majority of citizens (never mind that $400 flat panel televisions are totally not the benefit of global trade, but just a coincidence. Oh, wait…) Morneau pegs his solutions in terms of what his government is doing with their “inclusive growth” agenda, and mentions their higher taxes on the one percent in order to pay for the enhanced child benefit payments and their plans to overhaul the CPP, along with infrastructure spending, but it seems to me that it’s only half the battle, and that we need some greater financial economic amongst the general public to see just what the benefits of global trade are, and that they’re not just benefitting the super-rich.

We need talk about things like the “Iowa car crop” to educate people about how trade benefits them in ways that they don’t think about – like hey, food prices are at something approaching an all-time low thanks to trade, and cars and electronics continue to fall in price and we have devices nowadays that would be considered magical just a few decades ago, at price points that are unimaginable for their complexity. But none of this fits into the narratives of resentment that people stoke for political benefit, and that’s a problem. It’s also a problem with that narrative is used to fuel anti-establishment sentiments that only serve to poison the well against the way governments function, and that’s going to start biting back in a very big way before too long in the States, as people demanding wholesale dismantling of the state start reaping what they’ve sown – particularly as it comes wrapped in Trump’s message and his attempts to delegitimise the results of the election before they’ve happened already. It’s a dangerous game that they’re playing, and it needs to be stopped, but anyone who does is “biased” and “protecting the status quo,” and where do you go from there? I wish I knew.

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Roundup: What free market mechanism?

The Conservative reaction to the imposition of a federal minimum carbon price has been fascinating, in part because of just how counterfactual it would be to how an actual conservative party would behave. You would think that an actual small-c conservative party would believe in market principles and would think that imposing price incentives (the carbon price) would be great because it would force the market to innovate to reduce the costs associated, hence reducing the carbon emissions in the least onerous way possible with the costs being fully transparent.

But no. We don’t actually have a small-c conservative party in this country, we have right-flavoured populists who would rather rail about “taxes on everything” and give sad homilies about how hard done by the workers of this country are, and how carbon taxes are just letting millionaires claim tax credits on the backs of the ordinary people of this country. No, seriously – these are things that the Conservatives have said in QP. And Rona Ambrose then goes on TV and says that the government should be regulating major emitters in a way that won’t cost consumers (never mind that regulations are the most costly mechanism available and it simply hides the true costs). It’s mind-boggling.

And so we now have all but one leadership candidate railing about carbon taxes, and the only one who agrees with carbon pricing, Michael Chong, insists that this is the wrong way to do it, that it should be revenue neutral for the taxpayer (never mind that provinces could institute that if they want, but they are given the flexibility to do with as they choose). Meanwhile, Paul Wells takes a torch to Lisa Raitt’s overwrought homilies about the poor people suffering under carbon taxes, and applies a little math to the analysis, which doesn’t fare well for Raitt. Likewise, Andrew Coyne laments the lack of a serious discussion on carbon pricing as the cheapest and least onerous way to reduce emissions. But this is currently the state of conservative politics in this country.

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Roundup: No, the LG can’t threaten the premier

Sometimes you see a terrible column, and sometimes there’s such a piece of hot garbage that you need to don a hazmat suit just to approach it and get hosed off afterward like you just came out of a leaking nuclear reactor. The Toronto Sun’s Christina Blizzard delivered one of those yesterday.

That’s right – this columnist thinks that the lieutenant governor should threaten Kathleen Wynne to shape up or she’ll dismiss her, because 167 years of Responsible Government was just a failed experiment. One lesbian first minister in this province and we’ve decided that it was too much – time to hand power back to the queen and be done with it.

You see! Voters can’t be trusted! Obviously we’d be better off under absolute monarchy again because they won’t let such terrible governments to let themselves get elected and then implement the agendas that they were elected on. It’s like the fanboys in the First Order who remember the good old days of the Galactic Empire and preferred it to the messy democracy of the New Republic.

It’s called confidence. Whichever leader in the legislature or Parliament that can command the confidence of the chamber gets to advise the LG/GG/queen on how to exercise the powers of state. Not a difficult concept.

It is utterly galling that a columnist can be so utterly ignorant of basic civics that this is the kind of utter bilge that they spew onto newsprint. We do have a problem with basic civic literacy in this country, and when you have columnists like this spreading complete nonsense out of some sense of partisanship, it gives a warped impression to people who read this and makes them believe that it’s actually normal and expected that the GG or the LG can boss around a government that you don’t like. No. Absolutely not.

So let me reiterate that Blizzard’s column is utter hot garbage. If the Sun had any shame, they’d pull it and apologise profusely for putting it out there, and Blizzard would be sent to a remedial civics course, but I doubt that’s going to happen because she’s just passionate about how bad Wynne is, or some bullshit excuse like that. So in the meantime, I’ll just leave this here:

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Roundup: Quality over quantity

Every time I see a piece that presents the shockingly low numbers of women in politics in our country, I tense up a little. Not because the numbers are terrible – because let’s face it, they are – but because almost always, these tend to be quantitative lists trying to talk about a qualitative problem. Lo and behold, we have yet another of these in the Ottawa Citizen this morning, but there are a few figures in there that need to be unpacked a little more.

The one that really bothers me and deserves to be contextualized is the one percent change between number of women in this parliament and the previous one, and this is where the quantitative/qualitative aspect really comes into play. First of all, the House of Commons is larger in the current parliament by 30 MPs. This means that a one percent gain in a larger Commons means more women on an absolute numbers basis, and that matters. The other, more important fact, however, is the quality of the female MPs we elected this time around. In 2011, let’s face it – much of the increase came from the number of NDP MPs who were accidentally elected following the “Orange Wave” – candidates who hadn’t been properly nominated, had never been to their ridings, never campaigned in them, and were just names on a list that the party put there in order to ensure that they could max out their spending limits. When a wave of sentimentality overcame the Quebec electorate, they got elected. Much was made of the number of young women that were elected, but qualitatively, most of them were underwhelming MPs, whose only real skillset was in reading the scripts that were put in front of them and throwing tantrums in the media when they needed some attention. Most of them, fortunately, didn’t get elected again. That said, for the 2015 election, the Liberals put into place a system to seek out and encourage more women to seek the nomination and to support them in winning it. Qualitatively, you got better MPs who were not just names on lists, who proved they could fight and win both a nomination race and an election by doing the work of door-knocking and being engaged, and more of them wound up in the Commons. It’s a qualitative improvement that can grow further in the next election.

This is why suggestions about changing our electoral system to incorporate lists in order to get more women and minorities into the Commons frustrates me, because there is an implicit message that women and visible minority candidates can’t fight and win elections on an equal basis. I think that’s wrong, and targets the wrong problem because it ignores the complexities and realities of our nomination system and ways that it needs to be improved – such as how the Liberals started doing – and how that changes the game on the ground. The problems in our system when it comes to getting women elected are cultural, not mechanical. Simply changing the electoral system to artificially inflate the numbers of women won’t solve the underlying problems, but merely mask them. We should remember that every time these quantitative lists are released.

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Roundup: Stop demanding deployment votes

While Harjit Sajjan is off in London at a meeting of defence ministers, his critics are back in Ottawa grousing about the shift of focus from peacemaking to peacekeeping – never mind that Sajjan has already said that any upcoming mission is unlikely to be “peacekeeping” in the traditional sense as opposed to what he’s terming “peace operations.” That aside, the other emerging bit of drama is the fact that Sajjan is indicating that the government is unlikely to put such a deployment to a vote in the House of Commons – which is of course the way that things should work, but the Conservatives under Stephen Harper started saying they were going to hold votes starting with the Afghanistan mission extension under the guise of being “more democratic” when their whole point was to publicly divide the Liberals, and hey, that happened. (Remember when Harper crossed the floor to shake Michael Ignatieff’s hand after that vote? Because that wasn’t about trying to put a skewer in the brewing leadership contest, no sir). But beyond the reasons why the practice started, it’s antithetical to the whole point of parliament, which is to hold the government to account. When you put decisions like this to a vote – even if it’s non-binding and worded as “supporting a decision,” it gives the illusion that you’re giving parliament a role in the decision, when that’s not their job. When they are implicated in the decision making, they are not able to effectively hold the government to account because they can turn around and say “the House voted on this,” and shrug it off – and yes, the Conservatives did this on a number of occasions as well. So yes, have debates. Have committees scrutinize the missions as they happen, but don’t insist on votes, even if it’s for symbolic reasons, because that poisons the well.

On a related note, at the meeting of defence ministers, some of the shortages facing peacekeeping operations in Africa were noted, and one of them is the need for more female peacekeepers on the ground.

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Roundup: A rapidly shrinking legacy

A little less than a year after the last election, Stephen Harper announced yesterday that he was finally resigning his seat as an MP, and will be off to face future challenges under the banner of his own private consultation firm, Harper and Associates. Apparently he is looking forward to “building something new” and will have an international focus in his new endeavours, which I find a bit curious considering that this was someone who had never even left the country until he became Leader of the Opposition, and whose foreign policy during his time in government was a tad, well, ham-fisted. Oh, and he’ll be joining a speaker’s bureau and tour the world to give speeches, which again is against the grain of his time in office when he was known for not only speaking as little as possible, but also of scrubbing any bits of humanity from his speeches in order to make them as dull and forgettable as possible with no hint of personality in them. We’ll see if he plans to continue this in his new life. Meanwhile, here are some reactions from some of his former cabinet ministers, other notable Canadians, and five ways that Harper changed politics in Canada. Susan Delacourt writes about Harper’s legacy of being a lone wolf and keeping everyone at a distance.

If we’re going to talk legacy, then his longevity is one of the biggest points, but we’ll see how lasting any of his accomplishments are. His ability to reunite the Conservative party, such as it was (because let’s face it, this was not the Progressive Conservative party of John A. Macdonald, John Diefenbaker, Joe Clark or Kim Campbell) was an accomplishment, but we’ll see if it holds under new leadership or if we have a new voting system. After all, a proportional representation system would see the parts of the conservative coalition break-off out of the big tent into smaller factions that would see advantage in gaining outsized power from a new system, and you can bet that the social conservative elements would not have the patience to stick with a party that has ignored them if they can gain seats and leverage in another way. The vast majority of his policy agenda is well on the way to being rolled back under the new government, with the exception of the fiscal stranglehold that Harper put on the nation’s finances with his decision to cut the GST by two points. That is the only real policy area that the new government has shown no appetite to roll back, but if deficits persist, then raising the GST may be something they would consider (though the fact that some of the provinces have moved into that tax room – which was Harper’s plan all along, in order to see the federal government retreat further from their affairs). He has a legacy of some Supreme Court of Canada judgments that have put a lot of roadblocks on attempts to change the constitution by backdoor or “unofficial” means, so take that for what you will. But his other plan of obliterating the Liberals and turning Canada into a two-party state of Conservatives versus NDP – as he so nearly succeeded in doing in 2011 – has unravelled spectacularly, and saw not only the resurgence of the Liberal party, but a deep wounding of the NDP in the process. So what does this all add up to? I guess we’ll have to wait to see the history books, but it is a legacy that seems to have a shrinking quality less than a year after his time in office ended.

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Roundup: Beware blinkered history

There is always a danger in trying to look for lessons from history when you do so selectively. This is the case with a column by William Watson in today’s Ottawa Citizen. Watson – an economics professor at McGill and not a parliamentary observer, it should be noted – dug through the 1917 Hansard to look over the debates on bringing in income tax (remember, this was the “temporary” wartime measure that was introduced and then eventually became a permanent thing), and discovered that lo, the debate was so much more serious then and nothing like things are today, ergo Parliament was better in 1917 than it is today.

And then I bashed my head against my desk for a while.

This is what happens when you take a look at a narrow slice of history without actually looking at the broader context or picture. It’s easy to take a single debate and declare a golden age because hey, the government of the day was giving complex answers to complex questions, but that’s not to say that there weren’t antics that took place. Remember that this was not far removed from the days when MPs would light firecrackers and play musical instruments to disrupt the other side during debate. Hell, I was speaking to a reporter who was in the Gallery during WWII, and she said that there was far less professionalism in those days, and MPs who got bored would often break into song during debate. This was also the era before TV, before the proceedings were recorded in audio or video and able to be checked, so we don’t know what the transcriptionists missed. It was also an era where I’m sure that time limits for questions and answers were looser than they are now, and where MPs weren’t playing up for the cameras. Does that make it better? Maybe, maybe not. Parliament was also composed entirely of white men, mostly of a professional background – does that make things any better? You tell me. Parliament had very different responsibilities in those days as well, and government was much, much smaller. Patronage ruled the day, and government was more involved in direct hires of the civil service rather than it being arm’s length. Is this something we want to go back to? Watson kind of shrugs this important distinction off because they had more meaningful exchanges about income tax.

Declaring simply that Parliament was composed of “intelligent, informed adults” in 1917, and the implication that it is not so today, is a grossly blinkered view of history and of civics. I will be the first to tell you that the state of debate today is pretty abysmal when it mostly consists of people reading statements into the record, talking past one another, but that doesn’t mean that MPs aren’t intelligent or informed. Frankly, it seems like Watson is longing for the days of the old boys’ club if you read some of his nostalgic commentary. I’m not sure that’s proof that things were better then, and it certainly should be a caution about taking a blinkered view of history.

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Roundup: Not really elected, not really a betrayal

Alberta Conservative Senator Doug Black announced yesterday that he was going to sit as an independent, and a bunch of tongues started wagging because Black is one of the “elected” (and I do use the term loosely) Senators. A number of people also said a bunch of boneheaded things about the move, and we’ll get to that in a minute, but first, a refresher on the “election.”

For those of you who were unaware, Alberta has run a series of nonsense “consultative elections” for “senators in waiting” a few times, and it’s a process that has been problematic on a number of levels, not to mention the fact that the whole thing is unconstitutional. I mean if you want to elect Senators, then there’s a process, which is the general amending formula of the constitution, meaning seven provinces that represent 50 percent of the population. That didn’t happen, however Stephen Harper appointed from this list. Among the quirks of these “consultative elections” is that the candidates were largely running on the tickets of provincial parties – you know, ones that don’t exist on the federal level, not to mention the fact that the provincial Liberals boycotted an unconstitutional process, and the NDP refused because they want to abolish the Senate altogether. So this last time around you Senators running under the provincial Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Party, both of whom were pledged to sit as federal Conservatives, never mind that the two parties are different and don’t actually stand for the same things. And did we mention that this is an unconstitutional process? Because it is – you can’t do through the back door what you can’t through the front, never mind that Harper and the Alberta government at the time figured you could.

So what does this have to do with his decision to leave caucus? Well, people like Senator Don Plett are angry, calling this a “betrayal,” while his fellow “elected” Senator Scott Tanas was passive aggressive in his “disappointment” with the move. Plett went so far as to start saying that this was Black’s way of avoiding the whip as he apparently has a terrible attendance record (note: this could be verified, if one actually wanted, and I’m not sure that I care enough to go digging), and moaning that these “votes” have been “deprived of a Conservative representative.” And this is all very much like the floor-crossing debate, which is ridiculous. MPs are elected on an individual basis – our first-past-the-post system gives them enormous agency because they are elected as an individual, even if they are running on a party ticket. They are not there because their party won votes and they are apportioned the seat off of a list (which empowers the party, not the MP). For a senator, however, they are appointed with a great deal of institutional independence, because that is what their job requires of them if they are to be able to push back against a majority government when required, or speak truth to power without fearing for their jobs. And no, Black was not “elected” – he was appointed, despite it being on the basis of a sham “consultative” process. So guess what – with that institutional independence, he can choose whether he wants to sit in a caucus or not. It’s why a Prime Minister should be very careful in the vetting process before they appoint someone (and no, an election is not necessarily a good vetting process, particularly given the way that the Alberta process was run, and gosh, it’s not like bad apples have ever been elected before). So really, the fact that he claims to be “elected” is of little consequence with this move, other than as a kind of “fun fact.” If he wants to sit as an independent, then more power to him.

Meanwhile, Senator Patrick Brazeau’s suspension is now over and he’s back to work, vowing to “clean up” the Senate – which gives one flashbacks of an acquitted OJ Simpson vowing to catch his wife’s killer. And no, Brazeau’s legal troubles aren’t over.

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