By Aaron Wherry - Sunday, May 19, 2013 - 0 Comments
Two hours after Nigel Wright resigned, The West Block aired an interview with Brent Rathgeber, the noticeably independent-minded Conservative MP. It seems this mess is not going over well with Conservative supporters.
Tom Clark: Is this hurting the Conservative brand in your area?
Brent Rathgeber: Well it is to a certain extent. I think the irony of this situation to some extent is, I hear from constituents all the time; daily, weekly and individuals for the most part that are calling or e-mailing me with respect to recent stories that are coming out of the Senate are not the normal people that are critical of the government or critical of me. These are actually more people that I consider to be our supporters, that they expect public officials to hold themselves up to an exceptionally high standard of conduct and it’s those individuals … Who I mean I identify with because I’m one of them. I do advocate for respect for taxpayers and for treating public resources effectively and legally, and respectfully. So, it’s among individuals who I consider to be my supporters who seem to be the most upset as this story continues to roll out.
And then there is this from Mr. Rathgeber.
Tom Clark: You’re going to be back here in Ottawa next week when the House resumes, you’re going to have an opportunity to speak to the leaders of the party, to the prime minister. What do you want to ask Stephen Harper about this whole situation?
Brent Rathgeber: Well my biggest concern and it has been my concern for some time, even before this story broke in the last few weeks, and that’s what I see as an inadequate degree of separation between the legislative and executive branches of government. The senators in question and myself, we are parliamentarians. We are legislators and our job is to vet and ultimately vote on, yay or nay on legislation that’s before the respective houses. And most of that legislation is government sponsored and government drafted legislation. And when there’s inadequate separation I would suggest between the executive and of course the prime minister’s office is at the very apex of the executive. When there’s inadequate separation between those two institutions, it appears to me that both are compromised. I mean I don’t … as a legislator I don’t want to be beholden or indebted to individuals from the executive at any level.
By Aaron Wherry - Wednesday, May 15, 2013 at 11:15 AM - 0 Comments
Actually, Forum Research’s last poll in Labrador was fairly reflective of the final vote—and Conservatives could point to that as evidence of Mr. Trudeau driving voters away, but then the 20-point drop they claimed on Monday night becomes a nine-point drop (from 57% in early April to 48% on by-election night).
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, May 6, 2013 at 12:49 PM - 0 Comments
In theory, I’m told, all statements by Conservative MPs are to be vetted by the government whip’s office (I’ve asked Gordon O’Connor’s office for clarification, but the whip’s office tends not to comment on such matters). Mr. Rathgeber seems to have not submitted to that process. He was scheduled to deliver a statement on Friday, but it’s unclear whether he spoke because he was on the approved list despite not submitting his statement or because he stood and caught the Speaker’s eye.
Either way, an MP stood in the House and said something without the approval of his party’s leadership. So that’s… something.
Meanwhile, in comments to the Hill Times, Conservative MP David Tilson raises the possibility for conflict when some MPs are operating according to the whip’s list and other MPs are standing and hoping to catch the Speaker’s eye.
“If I was the last government member to make a statement in the House on the list, and was approved, and some guy stands up and makes a statement which precludes me from making a statement, they’re going against my democratic rights. They may say they’re losing their democratic rights, [but] I’ve been approved to speak, and now I’m being precluded from speaking,” said Conservative MP David Tilson (Dufferin-Caleton, Ont.) in an interview last week with The Hill Times.
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, April 30, 2013 at 5:04 PM - 0 Comments
Nearer the end of Question Period this afternoon, the Speaker called on the Conservative MP for Vegreville-Wainwright and both Leon Benoit and another Conservative MP, Phil McColeman I believe, stood and began speaking. Only one of them, Mr. Benoit, is the member for Vegreville-Wainwright and eventually the other MP returned to his seat.
Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber says Mr. Benoit was not on the government whip’s list of those backbenchers who would be asking questions this afternoon, meaning that Mr. Benoit had stood of his own volition, caught the Speaker’s eye and been recognized and possibly making him the first Conservative MP to do so since the Speaker’s ruling. Mr. Benoit has not yet confirmed as much himself, but here is the question he asked.
Mr. Speaker, development of our natural resources is very important for creating jobs, for adding to our economy, and for providing money for health care, education and other social programs. Opposition parties criticizing the government for not paying enough attention to protecting the environment as major projects like mines and pipelines are being developed are slowing this development, thus killing jobs and reducing funding for social programs. I would ask the Minister of Natural Resources for evidence that the government is in fact protecting the environment in the development of these major natural resource projects.
For the record, the response of Dave Anderson, parliamentary secretary to the minister of natural resources, was as follows.
Mr. Speaker, the National Energy Board in Canada is a strong, independent regulator. It is a world-class regulator that ensures pipeline safety. Our government has taken action to prevent pipeline accidents and to prove our ability to respond to any incidents that do occur. For example, we have increased the number of inspections of federally regulated pipelines by 50%. We have doubled the amount of annual audits. We have put forward new fines for companies that break Canada’s rigorous new environmental protections. We are there for Canadian communities. We are going to protect the environment and develop the economy at the same time.
Update 8:43am. Mr. Benoit’s office confirms he was not scheduled to ask a question.
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, April 30, 2013 at 11:20 AM - 0 Comments
The Conservative MP for Tobique—Mactaquac won’t be sending mailouts to his constituents that mock Justin Trudeau.
“I’ve looked at some of the ads going back as far as 1993, some of the ads that have been used by all the parties during the last number of elections that I’ve run in and I find some of them, actually, odd, and a little bit childish,” Allen said. “But at the end of the day, I guess parties are using them because they’ve proven themselves to be effective and it’s a way to use their money to get their message out unfiltered.”
Allen notes negative ads have been effective against former Liberal leaders Michael Ignatieff and Stephane Dion, but he said it’s not his style. Allen said he will not send out any of the anti-Trudeau flyers to his constituents. “If I’m going to use something in my riding, I’m going to do a compare and contrast to the policy positions of the parties and the policy positions of the leader. I think in my riding I think people would say, ‘OK that is fair ball,’” he said.
Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber has also declined to send such mailouts, as he explained to reporters after QP last Thursday.
I won’t be participating in that program … generally speaking, my constituents are not all that thrilled by negative attacks … I don’t believe that my constituents are particularly thrilled by receiving that. They rather want to hear about issues. They’re not really interested in those types of ads, although other people have different opinions.
Update 1:25pm. Dan Albas won’t be sending around the mailouts either.
As a rule I typically avoid personal attacks or strongly themed politically partisan messaging. One observation that I have come to appreciate from our now retired MLA and former Speaker of the House Bill Barisoff, is that most citizens prefer aggressive partisan attacks are left out of the debate and discussion. Although I will not be using these particular ten percenters that have raised the ire of some, I do support the right of Members of Parliament from all sides of the House to communicate on issues they believe are important without restrictions on the content.
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, April 29, 2013 at 8:57 AM - 0 Comments
Brent Rathgeber says he’s interested in standing during Question Period and asking real questions of government ministers.
“Parliament exists to hold government to account,” he said. “I believe that some ministers, from time to time, have been disrespectful with respect to their expense accounts and I believe that some departments have budgets that are not justified in times of economic uncertainty where scarce resources are becoming scarcer,” Rathgeber said.
“So yes, it is my hope that I will be able to stand and ask a fair but challenging question on how the government spends taxpayer dollars,” the member from Edmonton-St. Albert said.
It is probably too much to hope for that such lobs should be entirely done away with. But it would be nice if those weren’t the only questions coming from the government backbench on a daily basis. Each afternoon, between 2:15pm and 3:00pm, nearly every MP in Ottawa is in attendance. Most of them with nothing to do except clap for their side and jeer the other. They might at least have the option of standing at their own discretion to ask a question.
The full episode of The House is here.
By Aaron Wherry - Friday, April 26, 2013 at 6:05 PM - 0 Comments
There was some anger, to be sure, but there was just as much guffawing and as many furrowed brows over the wish of these MPs to discuss abortion … These MPs wished to discuss an issue that their party leadership and the media have deemed out of bounds. Rather than defend the rights of MPs to bring their views into debate and to eventually have them put to a vote, we are subjected to commentary that the prime minister needs to exercise more control over his caucus. We are told that MPs should be allowed to speak, but perhaps not on this issue. What other issues are off limits remains to be seen.
MPs come to Ottawa understanding that they serve at the pleasure of their leader. Those same leaders act virtually free of constraints. When MPs assert their rights, it is portrayed as a party in disarray and as leaders losing control when in fact it is actually parliamentary democracy in action. Acknowledging that MPs can rise to their feet and be recognized to speak without their party’s approval is surely a gain for our Parliament. But it will move our democracy only an inch rather than a mile if we do not equally free MPs from the things that keep them off their feet.
Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber says he intends to stand.
I have been asked by several media outlets whether I intend to avail myself to this reestablished opportunity. The answer is “yes,” though I have not yet done so. The reason (and I believe the reason is important to an understanding as to why we have noticed only incremental change in the operation of the House) for this is that a rediscovered right or opportunity should not be deployed capriciously or in a cavalier manner. I did not advocate for a Member’s ability to speak freely just so that Members could speak merely to hear the sound of their own voices. They should reserve the opportunity and indeed the privilege to speak in the House to occasions when they have something substantial to say.
But Members must avail themselves of that ability to attempt to be recognized on occasions when that Member has something important to say, because the right to speak freely in this House was not so much taken away by the leadership as it was voluntarily ceded. So it is up to us now…
Peter calls the Speaker’s ruling a “hollow” victory. I think it’s probably more accurately described as a small victory—one that could take on more significance if MPs are willing to make use of it.
The basic problem is an imbalance of power. At present, it is the party leader who possess an overwhelming amount of it. When Mark Warawa stood on a question of privilege, he was openly questioning this dynamic. Nine other government backbenchers followed suit and did likewise. Those acts alone were significant in that they demonstrated a degree of independence and empowerment.
It is possible, I suppose, that someone on the government side had some inkling that simply standing up during the time reserved for statement by members would have allowed MPs to subvert the list prepared by their party whip. Mr. Warawa says he had no idea. Regardless, when the Speaker stood and ruled as he did, it was an official and public acknowledgement and invitation: an important statement from the authority of the Speaker’s throne that the whip and his list do not prevent MPs from performing the physical act of standing. If, as it seemed, Mark Warawa’s subsequent threat to stand without official approval resulted in him being put on the whip’s list, that was a specific victory for Mr. Warawa: a concession from his party’s leaders that they did not wish to be publicly subverted. Going forward, any backbencher who is told he cannot stand and speak, as Mr. Warawa was, can plausibly threaten to stand of his or her own volition.
Of course, the system of incentives—the political and media pressures—that existed before the Speaker’s ruling still exists now. And there is much more that might be done to achieve a more healthy balance between the party leader and the MP, the executive and the legislature. But over the last few weeks, ten government backbenchers stood and asked the Speaker to confirm their rights as individual members of the legislature and the Speaker responded with a public assurance that they could stand at their own discretion. That is a small, but potentially useful, victory.
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 11:18 AM - 0 Comments
I’m told the Speaker hopes to deliver a ruling on Mark Warawa’s question of privilege after Question Period this afternoon.
Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber wondered yesterday about how statements would be distributed among parties were the Liberal motion to pass. The Liberals tell me that statements would be allocated proportionally—the current system seems to basically follow this rule. I emailed Mr. Rathgeber to ask about the Liberal motion and in the course of that conversation he suggested that party affiliation should be ignored entirely and statements should be allotted randomly, similar to how the order for private members’ bills is established.
It should be random ( by lottery) the way PMB Precedence is established … The point is slots are given to Members; not parties. This is an important distinction and important in re-establishing the significance of the Member. Matters of Private Members should be managed outside the caucus apparatus, as is done with PMB and Motion Precedence.
Speaking with reporters after QP yesterday, Thomas Mulcair said the New Democrats would support the Liberal motion, but also suggested it might not amount to much of a change.
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, April 22, 2013 at 11:47 AM - 0 Comments
This wording, if accurate, imports the word “Party” previously absent from the Standing Order; importing the concept of Party seems to run contrary to the stated intent of the Motion, to remove the control and vetting of SO 31s from the Parties. More troubling, the draft seems to infer (or at least is open to the interpretation of) equality of parties. It appears the proposed rotation would be on a Party basis, meaning that all Parties would have equal, not proportional, slots. That would certainly advantage parties with smaller caucuses, whereas the current system appropriately distributes spots proportionally to the size of the caucus. Mathematically, the 8 Independents would similarly get 25% of the rotation; accordingly each would get to deliver a Member’s Statement approximately every other day.
The awkward wording aside, it is also unclear that the Motion is well intentioned. It has been suggested that its entire purpose is to “wedge” Members such as myself, who have been vocal in favour of Parliamentary Reform, to vote in favour of the Motion, possibly against the wishes of our Leadership. Regardless, the whole Motion could be pre-empted and deemed moot by a positive ruling from the Speaker. I have argued in the House that the current Standing Order 31 is actually quite clear and as written, does not support Party or Whip vetting. If the Speaker so rules and provides appropriate direction, that would be a preferable outcome to amending the Standing Order unnecessarily and especially using unclear wordage that denotes equality of Parties rather than equality of Members.
By Aaron Wherry - Thursday, April 18, 2013 at 11:09 AM - 0 Comments
Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber talks to Global.
You’ll never hear Conservative backbencher Brent Rathgeber using his precious time in the House of Commons to talk about the NDP’s $21-billion carbon tax. “I will absolutely guarantee you that I won’t be talking about the carbon tax,” he said in an interview Wednesday. For one thing, he doesn’t think it’s accurate.
So what does he think of fellow Conservative MPs’ repeated statements about said “job-killing” tax? “I don’t like them at all.”
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, April 15, 2013 at 9:08 AM - 0 Comments
As the House reconvenes—and with Mark Warawa’s question of privilege still hanging over the proceedings—Alison Loat sees an opportunity for change.
Limiting debate affects us all. It weakens our democratic institutions by making them less responsive to citizens and their representatives. It makes it more difficult to attract good people to public service (after all, who wants to move away from home to be known as what several former MPs referred to as “trained seals” or “potted plants”?) and it erodes Canadians’ faith in their government. Latest survey numbers show that only 55 per cent of citizens report being satisfied with their democracy, an all-time low.
The Speaker of the House of Commons, Andrew Scheer, has said he’ll continue to hear from MPs with views on the admissibility of Warawa’s motion next week. This provides an opportunity for MPs of all parties to consider and articulate their roles to the citizens they serve. Let’s hope MPs take him up on it, and that following blindly behind a political party, whatever its colour, doesn’t top their list.
Brent Rathgeber talks to the Globe.
Won’t you face backlash from either your party or the PMO for saying that?
Well, I don’t think so. I certainly haven’t received anything yet. And this is not new. For at least the last year, I’ve been a bit of a non-traditional member of our caucus, in that I have, from time to time, constructively criticized our own government’s policies, whether it was limousine overtime or supply management… I take the view that we’re not the rogues, we’re not the radicals. We’re the ones that are defending the historical and traditional role of the Member of Parliament.
By Aaron Wherry - Thursday, April 11, 2013 at 3:23 PM - 0 Comments
This week’s piece on the backbench revolt.
It might feel, in many ways, that this was a long time coming. The power and purpose of the backbencher seem to have been subject to question and mockery for nearly as long as there have been backbenchers—and, in the current era of the talking point, partisan scripting and message control have made it even easier to mock those MPs who seem to be reduced to messengers for their party leaders. Three years ago, Conservative MP Michael Chong proposed changes to question period that would have, in part, made it easier for backbenchers to ask questions of their own volition. Last month, Conservative MP Brad Trost tabled a motion that would give the House the power to elect committee chairs—another small move that would empower the legislature. According to two Conservative sources, a nebulous group of 20 or so Conservative backbenchers—no cabinet ministers or parliamentary secretaries included—have been gathering periodically over the past year to discuss the power dynamic between backbenchers and party leaders and possible parliamentary reforms (Rathgeber says he has participated in some of those meetings).
By Aaron Wherry - Thursday, April 11, 2013 at 2:16 PM - 0 Comments
The issue isn’t abortion — it’s democratic reform
Brent Rathgeber, the Conservative MP for Edmonton-St.Albert, has a blog. And on that blog, on Feb. 6, Rathgeber wrote something simultaneously remarkable and mundane. “I understand that members of Parliament, who are not members of the executive, sometimes think of themselves as part of the government; we are not,” he wrote. “Under our system of responsible government, the executive is responsible and accountable to the legislature. The latter holds the former to account. A disservice is provided to both when Parliament forgets to hold the Cabinet to account.”
Here was a simple, if generally forgotten and regularly ignored, principle: MPs, even those who run under the same party banner as the prime minister and his cabinet, sit in the House of Commons for the purposes of holding the government to account.
Two months later, the basic place and principle of the MP is a point of open debate in the House of Commons. What began, with a motion from another Conservative backbencher, as a discussion about abortion—specifically, “sex-selective pregnancy termination”—has become an even more profound debate about the way in which our representative democracy functions. At its essence is the question of what we elect MPs, and send them off to Parliament Hill, to do.
By Aaron Wherry - Thursday, April 4, 2013 at 2:40 PM - 0 Comments
I have been quite vocal for the last year suggesting that a Member of Parliament’s role, in fact Parliament’s role, is to hold the Government to account. Parliament has existed for over 800 years to hold the Crown to account for how it spent the nation’s taxes.
Now within caucus, there are obviously differing understandings of this role both in concept and in application. There are those who believe members, owing their election to the Party and the Party Leader, are essentially an extension of the Prime Minister’s Office’s Communications Branch. Their purpose: to read prepared lines in the House and then return to the ridings on break weeks to continue the selling of the Government’s messaging. Any straying from approved communication lines is viewed as going rogue.
I take a more nuanced view of my role as a backbench caucus member. As a member of the government caucus, I am loyal to the party and to the leader under whose banner I was elected. Accordingly, I feel obliged to support the Government’s legislative agenda and I believe my voting record reflects consistency in that regard. However, supporting the Government is not in my view tantamount to blindly and without thinking supporting every detail the Government says or does.
By Aaron Wherry - Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 11:30 AM - 0 Comments
The Globe reports on yesterday’s Conservative caucus meeting.
The Prime Minister reminded his MPs he made a pledge to Canadians during the 2011 election: that his government would not reopen the abortion debate and that Conservatives wouldn’t bring forward legislation on the topic.
“He said he’s determined to keep his word to the people of Canada and he views this motion as tantamount to breaking the promise,” one source said. “He vowed he would use whatever tools are at his discretion to prevent the abortion debate from being reopened.”
There is a case to be made that any Conservative candidate who could not abide by a commitment to never reopen the abortion debate should have thus resigned. But there is also a distinction to be made here that excludes Mr. Warawa from the Prime Minister’s commitment. Continue…
By Aaron Wherry - Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 8:41 AM - 0 Comments
For these reasons, I support the member for Langley in his case that his parliamentary privilege has been compromised by having to submit his proposed member’s statement for vetting. This is a process that is not contemplated by the standing order and would appear to be completely contrary to the stated purpose of the member’s statement, which is to allow members to address the House for up to one minute on virtually any matter of international, national, provincial or local concern. We do not know if the rejected statement from the member for Langley would have fitted into one of those broad categories. Since he was not allowed to deliver it, we will never know. That is a violation of not only the member’s right to deliver a statement but also of the right of this House to hear his statement.
Accordingly, I would ask that under the circumstances you find a prima facie case of breach of privilege with respect to the member for Langley. In a Parliament where the government and the opposition control such a large portion of the parliamentary calendar and agenda, private members’ bills, motions and S. O. 31s are the very few mechanisms that members have to bring forward matters of importance for their constituents. I would submit that if the House does not jealously protect the rights of members to bring forward matters of concern to their constituents and if it does not strictly enforce those rules, the roles of the private member, Parliament and ultimately democracy have all been equally compromised.
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, March 26, 2013 at 4:06 PM - 0 Comments
Without a doubt the issue of pregnancy termination is a subject matter that makes some Members of Parliament uneasy and some leaders nervous. But that is entirely Irrelevant. If Members are opposed, they can vote against the Motion. If Leaders are strongly opposed, they can attempt to whip their caucuses to do likewise. But to essentially censor the motion out of the gate against the advice of an independent analyst is heavy handed and I would suggest contrary to the expectations of constituents who rightly believe that their MP’s have a voice and can represent them in Ottawa.
… and Mr. Warawa’s point of privilege this morning.
Neither Private Members’ Motions nor Bills or SO 31s are the prerogative of the Whips or the House Leaders; they are the prerogative of Private Members. The Government controls so much of the Parliamentary Procedures and Calendar, it is imperative that Private Members stand firm on defending the few rights and opportunities we maintain to raise matters of importance to our constituents.
Mr. Rathgeber also talks to the CBC.
“It doesn’t really matter what your perspective is on [Motion-]408. The issue is whether or not a member of Parliament has a right to bring forward a motion that is deemed voteable by the independent expert that assessed it. And if that right is taken away, that should be a concern to Parliamentarians on all sides of the House. I believe if there is going to be any concrete change to the way this works… it’s going to require support from more than just the Conservative caucus. I think it’s going to require support from backbenchers from all sides of the house.”
By Aaron Wherry - Wednesday, February 20, 2013 at 10:51 AM - 0 Comments
The bill passed at second reading in June with those 15 Conservatives voting in favour, but committee hearings on the bill ended in acrimony (here is the transcript). As a result, the bill was reported back to the House without the amendments that Randall Garrison, the bill’s sponsor, had hoped to make. Mr. Garrison is now hoping to have those amendments moved and considered in the House, but it will be for the Speaker to decide if they are in order (see “selection of motions for debate” here).
The fate of those amendments could conceivably have some bearing on the bill’s ultimate passage. And in addition to those 15 Conservatives who voted in favour, there are another 16 Conservatives and a half dozen opposition MPs who didn’t vote at second reading.
Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber explained his concerns with the bill in November. Former NDP MP Bill Siksay, the sponsor of the original version of the bill, responded to some of the critics of the bill in an interview two years ago.
By Aaron Wherry - Friday, February 15, 2013 at 2:31 PM - 0 Comments
Tom Clark: But let’s be realistic though, if a backbencher votes against his own government, the future is not terribly bright for that backbencher. I mean the chances of you getting into cabinet or even being a parliamentary secretary become rather limited if you are seen as somebody who’s holding your own executive account and also from time to time, I suppose voting against them.
Brent Rathgeber: Sure but that’s premised on the suggestion that it’s only the executive that’s important in this city or in this country and I dispute that premise. I think legislature is important. We’re the ones that pass the laws. We’re the ones that pass the appropriation for the government to make and that’s Parliament as a collective. So I think the role as being a legislature is being a member of Parliament is important in holding the government to account and to assure that the executive pays attention to the tax dollars that they spend.
At the same time, Mr. Rathgeber acknowledged one of the natural tensions of the party system.
Well it’s difficult to serve more than one master and certainly my primary loyalty is to my constituents; they’re the ones that elected me. But I also have a loyalty to the prime minister and to the Conservative Party of Canada because after all, I was elected under their banner and I have no delusions that I would have been elected had it been under some other banner, certainly not Alberta.
So you have dual loyalties. So you look at it at a case by case basis.
That tension will probably always exist, no matter what is done to reform the House. And the goal of reform shouldn’t be to create 308 independent MPs. Rather, it should be to better balance the power between party and MP. The aim should be to make the individual MP more important, useful and interesting—more than merely a name on a ballot, more than a placeholder and more than a messenger for his or her political party.
Part of changing that is going to involve structural reform (amending the Elections Act, changing the way the House does its business), but another part of that could and should be nothing more than individual MPs acknowledging their individual responsibilities and asserting themselves. Consider Mr. Rathgeber. Why is he receiving attention and praise like this? Because he has a blog, on which he periodically conveys opinions that do not seem to have been vetted by the Prime Minister’s staff and variously expresses himself using phrases that do not seem to have been scripted for him.
This is not quite revolutionary. Or at least it should not seem the least bit revolutionary. But here we are. On the way to fixing everything, perhaps more MPs could start blogs. (Note: Ted Hsu has one too.)
By Aaron Wherry - Thursday, February 7, 2013 at 11:33 AM - 0 Comments
Once more into the Parliamentary Budget Office debate with Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber.
This conflict had to have been or at least ought to have been foreseen following the creation of the PBO. It is simply impracticable that a $260B operation be infallible. With eighty some departments, agencies and Crown Corporations, many operating at arms’ length of the cabinet, budgeting and forecasting errors or at least discrepancies are simply inevitable.
That is the nature of watchdogism. A watchdog will inevitably butt heads with what it is watching.
It is useful that this is acknowledged, particularly without the suggestion that Kevin Page was acting as a partisan by virtue of butting heads with the government. But then Mr. Rathgeber writes something truly remarkable… Continue…
By Aaron Wherry - Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 1:20 PM - 0 Comments
Back in August, Brent Rathgeber explained why he wasn’t going to be commenting on the riding boundary review process.
I have publically stated that it is inappropriate for Members of Parliament to actively lobby for or against a particular electoral map or configuration. This has both an ethical and a practical aspect. Ethically, I believe that MPs, who intend to run again, are in a complete conflict of interest when lobbying for or against a certain boundary configuration and therefore ought to recuse themselves from a conflict, real or perceived. If I were to make a submission to the Boundary Commission, which if accepted, assisted in a narrow electoral victory, certainly allegations of gerrymander would follow thereafter.
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, February 5, 2013 at 8:00 AM - 0 Comments
Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber offers his thoughts on the future of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.
“The office has strayed from its intended mandate which was to provide non-partisan, independent advice. The perception, rightly or wrongly, is that the office has become part of the opposition’s research branch. I don’t think that was the intent, but it just evolved,” said Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber (Edmonton-St. Alberta, Alta.).
We need to be specific here. Mr. Rathgeber isn’t quite making the accusation that Kevin Page has conducted himself as a partisan, but he isn’t quite not making the accusation. Again, being critical of the government is not synonymous with partisanship. If the suggestion is that Kevin Page conducted himself as a partisan, the evidence to support that claim needs to amount to more than “he was really hard on the government.”
(Mr. Rathgeber alludes to “the perception, rightly or wrongly.” Perception among who? Conservative partisans? Do New Democrat and Liberal partisans differ in their opinion? Do New Democrats and Liberals think instead that Mr. Page has conducted himself in a perfectly non-partisan manner? Does this possibly demonstrate that partisans are not the best people to ask about someone else’s partisanship?)
I suspect the discomfort some have with Mr. Page’s time in office has primarily to do with his willingness to speak openly about the subjects he explored and his willingness to fight for disclosure of the information he felt he should have access to. There’s probably a good conversation to be had about how and when the officers of Parliament should be heard from and their role in a parliamentary democracy. But that discussion is a lot more nuanced than lamenting that Mr. Page wasn’t sufficiently “non-partisan.” Mr. Rathgeber seems to hint at this discussion with another comment: “This position, for whatever reason, has become very, very, public, and I think to its detriment.” I’m not sure I entirely agree, but that’s a more worthwhile discussion to have there.
Mr. Rathgeber said that the office’s high media profile, and the practice of releasing all of its reports publicly has meant that controversy-shy government MPs “almost never” ask the office for research.
“The fact that the data and the information will be released, or could be released publicly, will serve as a deterrent for government members to employ the services of the PBO,” he said…
Mr. Rathgeber said he believes that if the PBO were to release its reports directly to the Parliamentarians who request them, the move would reduce friction between the Parliamentary Budget Office and the government. He added that full officers of Parliament do not have as high a profile as Mr. Page, who serves Parliament through the Library, but that they work effectively. “There has to be some balance between the office’s ability to make reports public and its ability to still maintain non-partisanship. I realize that that’s a struggle and I don’t have a magic bullet,” he said.
If the goal—and apparently the great concern—is a non-partisan PBO, giving partisans more power to determine which of the PBO’s reports are released publicly is probably not the answer. The idea is obviously problematic—We’re going to give MPs the opportunity to withhold reports if they don’t like the findings? We’re going to waste the PBO’s presently precious time and resources on reports that won’t be made public?—but it does segue to a possible compromise.
Here is how the Congressional Budget Office answers the question, “Who can see your work?”
CBO makes its work widely available to the Congress and the public. All of CBO’s products (apart from informal cost estimates for legislation being developed privately by Members of Congress or their staffs) are available to the Congress and the public on CBO’s website. Once a legislative proposal is publicly available, any CBO analysis of that proposal is also publicly available.
The caveat there is important. A Member of Congress can consult the CBO about a legislative proposal they are considering and the CBO’s analysis of that idea will not be made public by the CBO. This would seem to satisfy Jim Flaherty’s request for a “sounding board.”
But here, meanwhile, is everything else the Congressional Budget Office (Mr. Flaherty’s preferred model) does.
CBO’s chief responsibility under the Congressional Budget Act is to help the House and Senate Budget Committees with the matters under their jurisdiction. CBO also supports other Congressional committees—particularly the Appropriations, Ways and Means, and Finance Committees—and the Congressional leadership.
CBO produces a number of reports specified in statute, of which the best known is the annual Budget and Economic Outlook. Other CBO reports that are required by law or have become regular products of the agency owing to a high, sustained level of interest by the Congress are described in our products.
In addition, CBO is required by law to produce a formal cost estimate for nearly every bill that is “reported” (approved) by a full committee of either House of Congress; the only exceptions are appropriation bills, which do not receive formal cost estimates. (CBO provides information on their budgetary impact to the appropriation committees.) CBO also produces formal cost estimates at other stages of the legislative process if requested to do so by a relevant committee or by the Congressional leadership. Moreover, the agency produces informal cost estimates for a much larger number of legislative proposals that Congressional committees consider in the process of developing legislation.
Beyond its regular reports and cost estimates, CBO prepares analytic reports at the request of the Congressional leadership or Chairmen or Ranking Minority Members of committees or subcommittees. CBO analysts work with requesters and their staffs to understand the scope and nature of the work that would be most useful to the Congress.
If we want a Parliamentary Budget Officer that provides full, public analysis of the federal budget, the government’s finances and legislation before Parliament and MPs want to be able to consult privately with the PBO, figure out what amount of staff and resources would be necessary to do so and then provide a sufficient budget. The answer ultimately is not less of a Parliamentary Budget Office, it’s more.
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, February 4, 2013 at 11:03 AM - 0 Comments
Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber considers how to improve the House of Commons.
But since removal of the Cameras in the House is similarly not a viable option, perhaps the methods of covering proceedings should be modified. By allowing the cameras and the microphones to be live only on the person recognized by the Speaker, the result is a highly sanitized version of what is actually going on. Wide angle or even random camera shots would certainly give the public a more realistic display of proceedings including questionable behavior. The advent of camera phones means that a public official’s behavior may be recorded and scrutinized in any public location. Yet, off camera conduct in the House of Commons allows bad behavior to occur with virtual impunity.
But a better solution to improve decorum in the House would be to change the significance of what actually goes on there. A lawyer in a Court of Law would never goof off because he must intently listen to the proceedings in order to prepare his next line of questioning or closing argument. But overreliance on Talking Points in Parliamentary proceedings has made following the previous debate unnecessary and formulating one’s argument essentially non-existent. Reading a prepared text (often prepared by an official) means literacy skills have supplanted actual debating skills.
Moreover, since the votes, almost without exception, break down strictly on party lines, there is even less need for non-participants in the actual debate to follow along. The Whips Office will happily advise them when to stand and how to vote.
Changing the rules that govern TV coverage is within the purview of the House of Commons: although Mr. Rathgeber might have to convince the government side’s deputy House leader, Tom Lukiwski, who, tabling possibly the saddest argument in the history of parliamentary democracy, fretted last year that the current camera angles were showing too many empty seats.
The reading of speeches wouldn’t be so offensive if what was being read wasn’t so seemingly scripted. And scripts would likely be less prevalent if what was being said actually mattered. And the words spoken might matter if the result of the debate wasn’t already determined. And free votes might be more prevalent if party leaders didn’t hold so much power over MPs.
Sooner or later, some MP is going to have to take a real run at the current system and table a bill that amends the Elections Act to remove the requirement that a candidate have the signature of the party leader to run in an election.
By Aaron Wherry - Friday, January 25, 2013 at 1:03 PM - 0 Comments
Last Wednesday, Native Protestors blocked the QE II near Gateway Boulevard fully and then partially for a little less than 2 hours. Then during the afternoon commute, the same protestors set up a blockade on St. Albert Trail at Sturgeon Road. As St. Albert is a bedroom community of Edmonton, I represent many commuters. My office has been inundated with e-mails and phone calls asking why the RCMP allowed this admittedly peaceful protest to proceed. According to the St. Albert “Gazette”, the demonstration happened with the cooperation of the RCMP, who had met in advance with the protestors and were on scene to manage traffic. Apparently, the RCMP share Edmonton Police Service’s theory that managing a protest is a better tactic than stopping it.
I am not so sure. In the first place, acquiescing to an illegal activity does nothing to prevent further illegal activities. And make no mistake; the police were enabling an illegal activity. Section 430 of the Criminal Code clearly defines the offence of “Mischief” when one willfully “obstructs, interrupts or interferes with the lawful use, enjoyment or operation of property”. Moreover, you can be charged with “Intimidation” when you compel “another person to abstain from doing anything that he or she has a lawful right to do” including one who “blocks or obstructs a highway”, which is “a road to which the public has the right of access” (Section 2).
A hallmark of a free society is our Charter protected rights of expression and assembly. Accordingly, I defend the rights of peaceful assembly without equivocation. However, one’s freedom to demonstrate cannot break the criminal law; one’s freedom to protest cannot trump another’s right to the lawful use of public property to get home after work. As enlightenment philosopher John Locke so famously declared: “my liberty to swing my fist is limited by the proximity of your chin.”
Blake Richards is similarly concerned.
That being said, some of the militant activists hiding behind the Idle No More banner are doing all they can to threaten the progress being made between our government and First Nations leaders. Canadians are growing increasingly frustrated and disappointed with the actions of those who blockade highways and railways. The blockades must stop. They are counterproductive, and an impediment to progress.
From a philosophical standpoint, violating the law is fairly central to the idea of civil disobedience.
Such protests are, of course, not unique to aboriginal causes. Farmers in British Columbia conducted a blockade of a private property on an entirely unrelated matter this month (the blockade ended Thursday at the RCMP’s behest). Farmers have used convoys in the past that have tied up or otherwise impeded traffic in the process of protesting government policy. (Farmers also protested the coalition in 2008.) And at least one such protest has occurred with support from some of Mr. Richards and Mr. Rathgeber’s colleagues (see story below).
Ultimately, we’re talking about tolerance: what should a democratic society be willing to tolerate and what should law enforcement be willing to tolerate before intervening? (From a policing standpoint, for the sake of maintaining peace and order, where is the line between letting a protest run its course and needing to enforce the law? At what point is it more troublesome to intervene than it would be to work around the situation?) Protesters who break the law probably have to accept the possibility of being arrested, charged or fined—though, with something like a highway blockade, working with law enforcement in advance might allow for reasonable compromises to be found. But protesters also have to keep in mind how the general public will view their actions: a protest might be meant to raise awareness, but it might hurt the larger cause if the action greatly angers and frustrates those directly impacted and is viewed unfavourable by the majority of those who read and hear the news. In that regard, Idle No More protesters might be smart to consider the complaints of Mr. Rathgeber and Mr. Richards, even if they disagree with their conclusions. Continue…