By Andrew Coyne - Friday, February 18, 2011 - 172 Comments
Colleague Cosh has written perhaps the best defense possible of Bev Oda’s actions in the “Oda ado” (history’s first palindromic scandal?). He acquits her, by my estimate, of two-and-a-half of the three charges against her:
- that she lied to Parliament, when she said the decision to defund Kairos was CIDA’s, or at least on CIDA’s advice, rather than, as we later learned, in contradiction of it;
- that she altered the document in which CIDA officials recommended continuing funding to make it appear as if they had recommended it be discontinued — or rather, since she now admits to having altered it, that such alteration of a signed legal document was improper at best, a forgery at worst;
- and that she lied to the Commons foreign affairs committee when she claimed she did not alter it, or know who did.
Some thoughts on his thoughts, taking the charges in reverse order.
1. Did she mislead the foreign affairs committee? Yes, of course she did: at least, if you think she’s telling the truth now. Tory members of the committee are attempting to maintain that although the minister told the commitee she did not alter the document, this was not inconsistent with her later statement that she directed that it be altered. Not even Colby is buying that. It is simply nonsense to pretend that, when she told them she did not alter the document, they should have understood her to mean she did tell someone else to do it — or that when she said she did not know who did it, that should have been understood to mean that she told someone to do it, but does not know who actually carried out her order. (Colby says he does not find it remarkable “at all” that Oda would be unable to say who wrote the “not.” That’s not the point. The point is not whether she was lying in suggesting she did not know who it was; the point is what her listeners would reasonably read into that statement, in the context in which it was made.) Any reasonable person, hearing her testimony, would have understood her to mean she had nothing to do with it, period.
2. Is the document a forgery? Not exactly. Or not as we usually understand it. A forgery is usually intended to look like what it is not, to pass one thing off as another. Had the “not” been inserted in such a way as to conceal the addition, that is in the same typescript as the original, that would be a forgery: the amended document passing as the original, and the signatures affixed conveying a very different meaning than had been intended by those who put them there. But there is no way that anyone looking at that hand-scrawled addition would think it was part of the original document, and no way that any would-be forger could imagine they would.
Still: the document must have been altered for some reason. Colby finds it “at least possible” that this reason was perfectly innocent: that Oda’s signature was to the amended document, the other signatures were to the unamended document, and everyone should just be able to tell what each signature meant, at the time it was affixed. Possible, maybe. But I do not find it plausible.
Oda’s explanation, that she ordered the insertion of the word “not” in the document in order that she could then reject its recommendation by signing it, makes no earthly sense. If she had wanted to reject the recommendation, all she had to do was refuse to sign it. The fact that the document does bear her signature suggests she signed it before the document was altered: that is, that she initially accepted the recommendation, approved the funding, then changed her mind — or had it changed for her.
But even then: why add the ‘not’? No, it was not a conventional forgery – but whoever did id might still have had deception in mind: namely, to suggest that not only was the minister okay with the document as amended, but so were the bureaucrats. The document, in this scenario, would have been altered not after they had signed it, but before, ie with their approval. Perhaps the word “not” was inadvertently left out, and the handwritten addition was meant to correct it. Oops. In other words, we would be led to understand, the bureaucrats really had meant to recommend eliminating Kairos’s funding, as the minister’s public statements had suggested, not continuing it. The alteration was meant not to twist their views into conformity with the minister’s, but to make the document conform to theirs.
Except that’s not true. The document, those same bureaucrats have testified, was altered after their signed, not before. If the point of the alteration was to suggest the bureaucrats had knowingly signed off on the document as amended, it was as much a forgery as if the alternation had been concealed from us altogether.
Perhaps you think that’s a stretch. But supposing I’m right, and the minister was prevailed upon to revoke her earlier decision, and discontinue funding. The story the government wants told at the time is that “it was CIDA’s decision.” But you’ve got a document on your hands with her signature on it, along with those of the CIDA officials, urging continued funding. Sooner or later that document is going to come to light, exposing the government’s story as a lie. Destroying the document is out of the question, as is out-and-out forgery: that way prison lies. But marking up the document in this way does just enough to muddy the waters, and make it hard to pin down just who signed what when.
And even if there were no such fraudulent intent: it’s a hell of a way to carry on. You simply don’t alter signed documents in this way. Or if you do, you have the parties initial the changes, to show they approved of them. Colby sets great stock in the public testimony of the CIDA president, at the same foreign affairs committee hearing as her boss, that the alteration of the document after she had signed it, without her initials, was “normal.” No other civil servant that I am aware of, past or present, has offered the same view: that it is “normal” for a minister to reject a recommendation by adding a “not” to it. Or perhaps she meant it was “normal” for this minister. Very well: if the minister has any other documents she has altered in this way, let’s see them.
3. Did the minister misrepresent her bureaucrats’ advice prior to this, in statements in Parliament? Yes. And not only her. For months after the November 2009 decision to eliminate Kairos’s funding, every statement out of the Harper government — save one, the Jason Kenney indiscretion — carried the same clear, consistent message: that the decision was CIDA’s. Here are three commonly cited examples:
Jean-Luc Benoit, the minister’s spokesman, Dec 3, 2009: “After completing due diligence, it was detemined that the organization’s project does not meet CIDA’s current priorities.”
Jim Abbott, the minister’s Parliamentary Secretary, in the Commons, March 12, 2010: “CIDA thoroughly analyzed Kairos’s program proposal, and determined, with regreat, that it did not meet the agency’s current priorities.” (Abbott has since apologized to the House for this statement, conceding it was false but insisting he did not intend to mislead.)
Oda herself, in answer to an order paper question, April 23, 2010: “The CIDA decision not to continue funding Kairos was based on the overall assessment of the proposal, not on any single criterion.”
Now, it’s true, as Colby says, that she “didn’t come right out and say that CIDA staff had no problem with Kairos’s application.” And it’s true, as Colby says, in a “narrow technical sense,” that “a minister’s final word becomes a ‘CIDA decision’ as soon as it is made.” It would be one thing, as Colby says, if “this slippery answer” had been given in response to a direct question, say, did you overrule your officials, in which casse “she would certainly be guilty of deceit.” But as it was “I cannot feel that it is a clear-cut case of contempt of Parliament” — even if this seems a “crabbed, narrowly technical defence.” One senses a certain embarrassment by now at the many layers of qualification and apology that were necessary to get this far.
Let’s clear away the clutter. It is certainly possible, with a thesaurus, a slide rule, and a cryptographer, to find a set of facts with which the minister’s statement was in conformity. But the sense that any reasonable listener would take away from the words “CIDA’s decision” was that it was CIDA’s decision, especially in the context of everything else the government had been saying about it. Indeed, that was the sense that her listeners took away from it: that’s why the Embassy magazine story later that year, again quoting Colby, “that the Kairos funding decision was taken against agency advice,” landed with such force. Else what was there to report?
By Andrew Coyne - Wednesday, February 16, 2011 at 8:20 PM - 377 Comments
Doctored documents a ‘test of democracy’ says Ignatieff – Toronto Star.
That’s about the size of it. This is about much more than Bev Oda, Minister of International Cooperation. This is about whether this government can be held to basic norms of civilized democratic behaviour.
Or, for that matter, logic. There is, after all, nothing to be debated here. There isn’t any doubt that the minister initially claimed, or at least implied, that the decision to defund Kairos was made by CIDA officials. There isn’t any doubt that those same CIDA officials in fact recommended funding be continued. There isn’t any doubt that the document they signed recommending that she approve funding for Kairos was later altered, comically, by the handwritten addition of the word “not,” to suggest the opposite.
And there isn’t any doubt that Oda lied to Parliament about this addition: the only question is when. Did she lie in December when she told the Commons foreign affairs committee she had no idea who altered the document, or was she lying on Monday when she told the Commons that in fact it was done at her behest? (Or will she claim that, although she directed it be altered, she did not know, as of December, who did it? Is that the Clintonian reed to which she will cling?)
To sum up: She misrepresented what CIDA officials told her, to evade responsibility for what was plainly a political decision. She altered a document, or caused it to be altered, so as to support that lie, that is by falsifying the intent of the signatories (though to what end is unclear: how it could be imagined a handwritten addition to a typescript document would fool anybody?). And she dissembled about her role in that, too: a lie about a lie about a lie.
In times past — not under the last government, but in any previous — a minister who lied to Parliament, even once, would be gone, immediately: if not out of any genuine sense of shame or remorse on the part of the government, then certainly out of a sense that it could not afford to be publicly associated with such deceitful behaviour. But this government, and this Prime Minister, seem instead to be bent on riding this out. They do not deny that she lied. But neither do they acknowledge that she did. They simply do not address the issue at all. Instead they make another point altogether: that the minister was within her rights to overrule her bureaucrats.
Yes, of course she was. She may even have been right to do so, though that is something that can be debated. What cannot be debated, what she had absolutely no right to do, was to misrepresent her bureaucrats’ views, alter documents, and lie to Parliament.
WHICH IS to say: it is the government’s defense of her, more even than the minister’s misconduct, that is now the issue. Ministers in any government will screw up from time to time. Some will even lie. That is fallible humanity. But when they are caught, when the jig is up, when there are no longer any lies to be told, it is to be expected — it has always been expected — that consequences should follow. At the least, one could expect the government to acknowledge that what she did was wrong — or at the very least, to acknowledge that she did it.
If it then tried to keep her on, arguing that the sin was not so great as to warrant a resignation, that would be objectionable enough, and a denial of all previous precedent. But it would at least be a tacit concession that ministers should not lie to Parliament. If it had tried to pretend there were some doubt about what she had done, that would be graver still, since it would be to deny facts that were not capable of dispute, and thus to cast into doubt the very possibility of fact and evidence as guides to public debate. But just to ignore the charge altogether, to carry on as if nothing had happened, takes us into the kingdom of dada.
Moreover, all of this assumes that in fact Oda was acting on her own here: that it was her decision to deny funding to Kairos, her decision to misrepresent her bureaucrats’ advice, her decision to alter the document, her decision to lie about it in committee, and her decision to confess now. But there is an alternate theory, that will strike many as much more plausible: that in fact she approved funding Kairos, that she accepted her bureaucrats’ advice, that she signed the document in its unadulterated form — and that it was someone higher up who ordered her, not only to alter her decision, but to pretend to have done so on CIDA’s advice, with whatever subsequent acts of deception were required — including taking the blame, undeservedly, for having altered the document, with the corollary necessity of admitting, falsely, to having lied to the committee. In other words, the only lie of which she is guilty may be the lie she is telling now.
It would certainly fit a pattern. The ingredients of the Oda affair — secrecy, deception, stonewalling, contempt for Parliament, bureaucrats as fall guys and ministers as pawns — are evident throughout this government. And all stem from the same source: a refusal to deal openly with the public, to explain the reasons for its actions and take responsibility for them — because to do so would require the government to concede that its actions have reasons, an underlying intent, a purpose, a philosophy, an ideology. And the Harper government’s whole philosophy is to have no philosophy, or none that it acknowledges.
If they had simply declared, we do not wish to fund Kairos any more, because we disagree with its aims and methods — because of its hostility to market economics and unbalanced criticism of Israel — that would have caused controversy, but nothing like the mess they now find themselves in. But that, it seems, is a lesson they never learn. It was, after all, the same government that pretended, falsely, to have had the support of Statistics Canada officials in its decision to corrupt the long-form census.
So, too, in the matter of the Globalive wireless phone application, rather than state openly that it wishes to allow foreign competition in telecoms, and change the law — or attempt to — to allow it, as any normal government would, this government simply declares that Globalive is a Canadian company, in plain contradiction, as a Federal Court judge has lately found, to the facts. The result? Far from convincing the public that it has no ideology, it simply confirms them in the impression that it is both ideological and devious. And since its stratagems and deceptions are invariably found out, we should perhaps add to the list: ideological, devious, and incompetent.
BUT NOW we are beyond the minister, and beyond even this government. Because if this sort of conduct is allowed to stand — the minister’s first, and then the government’s in its backing of her — then it is not only this government that becomes a moral farce, but also Parliament, since it is Parliament’s job to police such things. And if the Parliament we elect can be so effortlessly mocked and defiled, then it is really us who have been as well.
So yes, Michael Ignatieff, this is a test of our democracy. I know what the minister should do. And I know what the government should do. The question is: what are you going to do?
By Andrew Coyne - Wednesday, September 22, 2010 at 10:17 PM - 0 Comments
We learned via the Star’s Susan Delacourt that MP Scott Simms “has a raw, recent and personal reason for his decision to support the long-gun registry in the Commons today. Simms’ father, Reginald, took his own life with a long gun in June.”
After the revelation, delivered in Wednesday’s in camera caucus meeting, “many MPs were in tears and Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was visibly emotional.” In a separate blog post, Delacourt elaborates:
Reportedly Ignatieff choked up when it was time to take the floor again and caucus members lined up to embrace Simms.
It makes all the games and the jeering and the attacks look pretty petty.
Indeed: politics can be such a cynical game. Thank goodness, with emotions running as high as they were, somebody found the strength, and the courage, to leak the story to the Star.
By Andrew Coyne - Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 1:48 PM - 0 Comments
I’m borrowing this from Mike Moffatt, who got it from Stephen Gordon, who cut-and-pasted it from Stephen Landsburg, who was quoting David Friedman, but it’s precisely relevant to the current discussion about jobs and jets and whether we should build things here or overseas:
There are two technologies for producing automobiles in America. One is to manufacture them in Detroit, and the other is to grow them in Iowa. Everybody knows about the first technology; let me tell you about the second. First, you plant seeds, which are the raw material from which automobiles are constructed. You wait a few months until wheat appears. Then you harvest the wheat, load it onto ships, and sail the ships eastward into the Pacific Ocean. After a few months, the ships reappear with Toyotas on them.
International trade is nothing but a form of technology. The fact that there is a place called Japan, with people and factories, is quite irrelevant to Americans’ well-being. To analyze trade policies, we might as well assume that Japan is a giant machine with mysterious inner workings that convert wheat into cars.
Any policy designed to favor the first American technology over the second is a policy designed to favor American auto producers in Detroit over American auto producers in Iowa. A tax or a ban on “imported” automobiles is a tax or a ban on Iowa-grown automobiles. If you protect Detroit carmakers from competition, then you must damage Iowa farmers, because Iowa farmers are the competition.
…It is sheer superstition to think that an Iowa-grown Camry is any less “American” than a Detroit-built Taurus. Policies rooted in superstition do not frequently bear efficient fruit.
Sometimes economics makes me weep it’s so beautiful.
BONUS MORAL: Moffatt sums up,
“either way, the F-35s will be obtained with Canadian labour. The question is, will it be done directly or indirectly through trade?
And obviously we’d like to do as little work as possible to obtain them, right? Because with the time we save, we can be doing other things. So the notion that we should structure the contract in such a way as to “create” as many jobs as possible has it exactly backward.
By Andrew Coyne - Wednesday, September 15, 2010 at 6:18 PM - 0 Comments
I’ll leave to others, at least for the moment, whether the F-35 contract makes sense in military terms: that is, whether this is the best expenditure of scarce defence funds. I remain to be persuaded either way. But if the F-35 is so far superior to other planes as the government maintains, and if the benefits in defence terms are worth the extra dollars, then I think the contract can be defended, notwithstanding the absence of competitive bidders. You can’t have a competition for something that’s only made by one firm.
As I say, I’m keeping an open mind on its military merits. All I would suggest is that that is how any such purchase should be assessed — based on its costs and benefits in military terms, and not on the basis of its so-called “industrial benefits.” Indeed, that is the best thing about the contract as signed: it doesn’t have any “industrial benefits.”
That is, not as that phrase is used in procurement jargon: a requirement imposed on the contractor to set aside a certain portion of the subcontracting work for Canadian firms. Remarkably, the government has eschewed any such requirement in the deal — remarkable, both because defence contracts are usually riddled with such protectionist riders, and because this government has not previously shown much aversion to pork-barrelling.
Why are these a bad idea? The same reason as protectionism is generally. You don’t make yourself rich by paying too much for things, any more than you do by selling things for less than they cost to make — as in that other favourite tool of industrial interventionists, subsidies. “Buy low, sell high” is the recipe for prosperity, not “buy high, sell low.” The only reason to require a contractor to source from Canadian firms is if they would not do so willingly; the only reason they would not do so willingly is if the Canadian firms were not the most cost-effective option; and so the effect of such set-asides must be to inflate the cost of the contract. If the government were purchasing from these sub-contractors directly, that would be obvious enough. But it doesn’t change with the intervention of an American aerospace firm as the middle-man.
But what about all the extra economic activity so generated? If the government is going to spend all that money anyway, doesn’t it make sense to spend it in this country, creating jobs here rather than elsewhere? And won’t the extra taxes from all that additional output offset any extra costs?
The key to this enduring fallacy lies in those words “extra”, “additional.” The assumption is that productive resources are somehow called into existence by the government’s willingness to spend money on something. But that’s not the case. They are not created; they are diverted. The resources used to make parts for planes might have been used for other purposes. They are only diverted into aerospace by the availability of subsidy (in this case, the difference between the Canadian subcontractors’ costs and their foreign competitiors). Were there no subsidy, the same resources could be put to other uses, offering higher economic returns — and sending higher tax revenues back to the treasury.
How do I know they would offer higher economic returns? Because they don’t need a subsidy: that is, they offer a greater benefit to society, in terms of the price consumers are willing to pay for them at the margin, than they cost society to make, in terms of the resources they consume in production. Whereas subsidy only becomes necessary where the reverse is the case: where the costs to society exceed the returns. I say “society,” because that’s ultimately what’s involved. We may assign private title to these resourced, but ultimately they are society’s, in the sense that they must all come out of the same pot: one person’s use of a scarce resource leaves that much less for everyone else.
This is as true of labour as anything else. A widget firm is in the business of making widgets, not jobs. Jobs are not the product: they’re the cost. Likewise for military jets. The fundamental objective of the government should be to get the best jets for the lowest price — not to “create jobs.”
A final point. As I said off the top, I don’t know whether the jets are worth the price. Maybe the contract should have been put out to competitive tender. We’ll see. But it’s utterly incoherent of the Liberals to argue, on the one hand, that the government is paying too much for the jets (because of the lack of competitive bidders) and that it is not paying enough (because of the lack of domestic content quotas). Pick one!
By Andrew Coyne - Tuesday, September 14, 2010 at 2:35 PM - 0 Comments
The “revelation” (shock! horror!) that the NRA has been offering advice to Canadian groups opposed to the long gun registry — cough, for a decade — has the Liberals watering at the mouth quivering with indignation. Why, Liberal House leader David McGuinty was so furious at this foreign intervention that he was forced to call a press conference:
McGuinty says the U.S. gun lobby has no business being involved at all in a Canadian debate.
”We are here to say that the National Rifle Association and its members and its leadership should butt out of Canada’s gun registry debate,” he said.
He said the Harper government shouldn’t be paying any attention to an American voice.
”This is a government that is choosing to listen to a powerful foreign influence over our own police, our victims’ groups, our medical experts, in fact the majority of Canadians when it comes to gun control.”
Well, bang on. The last thing we need are powerful Americans coming up here and telling us how we should … What’s that? Oh. Never mind:
Nancy Pelosi’s office insists that the most powerful woman in American politics is not out to target the “dirty oil” from Alberta’s oilsands, but green groups and the opposition Liberals in Ottawa wish she would.
The U.S. House Speaker met Thursday morning with representatives from the Pembina Institute and Environment Defence, two groups highly critical of oilsands production.
“As the main customer of tarsands oil, the U.S. has a leadership role to play where our governments at home are failing,” said Environmental Defence executive director Rick Smith…
Liberal environment critic David McGuinty praised Pelosi and the Obama administration for trying to force change in Canada.
“A customer has come calling and said we’d like to see an improvement in the product we buy,” McGuinty told an Ottawa news conference.
That Harper government: they just won’t listen to powerful foreign influences.
By Andrew Coyne - Tuesday, September 14, 2010 at 12:39 PM - 0 Comments
Transit and traffic are emerging as major issues in the Toronto mayoral election, with rival candidates unveiling proposals to replace streetcars, build a tunnel under the downtown, extend subways or add bike lanes, almost daily. It might be of interest, then, to know what the great urbanist Jane Jacobs, patron saint of the Annex, thought about it all. Here she is in an absorbing interview with Reason magazine, from June 2001:
Reason: People complain that suburbanites are too dependent on cars. Yet the newest suburbs — the car suburbs, not the trolley suburbs — are so heavily zoned and so carefully laid out. The uses are segregated so much — you live here, you work there, you shop here, you play there, you go to school over here. If you didn’t have a car, you couldn’t possibly live in the suburbs — because of the way they’re laid out.
Jacobs: That’s right. Your children couldn’t get to school. And they couldn’t get to their dancing lessons or whatever else they do. You’re absolutely dependent on a car. It’s very expensive for people, especially if they need a couple of cars. It’s a terrific burden. It costs about — somebody figured it out fairly recently — it costs about $7,000 a year for one car. That’s a lot of money, you know.
Reason: I’m a five-minute drive from all the shopping I need, but I couldn’t walk it.
Jacobs: Sure, you want to defend the car in those cases. It’s a lifeline. It’s as important as your water tap.
Reason: You aren’t anti-car, are you?
Jacobs: No. I do think that we need to have a lot more public transit. But you can’t have public transit in the situation you’re talking about.
Reason: You don’t literally mean publicly owned transit?
Jacobs: No. All forms of transit. It can be taxis, privately run jitneys, whatever. Things that people don’t have to own themselves and can pay a fare for.
Reason: You’re not an enemy of free-market transportation.
Jacobs: No. I wish we had more of it. I wish we didn’t have the notion that you had to have monopoly franchise transit. I wish it were competitive — in the kinds of vehicles that it uses, in the fares that it charges, in the routes that it goes, in the times of day that it goes. I’ve seen this on poor little Caribbean islands. They have good jitney service, because it’s dictated by the users.
I wish we could do more of that. But we have so much history against it, and so many institutional things already in place against it. The idea that you have to use great big behemoths of vehicles, when the service actually would be better in station-wagon size. It shows how unnatural and foolish monopolies are. The only thing that saves the situation is when illegal things begin to break the monopoly.
Gentlemen, start your jitneys.
By Andrew Coyne - Tuesday, July 13, 2010 at 10:10 PM - 0 Comments
Oh for the love of…
The bus carrying Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff broke down just outside the Eastern Ontario town of Hawkesbury Tuesday, just before 6 p.m.
The breakdown occurred on the first day of the Liberal Leader’s six-week, cross-country excursion to promote the Mr. Ignatieff’s and his party’s fortunes.
A similar malfunction on the first day of Ontario Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty’s 1999 election campaign was seen as emblematic of the party’s mismanagement and inexperience, leading to its defeat at the hands of Conservative leader Mike Harris.
In 2008, Mr. Ignatieff’s predecessor faced similar woes. Stéphane Dion’s Air Inuit plane was forced to make an unexpected landing in Montreal in the early days his failed election campaign.
For the last time: the physical world does not conform itself to journalists’ desire for metaphors! Mechanical breakdowns are not “emblematic” of anything, except to reporters who like to press the facts into pre-defined templates of spurious significance (see: narrative), or who think the universe is governed by magic.
By Andrew Coyne - Monday, July 12, 2010 at 4:31 PM - 88 Comments
I like to think my credentials as an Airbus obsessive are in order, so allow me to dissociate myself from any suggestion that the appointment of David Johnston as Governor General is somehow tainted by it.
It’s true that it was Johnston, as adviser to the Prime Minister on the terms of reference for the Oliphant inquiry, who recommended against including the Airbus scandal in its mandate, a decision that looks all the more baffling in light of the judge’s findings: not only that Brian Mulroney took hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, shortly after leaving office, from the very man from whom he was accused of taking bribes while in office, but that he lied about it, up to and including his appearance before the inquiry. Regardless of whether Mulroney was personally involved, the circumstances surrounding the Airbus deal are so suspicious that, even 22 years later, they cry out for an inquiry — not in spite of the passage of time but because of it. Johnston’s reasoning, that Airbus, having once been the subject of an RCMP investigation, was “well-tilled ground,” is simply unsupported by the facts: the RCMP had only just begun their investigation when it was shut down by the leaking of the infamous “Swiss letter,” a calamity from which it never recovered.
That’s my opinion, at any rate. Lots of perfectly sensible people with no obvious axes to grind thought he was spot on. But even if you take my view of it, it’s a long way from an error of judgement to a conflict of interest. Those who insinuate there was something unseemly in Johnston’s appointment — sometimes accompanied by the disclaimer that, although they themselves do not believe any of this, others might — are obliged to offer some evidence, or even a plausible rationale, before tossing about such incendiary charges.
At the very least they should say clearly what they mean. Is it seriously alleged that Johnston and Harper cooked up a deal in advance — you keep Airbus out of the inquiry, and I’ll make you Governor General? Surely no one is that far gone. Is it, then, that a grateful Harper bestowed the appointment upon him as a sort of reward, ie that it was only the appointment, and not the advice, that was corrupt — a prospect the Star’s Jim Travers raises, but can’t be arsed to properly debunk? Or is it merely, as Rick Salutin claims, that Johnston’s role in the Oliphant inquiry was an “audition” (whoops, “what can be seen as an audition”), a “test of what the guy might do in a situation where Harper interests are at stake.” You follow the logic: because he had ruled in a way that was supposedly favourable to Harper’s interests in the matter of Mulroney’s cash, he could also be relied upon to do so, say, in a constitutional crisis, the connecting factor being — what? Continue…
By Andrew Coyne - Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 4:06 PM - 0 Comments
In the name of reducing government intrusion in people’s lives, the Conservative government is proposing to abolish the mandatory long-form census (it would become voluntary), a vitally important source of data that only applies to one-fifth of the population, once every five years.
At the very same time, the same Conservative government is proposing to tighten the requirement that every one of Canada’s 7-million or so boaters obtain an operator’s licence and carry it with them every time they get in a boat, on pain of a $250 fine — an utterly needless piece of bureaucratic busywork whose sole defence is that it is ludicrously unenforceable.
Sigh. Could we make up our minds, please? Doctrinaire libertarianism, nanny-state paternalism, whatever. But both at once is just too much to bear.
By Andrew Coyne - Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 3:24 PM - 0 Comments
Having been appointed to the Senate 18 months ago on a solemn promise to reform it, Tory Richard Neufeld now finds he rather likes the place the way it is. And lest you think that’s just the self-interest talking, well, just listen to all the arguments he has for not electing senators:
“The appointment process is quick and cheap. You can have regional representation and do all kinds of things. You can get a cross-section of the people that you want in this place.”…
He said he’s the first senator ever to hail from northern British Columbia. If he’d had to seek election for the job, he doubted he’d have garnered many votes in Vancouver and the populous southern portion of the province.
Now, all of these points may well be true. But as arguments against electing a legislative body, they surely apply just as well to the House of Commons. Appointing MPs would indeed be quicker and cheaper than the current process, you could get a better cross-section of the people “you want,” and some people would get in who could never get elected. Indeed, were MPs appointed, and were it proposed to elect them, I don’t doubt we’d hear the same arguments. “Do we really want that sort of American-style circus? It would be impossible to get good people to put their names forward. etc.”
But these practical points in favour of autocracy run up against a rather more fundamental principle: government by and with the consent of the governed. The only people qualified to enact laws for a free people are the people they freely elect — to whatever house or assembly. If that means we might be deprived of the services of, say, a Richard Neufeld, well, there’s always the Governor General’s job.
By Andrew Coyne - Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 1:09 PM - 0 Comments
The more I think about this David Johnston appointment, the more I’m inclined to revise my initial reaction. This isn’t just a good choice. It’s an outstanding choice: the best, on paper, since Michener. (We’ll see how he actually performs in the job.)
There are few Canadians with lives more filled with accomplishment, or whose character is more widely respected. As such, he brings not only impressive practical credentials to a job that, as we have been reminded of late, is much more than a ceremonial post. His selection also offers an important signal of what we value as a society, of the qualities we think are important, of what we aspire to: experience, scholarship, service to others, personal decency.
I was critical of Johnston’s work in framing the terms of reference for the Mulroney inquiry, but I don’t have the slightest doubt that it reflected his honest judgment of what was in the public interest. And it’s a small complaint set against his remarkable lifetime of achievement. Distinguished legal scholar, with degrees from Cambridge, Harvard and Queen’s. Principal of McGill University. President of University of Waterloo. A list of publications and public service involvements as long as your arm. Fluently bilingual. Father of five. Captain of the Harvard hockey team (!). And, the clincher, a stint as a CBC broadcaster (he hosted a political talk show, The Editors, that was seen on Newsworld): the fourth Governor General in a row, and fifth in the last six, with that distinction.
In sum, the appointment of David Johnston is of a kind that ennobles the office, rather than the reverse. Which is as it should be.
CAVEAT: On the other hand, he did spend several years living outside of the country. I take it the Conservatives no longer consider this a disqualification for high office.
By Andrew Coyne - Sunday, June 27, 2010 at 3:19 PM - 9 Comments
Stephen Taylor, whose contacts within government are pretty good, posts what he says is the text of the G20′s final communique, from “a friend inside the red zone.” It lines up pretty well with an earlier leak of the final communique, posted by Greenpeace before the conference began. Compare the preambles:
June 22 leak:
In Toronto, we held our first Summit of the G20 in its new capacity as our premier forum for international economic cooperation. We are committed to ensuring the G20 remains effective and relevant in this role.
We reviewed our progress in addressing the global economic crisis, and we agreed on next steps to ensure a full return to growth and jobs, and to create strong, sustainable and balanced global growth.
Our efforts to date have borne good results. Fiscal and monetary stimulus has helped restore private demand and lending, and we have taken strong steps toward increasing the stability of our financial systems. Increased resources for international financial institutions have helped address the impact of the crisis on the world’s most vulnerable, and ongoing governance and management reforms will enhance the effectiveness and relevance of these institutions. We have successfully maintained our strong commitment to resist protectionism.
But there is no room for complacency. While growth is returning in many countries, the recovery is uneven and fragile, and unemployment remains at unacceptable levels. We recognize the important progress made since our last meeting in Pittsburgh, but we also agree that much work remains. In particular, emerging fiscal challenges in many states are creating market volatility, and could seriously threaten the recovery and weaken prospects for long-term growth. Further actions are still required to address the underlying causes of the global financial crisis and promote more responsible and transparent banking sectors.
Today, in Toronto, we have decided to take the following actions: [Note: decisions to be determined through the Declaration process]
We are determined to be accountable for the commitments we have made, and will instruct our Ministers and officials to take all necessary steps to implement them fully within agreed timelines.
June 27 leak:
1. In Toronto, we held our first Summit of the G-20 in its new capacity as the premier forum for our international economic cooperation.
2. Building on our achievements in addressing the global economic crisis, we have agreed on the next steps we should take to ensure a full return to growth with quality jobs, to reform and strengthen financial systems, and to create strong, sustainable and balanced global growth.
3. Our efforts to date have borne good results. Unprecedented and globally coordinated fiscal and monetary stimulus is playing a major role in helping to restore private demand and lending. We are taking strong steps toward increasing the stability and strength of our financial systems. Significantly increased resources for international financial institutions are helping stabilise and address the impact of the crisis on the world’s most vulnerable. Ongoing governance and management reforms, which must be completed, will also enhance the effectiveness and relevance of these institutions. We have successfully maintained our strong commitment to resist protectionism.
4. But serious challenges remain. While growth is returning, the recovery is uneven and fragile, unemployment in many countries remains at unacceptable levels, and the social impact of the crisis is still widely felt. Strengthening the recovery is key. To sustain recovery, we need to follow through on delivering existing stimulus plans, while working to create the conditions for robust private demand. At the same time, recent events highlight the importance of sustainable public finances and the need for our countries to put in place credible, properly phased and growth-friendly plans to deliver fiscal sustainability, differentiated for and tailored to national circumstances. Those countries with serious fiscal challenges need to accelerate the pace of consolidation. This should be combined with efforts to rebalance global demand to help ensure global growth continues on a sustainable path. Further progress is also required on financial repair and reform to increase the transparency and strengthen the balance sheets of our financial institutions, and support credit availability and rapid growth, including in the real economy. We took new steps to build a better regulated and more resilient financial system that serves the needs of our citizens. There is also a pressing need to complete the reforms of the international financial institutions.
5. Recognizing the importance of achieving strong job growth and providing social protection to our citizens, particularly our most vulnerable, we welcome the recommendations of our Labour and Employment Ministers, who met in April 2010, and the training strategy prepared by the ILO in collaboration with the OECD.
6. We are determined to be accountable for the commitments we have made, and have instructed our Ministers and officials to take all necessary steps to implement them fully within agreed timelines.
Clause 4 would appear to be where the most significant redrafting took place.
By Andrew Coyne - Saturday, June 26, 2010 at 2:53 PM - 9 Comments
Summitry is difficult enough for the summiteers — witness the months of preparation and hours of final drafting that go into the final communique. But consider the equally delicate challenge facing the activist groups monitoring the G8 and G20: how to calibrate their reaction. You think summit sherpas agonize over every nuance of phrasing? So must the anonymous drones who write up the press releases from “civil society” groups. Are we “outraged”? “Disheartened”? “Alarmed”? Or “cautiously optimistic”?
The G8’s Muskoka Initiative on maternal and child health is a case in point. I had barely arrived at the press centre yesterday when an activist from one of the many Canadian aid groups who have been pressing for action on this front buttonholed me to say how pleased she was at the news: the government of Canada had committed another $1.1-billion over five years, on top of $1.75-billion in existing pledges. “It’s everything we’d hoped for,” she beamed. “We’ve been working towards this day for 11 months.”
I was taken aback. These people are never satisfied. In a way, it’s their job not to be satisfied. How could this be?
Sure enough, within an hour another activist group, World Vision Canada, had weighed in with its response, and all was right with the universe again. “World Vision on Muskoka Initiative: Deeply concerned G8 will fail to deliver for mothers and children,” it read. “While we applaud the Prime Minister for his leadership, as things stand now, the Muskoka Initiative looks more like a down payment than an adequate investment, and won’t reach as far as it could to stop needless early deaths… The G8 has less than 24 hours left for its leaders to demonstrate credibility on aid promises and turn disappointment into celebration.”
By today, however, the world had turned again. “World Vision heartened by child and maternal health funding progress,” read the mid-day release. “World Vision is grateful for Canada’s leadership and strong commitment to child and maternal health and the G8’s commitment to build the fund to $10 billion.
“Despite lower-than-expected funding for development from some countries at this summit we refuse to lose sight of the fact that this G8 summit has brought us incrementally closer to meeting the [Millennium Development Goals].”
The glass, it seems, is no longer disappointingly empty. It’s incrementally full.
ADDENDUM: Then there are these two press releases we received from the Fissile Materials Working Group, “a coalition of more than 40 leading experts in nuclear security.”
Experts Praise Extension of G-8 Global Partnership
Toronto, Ontario — The Fissile Materials Working Group (FMWG) … praised G-8 leaders renewal of their commitment to address the spread of materials and weapons of mass destruction, and to prevent nuclear terrorism…
On the other hand,
Experts Disappointed by Failure to Extend G-8 Global Partnership
Toronto, Ontario — The Fissile Materials Working Group (FMWG) … is disappointed G-8 leaders failed to renew their commitment to address the spread of materials and weapons of mass destruction, and to prevent nuclear terrorism…
One of these was sent out yesterday, the other today. I’m just not sure which is which.
By Andrew Coyne - Friday, June 25, 2010 at 6:43 PM - 101 Comments
Let’s get this out of the way off the top, while we’re waiting for some real news. I’ve now had the opportunity to see the infamous “fake lake,” tucked away in a corner of the cavernous Interantional Press Centre. As one of the first to fly off the handle over this without first checking my facts, let me be one of the first to confess this is a total non-story.
It’s not an “indoor lake,” as the first story I read suggested. It is a reflector pool, about the size of a backyard swimming pool, only no more than two inches deep. There can’t be more than 10 gallons of water in it, tops. It is bordered by a small wooden platform simulating a dock, with Muskoka chairs casually strewn about. There’s a bank of canoes on either side, and a large screen showing some quite breathtaking high-def footage of Canadian lakeland scenes. And that’s it.
It’s not extravagant in the slightest. Modest would be closer to the mark. The government puts the cost at about $57,000, which sounds about right: about what it would cost to finish your basement. Or to be precise, it represents just over two 100,000ths of one per cent of federal spending. All in all it’s rather a pleasant spot, a small oasis of calm and comfort away from the conference churn, and shows every sign of being a hit with the foreign press. A few minutes of that footage is bound to persuade more than a few of them to want to return, or to tell the folks back home.
It is, in short, a perfectly acceptable, if hardly vital, use of public funds, and should never have become a subject of controversy. The media got rolled on this one, the opposition ran away with it, and we all ought to be ashamed of ourselves.
By Andrew Coyne - Wednesday, June 16, 2010 at 10:53 PM - 169 Comments
Okay, so in order to see the Afghan detainee documents, members of the ad hoc committee set up by agreement between the government and opposition parties (minus the NDP) have to subject themselves to a long list of security measures. They have to sign a confidentality undertaking. They have to get security clearance. They can only view the documents in a “secure location.” They can’t bring staff with them, or any recording device, can’t remove any material or make copies. They can make notes on what they’re reading, provided they leave them on site, and destroy them in six months.
And they have to swear an oath. It’s described as an “oath of confidentiality.” But it’s not only that. Here’s the text:
I, [name], swear (or solemnly affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true loyalty to Canada and to its people, whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and freedoms I respect, and whose laws I will uphold and obey. I further swear (or solemnly affirm) that I will not communicate or use without due authority any information obtained in confidence during the review of documentation.
The second sentence is the oath of confidentiality. The first is something quite different: an oath of loyalty. Nothing remarkable in that. These are Members of the Parliament of Canada, after all. And the information they are being permitted to see, as the tight security rules imply, is of the most delicate nature. Nothing less than the national security of the country is at stake. Of course you’d only extend that right to people who were loyal to Canada, and had Canada’s best interests at heart.
Except … the Bloc Québécois signed this agreement. As such, it is entitled to nominate a member (plus an alternate) to sit on the committee. If you’re like me, you have a problem with people who are openly dedicated to the destruction of Canada being privy to our most sensitive national secrets. Still, I realize in this benighted country there are those who disagree. There are even people who think the Bloc should be allowed to participate in the executive government (as opposed to the legislature) of Canada.
Fine: except the terms of the agreement says no committee member can see the documents unless they swear to “be faithful and bear true loyalty to Canada and to its people.” Regardless of whether you think there should be such a loyalty test, there it is. Regardless of whether you think it is fair to subject the Bloc to such an obligation, they agreed to it. I’ll put aside my objection in principle to the Bloc seeing any of these documents if the Bloc can explain how they can possibly swear that oath.
“That I will be faithful and bear true loyalty to Canada and to its people”? Is this not an explicit repudiation of their party’s central purpose? If they swear such an oath, then, they can’t possibly mean it. And if they don’t mean it, what good is the oath? If they are taking one part of the oath, as it were, with their fingers crossed, who’s to say they are not doing the same with the other?
How, in good conscience, could the Bloc agree to swear an oath to one thing when it believes the exact opposite? Or never mind conscience: are there no legal consequences for swearing oaths in bad faith? Oaths aren’t just words on paper. They are legal documents. They are intended to ensure people make honest statements, where honesty is a vital necessity, as it surely is in matters of national security. And yet any Bloc MP who takes this oath must, by definition, be lying.
I realize the separatist movement has confronted this question before. It is a constitutional requirement, not only for Members of Parliament but for members of the National Assembly in Quebec, to swear an oath of loyalty to the Queen, and somehow they have managed to work themselves around to doing that. I recall Gilles Duceppe pointing out that there are members of the British Labour Party who don’t believe in the monarchy, and yet are permitted to swear a similar oath before entering their own Parliament. But this is something else again. There is no possible way to square “loyalty to Canada and its people” with membership in a party whose stated objective is to tear that same country, and its people, apart.
In which case, if we permit any Bloc MP to take this oath, it is not only the Blocquiste who would be committing a fraud, but us. And yet the oath speaks of upholding the laws!
ADDENDUM: Here’s the oath Members of Parliament (and of the provincial legislatures) are obliged to swear before taking office, as prescribed by Section 128 of the Constitution Act 1867 and set out in the Fifth Schedule:
I, [name], do swear, that I will be faithful and bear true Allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Je, [nom], jure que je serai fidèle et porterai une vraie allégeance à Sa Majesté la Reine Élisabeth II.
But what do solemn and binding oaths mean in this country? What does anything? We are so used to looking the other way at the Bloc’s sincere and determined enmity that I suppose we will do the same with their mocking professions of loyalty.
By Andrew Coyne - Wednesday, June 16, 2010 at 9:00 PM - 22 Comments
Cancel my initial reaction. I think the NDP and this Globe story have it wrong, too. The deal struck yesterday between the government and the Opposition — two of the three opposition parties, that is — providing for disclosure to members of Parliament of previously secret documents related to the transfer of Afghan detainees, strikes me, on closer reading, as acceptable, and in keeping with the Speaker’s ruling on the matter.
That is, I think it is. Parts of it are clear enough. Parts of it, not so much.
Here’s the part that’s clear. There’ll be an ad hoc committee of MPs struck, with one member plus an alternate from each of the signatory parties. They’ll have to sign a confidentiality undertaking, take an oath, get security clearance, meet in camera and so on. But, and I quote:
The ad hoc committee will have access to all documents listed in the House Order of December 10, 2009… [emphasis added]
“All documents” is pretty clear. That’s what the fight was about, that was the principle that had to be established: if Parliament demands to see documents, then Parliament gets to see them. It doesn’t have to be the whole Parliament: the government’s security concerns, everyone agrees, are legitimate, and probably couldn’t be addressed if all 308 members got a copy. But so long as MPs on all sides of the House are given access to all the documents — that is, the government does not get to decide for itself which documents it will release, to whom, and on what conditions — then I think Parliament’s demands have been met, and the Speaker’s ruling affirmed. Provided any limitations are self-imposed, Parliament remains supreme.
What happens then? The committee will look at both the redacted and unredacted versions of the documents, so it can see what was withheld. If the committee decides the redacted material is both “relevant” and “necessary,” it then sends it to a Panel of Arbiters — three eminent judges, acceptable to all parties — to decide “how that relevant and necessary information will be made available to Members of Parliament and the public without compromising national security, national defence or international relations.” Note the language: “how” and “will,” not “whether.”
So that’s pretty good. The committee of MPs gets to see all the material Parliament demanded, without exception. The rest of us see everything except the bits a panel of judges thinks are unsuitable for general viewing, or that the committee thinks is not necessary or relevant. (In fact, the committee would have to be unanimous on both counts, since the agreement also says documents can be referred to the Panel “upon the request of any Member of the ad hoc committee.”)
But does “all documents” mean all documents? Here’s where it gets a little murky. Continue…
By Andrew Coyne - Tuesday, May 18, 2010 at 2:33 PM - 31 Comments
Wells and I debate whether the UK coalition offers any lessons or examples for would-be coalitioners (how dare you suggest we would even consider such a thing?) in Canada. Can you be for one and against the other? Isn’t it “coalition: yes or no”? Only in the hobgoblins of little minds.
Rob Silver offers his response here.
By Andrew Coyne - Sunday, May 16, 2010 at 4:50 PM - 56 Comments
Ordinarily I frown on people trying to inject politics into sports, but in this case I’ll make an exception:
DRUMMONDVILLE – In her closing speech to a Parti Québécois meeting Sunday, PQ leader Pauline Marois drew a parallel between her party’s goal of making Quebec a sovereign country and the Montreal Canadiens’ quest for the Stanley Cup.
“The whole nation is vibrating in tune with a team of players who were called too small, not talented enough, not proud enough to win” Marois said.
“I am talking about the Montreal Canadiens,” she said winning applause from about 600 delegates and observers, some of them wearing Habs sweaters.
“Today, like Quebecers, it is because they played as a team, that they sacrificed themselves for the team, that they can aspire to the highest honour,” Marois said….
“When we have solidarity, determination, pride we can succeed at everything, starting with the sovereignty of Quebec.”
Because, you see, she has a point. The Montreal Canadiens are the precise embodiment of everything the Parti Québécois has ever stood for, a living example of the compassionate, social-democratic, and above all sovereign Quebec Ms Marois is trying to build. After all, they are:
- foreign owned. Well, technically Anglo-owned, ever since the Molsons bought it back from George Gillett, but same diff
- made up mostly of foreign players. Of the current 25-man roster, only 14 are Canadian-born. Just three are from Quebec. There are more Americans, more British Columbians, more Torontonians on this team than there are Quebecers — and as many Czechs. Needless to say, the language of the workplace is English
- part of a league in which they are forever condemned to be a minority. Although the team’s share of representation in the NHL has dwindled over the years from one-sixth to one-thirtieth, they have as yet not elected to separate, or threaten to.
I could go on. The Canadiens are not only mostly foreign, but exclusively male. Selected by a remorselessly Darwinian process, they play a game noted for its anarchic violence and cut-throat competition — possibly owing to its British origins. I’m told they are paid many times the average worker’s wages for it.
In short, nothing says Quebec pride and solidarity like a team stacked with visiting Czech millionaires playing a Scottish game for American money. Oh, and did I mention they’re called the Canadiens?
Still, at least they’re paying Quebec’s punitive tax rates. As Ms Marois said, it’s all about “sacrificing for the team.”
By Andrew Coyne - Thursday, May 13, 2010 at 7:04 PM - 168 Comments
What a surprise…
Talks to avoid a parliamentary showdown and a possible snap election have bogged down as parties haggle over the finer details of a deal to let MPs view uncensored Afghan detainee records.
Bloc Québécois House Leader Pierre Paquette suggested the parties are still significantly divided as he emerged from morning negotiations Thursday with the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP.
“The government put other conditions on the table,” Mr. Paquette told reporters. “Their position is not the same . . . so we are far from a solution.”
What could possibly be going on?
…the negotiations into which the government has lately entered are in all likelihood a diversion. The aim is to stall, and probe for divisions within and between the parties, notably the Liberals’ palpable fear of an election. The differences between government and opposition will be made to appear as if they were over questions of detail, rather than fundamental principles. So that when, inevitably, the negotiations break down, the government will sigh and claim that it went the extra mile, as it strove to balance its conflicting obligations, but was thwarted by an intransigent and unreasonable opposition.
So the question is, will the opposition allow themselves to be played in this way? Will they heed the voices telling them that this is not worth fighting an election over? Will they chicken out? Or will they, you should pardon the expression, man up?
UPDATE, FRIDAY 11 AM: It seems, notwithstanding my explicit predictions to the contrary, that they have a deal. Facts 1, Coyne 0.
By Andrew Coyne - Thursday, May 13, 2010 at 12:54 AM - 58 Comments
I’m quite certain this is wrong:
The mother of all Parliaments has taught Canada a lesson. We have some for her, too.
Britain’s new government has demonstrated that coalition governments are possible, even outside of wartime, in the modern era of Westminster-style parliaments…
New British Prime Minister David Cameron and Liberal-Democrat deputy Nick Clegg have even devised a new plan to ensure stability in a hung Parliament: a five-year fixed term for elections to be set out in law. …
But another part of that agreed law is less likely to fly: changing the convention so that it will take 55 per cent of MPs to defeat the government. That would effectively give Mr. Cameron’s Conservatives, with 47 per cent of MPs, a veto on its own survival….
So the fixed-term bill appears to make it impossible for Mr. Cameron to call an election. But it probably can’t bind Mr. Clegg from splitting away and forcing one – given a pretext, and good polls. And if Mr. Clegg can’t be bound, it’s not impossible for Mr. Cameron to trigger a split by pushing measures the Liberal Democrats can’t accept.
If this were true, that it would take a vote of the 55% of the House to defeat the government — if, henceforth, the standard of confidence would no longer be the support of a majority of the House, but 45% — it would quite literally mean that the Cameron government, with 47% of the seats, could not be defeated. The budget, the Queen’s Speech, its entire legislative program could be rejected, but it could never be removed from office, for the life of the Parliament. The Conservatives could govern as long as they liked, with or without the support of the Lib Dems.
There is no way that any party would propose such constitutionally dubious legislation, and certainly no way that the Lib Dems would agree to it, since it would be signing away the very bargaining power they had just won. It’s nonsensical.
In fact, if you look at the text of the Conservative-Lib Dem accord, it doesn’t say 55% would be required to defeat the government. It says 55% would be required for “dissolution,” that is for dissolving the House and calling an election. This is a crucial difference. Significantly, too, the provision comes at the tag end of the paragraph establishing a fixed five-year term of government. Because it’s the guarantee of it.
What it means is that if the government were defeated in the House — by the usual 50% margin — Prime Minister Cameron could not simply go the Queen and ask for dissolution. He would have to get a vote of 55% of the House to permit him to do so. So he could not wriggle out of the coalition, or the commitment to a five-year term, by engineering his own defeat (still less do what Stephen Harper did, and call a snap election, without even the fig-leaf of defeat to justify the breach).
If he were to propose legislation that was obnoxious to his Lib Dem partners, they could always combine with the opposition to defeat it. But Cameron could not use this as a pretext to force an election, because he couldn’t get the 55% needed for dissolution — not without the Lib Dems. An election would only follow defeat on a confidence matter if the Lib Dems agreed it should; but they might instead decide to enter into a coalition with Labour and the other parties. So Cameron’s power is significantly constrained by the 55% rule, and he can’t get rid of the rule because he’d need the Lib Dems’ votes to do that, too.
For their part, the Lib Dems could not force an election on their own, either: they have enough votes, in combination with the other parties (53%) to defeat the government, but not enough to meet the 55% dissolution standard. Only if both parties agreed (or, more fancifully, if the Tories and Labour voted together) could Parliament be dissolved.
So the two coalition partners could together break their promise of a fixed five-year term, and pay the political consequences. But there is no way one can double-cross the other, and force an election on its own. This isn’t like Canada, in other words. To unlock this election law, you need two keys.
CODA: The Globe story gets this part right, however:
Canada’s fixed-election law had an out, because it had to. Calling elections is the Crown’s power, and our Parliament can’t change that without a constitutional amendment approved by provinces. So the fixed-term law left the Governor-General’s ability to launch elections whole, and Mr. Harper asked for one.
Britain’s similar, but not the same. They have no written constitution, and Parliament can limit the Crown’s powers. Its coalition can pass a fixed-term law.
That much is true. It’s easier to amend the British constitution than ours. It’s not quite true to say, however, that Britain doesn’t have a written constitution. Magna Carta is written down, as is the Bill of Rights 1689 and sundry other documents and laws that together make up the British Constitution. It just isn’t written down in one place. But then, neither is ours. It comprises the 1867 Constitution, the 1982 one, plus all of the constitutional principles, conventions and precedents we inherited from the Brits.
By Andrew Coyne - Monday, May 10, 2010 at 12:40 AM - 107 Comments
Three days after the British election, the situation is as murky as ever, with three parties negotiating over possible power-sharing agreements and any number of factions within each party weighing in with their views. Meanwhile, the party leaders, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, are struggling to maintain control of their parties after an election that it is widely agreed all three lost. Here’s a quick guide to the leaders, the bargaining positions, and the stakes:
- Brown: the biggest loser in the election, the one whose position is most exposed, and therefore the one most desperate to make a deal. He’s in a position to offer a referendum on electoral reform to the Lib Dems to stay in power, where Cameron is not, since reform would probably not hurt Labour as much as it would the Conservatives. But many members of his own party want him out, as evidently does Clegg. How long could such a rickety “coalition of the losers,” propped up by a ragtag band of nationalist parties, stay in power? And if Brown were replaced at its helm? Then instead of a Prime Minister who had just lost an election, Britain would have one who had not even contested it.
- Cameron: the closest thing to a winner of the election, the only one to increase his seat count, and by the largest number of seats for any Conservative leader since 1931, he is nevertheless in a curiously weakened position, having fallen short of the majority that seemed within reach before the campaign. Cameron’s Tories took the biggest hit from Clegg’s rise after the first debate, and his failure to deliver a majority, having watered down or played down the more Thatcherite policies of his predecessors, has emboldened his critics within the party. He therefore has limited room to manoeuvre in negotiating with the Lib Dems, most particularly on the issue of electoral reform, which most Tories believe would end of their party’s hopes of ever governing again.
- Clegg: the surprise loser, having dominated the middle part of the campaign, he was unable to deliver the votes on election day that most polls said his party was headed for. He is wary of a deal with Labour, yet is limited in his ability to deliver his party in negotiations with the Tories — not only by the suspicions of his party’s left wing, whose natural affinity is more with Labour, but by party rules requiring him to obtain the membership’s approval. On the other hand, a deal with the Tories is more likely to hold, and comes with less peril of offending public opinion. He probably cannot get electoral reform from the Tories, but can get some of his party’s platform enacted, plus some juicy cabinet posts.
So: does Clegg roll the dice on Labour’s promise of a referendum on electoral reform, one that could permanently transform the Lib Dems electoral chances, at the cost of propping up a party that has just been roundly rejected at the polls? Or does he take the safer, more limited route of a coalition with the Conservatives, at the cost of passing on perhaps the best shot he will ever have at electoral reform?
Answer: probably neither. The risks of a deal with Labour are too great. And there is likely too much opposition within both the Conservative and Lib Dem parties to a formal coalition, especially given their differences over electoral reform. Clegg will be mindful of the history of coalition governments: the smaller partner rarely emerges the better for it. For their part, many Tories would prefer to strike off on their own with a minority government, Canadian-style, calculating that the option of a Labour-LibDem coalition is safely off the table. Some Tories would even prefer the party remain in opposition, reasoning that any coalition of the other two parties would inevitably fail, amid much unseeemly horsetrading and acrimony, making them look steadfast and principled by comparison.
But the most probable outcome is a limited electoral pact known as “confidence and supply.” In exchange for some relatively minor concessions on policy, the Lib Dems would agree to support the Conservatives (or at least not vote against them) on supply (money) bills and on confidence motions — that is, they would not support any move to bring the government down, for some fixed interval. That allows both parties to keep a respectable distance from each other, while ensuring a period of stable government, of the kind needed to tackle the country’s mounting fiscal crisis and calm financial markets.
Anyway, we’ll know soon enough — possibly as early as this morning.
UPDATE: Gordon Brown has just taken one for the team, offering to stand down as Labour leader by September. Formal talks are now to begin on a Lib-Lab coalition. Presumably this improves Lib Dems’ negotiating position with the Conservatives, though only if a) it’s perceived they would actually go through with it, and b) it is not anticipated to be a disaster. How will the Conservatives respond?
UPPERDATE: The Conservatives have offered a referendum on the so-called Alternative Vote, which is something short of proportional representation, though it is an improvement on the present system. Voters mark their ballots in order of preference, rather than an x; if no one has a majority on the basis of first choices, then the last-place candidate is knocked out, and their second choices are distributed amongst the remaining candidates; this continues through successive rounds until one candidate crosses the 50% threshold. It’s like the Single Transferable Vote, on which British Columbians voted last year, only with single-member ridings rather than multiple. So whoever wins the riding at least can claim the support of a majority of voters, rather than a mere plurality, as under first-past-the-post. But they still get 100% of the representation, which is why it’s not a proportional system.
Labour, for their part, are apparently promising to implement AV without a referendum, arguing that it is not so substantial a change as to justify a referendum.
By Andrew Coyne - Monday, May 3, 2010 at 9:58 PM - 115 Comments
I’m with the burghers of Simcoe-Grey on this: it’s up to the riding association to decide whether Helena Guergis should remain as their candidate, not party central command.
The way we choose riding nominees is one of many outstanding weaknesses in Canadian politics. On the one hand, it is unconscionable that candidates should be obliged to get the party leader to sign their nomination papers before they can stand for office. It’s a direct affront to local democracy.
On the other hand, well, local democracy is a joke. Nomination races are too often decided by busloads of instant members and other abuses, the sort of 19th century shiv-and-whiskey politics that is unique to Canada among the advanced democracies.
We’d get better candidates, and better races, if being an MP meant something — that is, if they were not so tightly controlled by the leader’s office. But the first step on cracking the leaders’ iron grip is for riding associations to stand up for themselves.
MPs with strong riding associations are better placed to challenge the leadership. In particular, a cleaner, more legitimate process for choosing candidates would give MPs the democratic standing, as legitimate representatives of the membership in their ridings, to take back the process of leadership selection — the key to righting the balance of power between caucus and leader.
In a proper Westminster system, the leader is selected by the members of the Parliamentary caucus. In our run-down, degraded version of Westminster, the leader picks the caucus.
By Andrew Coyne - Sunday, May 2, 2010 at 2:52 PM - 258 Comments
This is just outrageous. I cannot remember any opposition party, ever, politicizing the appointment of a governor general before in this way.
Of course, it’s always a political appointment, to a greater or lesser extent. But it has not previously been a point of partisan controversy, and on such calculatedly divisive lines. The appointment is entirely within the purview of the prime minister, and as long as that power was not abused via a manifestly unsuitable appointment, opposition parties have always gone along with it.
They have been right to do so: the Governor General is supposed to be above party politics. As the personification of the state the Queen must be, and must be seen to be, impartial as between rival contenders for power; so must her representatives. Dragging the Governor General down into the mudpit of partisan politics can only cast an overtly partisan light on the appointment, and thus diminish respect for the office.
Worse, in mounting this highly public lobby for her to be retained, the Liberals have chosen to emphasize her demographic credentials: as a woman, black, francophone and immigrant. These were in large part why she was appointed, of course, and perhaps that’s fair enough, though some of us grumped at her signal lack of other qualifications to the job. But to invoke these in the debate over whether she should be reappointed is deliberately to suggest that the government’s decision to replace her is an insult to these groups — making whoever replaces her, should they happen to be white or male or some other genetically incorrect makeup, the embodiment of that insult. That’ll do wonders for his or her legitimacy.
And so an office that is supposed to unite the people is now to be just another casualty in the culture war. What a cynical, destructive ploy.
By Andrew Coyne - Saturday, May 1, 2010 at 1:11 AM - 248 Comments
Day three after the Ruling that Saved Our System of Government, and the Tories have achieved their initial objective: total strategic confusion. Is Stephen Harper now prepared to accept opposition demands that a parliamentary committee be given access to the documents in the Afghan detainees affair? Or is he digging in his heels, as unwilling to compromise as ever?
I don’t know. But a clue to the Prime Minister’s state of mind can be found in his repeated invocation of the government’s “legal obligations.” Responding to questions in the House Wednesday, Harper said, variously:
Mr. Speaker, as I have said, we look forward to both complying with your ruling and with the legal obligations that have been established by statutes passed by this Parliament.
The government has certain obligations that are established under statutes passed by this Parliament. We obviously want to proceed in a way that will respect both of those things, and of course we will be open to any reasonable suggestions to achieve those two objectives.
You have delivered a decision. Obviously, the government seeks to respect that decision. At the same time, it seeks to respect its obligations established by statute and passed by this Parliament.
The government seeks at all times to respect all of its obligations. To the extent that some of those obligations may be in conflict, there are reasonable ways to accommodate that and we are open to reasonable suggestions in that regard.
The government cannot break the law, it cannot order public servants to break the law, nor can it do anything that would unnecessarily jeopardize the safety of Canadian troops.
You can appreciate the Prime Minister’s dilemma. He is obliged to balance two competing claims: on the one hand, to comply with the Speaker’s ruling enjoining him to respect the House’s demand that he produce the documents; and on the other, to comply with his “legal obligations” not to produce them. Don’t you see? The Speaker is asking him to break the law.
What’s a Prime Minister to do? Parliament has passed legislation, notably the Canada Evidence Act, forbidding the government or its employees from disclosing certain documents. And yet here is one of the Houses of that same Parliament, the Commons, backed by its Speaker, demanding that he should disclose those same documents. What could be more reasonable than to seek some way to balance those competing demands?
Except the whole argument’s bogus. No one is asking the Prime Minister to break the law. The conflict of which he complains exists only in his head. This was a key point in the Speaker’s ruling: a law may impose a general prohibition on the release of certain documents, but unless it expressly states that the ban applies to Parliament, it doesn’t. The presumption, that is, is in favour of parliamentary privilege.
I quote from page 20 of the Speaker’s ruling, where he cites House of Commons Procedure and Practice, pp. 978-9:
No statute or practice diminishes the fullness of the power rooted in the House privileges unless there is an explicit legal provision to that effect, or unless the House adopts a specific resolution limiting the power. The House has never set a limit on its power to order the production of papers and records. Continue…