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Rough Ride Ahead

Back when the House of Commons rose for it’s usual holiday break in December, the first few months of 2019 looked to be promising ones for the governing Liberals. They had gotten to the break in a good position, with a big election year budget coming in the Spring and with their Opposition mostly scattered, weakened or unable to mount any major challenges. But wow did 2019 come in with a vengeance.

We all know the story about now-former Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, from the cabinet shuffle, to the Globe and Mail stories, and then everything that’s flowed from it, including the poor response (or should I say responses) from the government to it all. In the span of less than a month, what looked to be a promising 2019 for the Liberals as quickly turned on its head and with the return of the House of Commons tomorrow, it promises to get worse before it gets better.

And to me that is the striking thing about this whole situation to date; it’s mostly taken place with the House of Commons on recess. Prime Minister Trudeau has only had to face one question period on the SNC scandal so far, and that was on the first day that the story broke and comparatively nothing had happened yet in the story. In the break week since, so much more has happened and so much more about this story has come spilling out. It’s rare to see that happen, and it promises to be a bad omen for the government.

So tomorrow the House will sit for nine more days until their next break. On top of the House sitting, we’ll have the scene taking place behind closed doors in the Justice Committee on Tuesday. After having botched the emergency meeting called last week, tomorrow would offer a good chance to get some things right for the government members and call all the witnesses that need to be heard from. Of course, because the meeting will be “In Camera”, we won’t know what was said or what was even rejected, only what was approved. So we’ll have to read between the lines and make our best assumptions as to what happened in there.

But that to me is a prime example of the problem the government has found itself in here. The Hill Times has a good story out today about the worry and “serious concern” running around government circles about this issue, and there is one line from an anonymous Liberal staffer that makes a great point about politics in general; “perception is reality”. Once that perception takes hold, it’s hard to undo but even worse for the government, even if the facts in the end support them and show that they were totally in the right, the damage how people perceive them will be irreversibly done. Because even if that exoneration comes, many people will still ask themselves “why did the Liberals act this way?” “Why didn’t they just come clean?” “I thought they were the one who were going to be different?”.

For me that damage to perception is the biggest problem for this government, especially where it is coming from. I still remember back when the Liberals had their Leadership Campaign to replace Paul Martin, I told Liberal friends of mine back then that their best shot at revival was picking a leader who had no ties to the last two governments, who had no ties to the years of AdScam and who had no ties to the internal battles they had been fighting for year. Justin Trudeau was such a person, along with having the cache of having the “Trudeau” name. And you saw that advantage playing out when he became leader. He was able to get members to put aside their divisions for the most part and he was able to take bolder moves and positions at being a cleaner party because he had the credibility that came without having those ties to hold him back. He was the one who could honestly say that they’ve learned from the past and were doing better today because of it.

But as the SNC/PMO scandal has grown and started to take on more of a life of it’s own, something about the details of this story has stirred memories for many folks about that past that he had no connection to. Even though this scandal is not the same as AdScam was, it has drawn eerie parallels that some in the media have pointed out, like Dan Leger of the Halifax Chronicle Herald did today. And in my view, that is the biggest problem for the government here. This story may not be the easiest one to follow and it is not a straight forward one, but it brings back those memories for a lot of people and can make it all blur together.

To drive that point home about perception issues, Maclean’s released results of a poll that points to how closely people are following this and how people are viewing it. Here is the part that leapt out at me:

The online panel survey of 1,500 adults, taken Wednesday and Thursday by Public Square Research, showed that 43 per cent have followed the controversy since a Globe and Mail story cited anonymous sources who said the Prime Minister’s Office pressured Wilson-Raybould to avoid a court trial for the Quebec engineering firm SNC-Lavalin. Twelve per cent said they “know a lot about” the story, while 31 per cent  “know a little bit” about it. A further 27 per cent say they’ve heard about the controversy but “don’t really know what’s going on,” and 30 per cent have heard nothing about it.
Of the 43 per cent who’ve followed the story enough to know a lot or a bit about it, 73 per cent say Wilson-Raybould has the most credibility, compared to only 27 per cent who say the prime minister is more credible.

These numbers are simply bad for the government. To have 43% of respondents “following” this story in the week that it’s been out there, that means it’s getting penetration in the public. It may not be swinging opinions yet, but people are watching. To make it worse, the fact that 73% of that 43% say that Jody Wilson-Raybould has the most credibility in the matter, that’s bad for the government. You can’t look at that number and say “well that’s just Conservatives who don’t like us”. That kind of number means that it’s coming from all angles and all quarters. That number is as much a function of how the government has responded to this story as anything else. When you put together the number of stories and explanations the government members have put out so far, their actions at the Justice committee last week, and combine that with the fact that the Prime Minister won’t let Wilson-Raybould speak for herself while he gives his side of the story, it all raises a lot of questions. The combination of a disjointed and bad response from the government, along with the silencing of Wilson-Raybould, bolsters her credibility and eats away at the Prime Ministers.

In short, the government looks scared of her and what she might say if given the chance. Most people understand that if nothing was done wrong here, there is nothing to be afraid of. That fear is speaking volumes and it seems that it’s getting the peoples attention. So tomorrow we’ll see the first of what promises to be many raucous Question Periods this Spring. We’ll see Opposition parties with the first bit of wind in their sails that they’ve had in a long while and a government that’s looking to be at it’s worst point since they got elected, even though they still ride higher in the polls than the others. This isn’t the scene we’d thought that we’d see two months ago, but sometimes in politics, things can change just that fast.


In Defence of Political Staffers

Political staffers and the work they do is one of the great tropes out there in society, regardless of the country you live in. Some people say they are nothing but toadies running to the dry cleaning. Others go in the polar opposite direction, saying that they rule the whole roost, and are a cabal of nefarious and ill-intentioned people trying to run a shadow government; you know, like the Illuminati, but with cheaper suits and running on copious amounts of Tim’s coffee. But of course, like most things, the truth of the matter is much more benign and magical.

This is something that I know because I spent the last nine years of my life working as a political staffer on Parliament Hill. I spent almost my entire 30’s working in the NDP caucus under three different MPs, and just for a good measure of comparison, I actually spend the three years before that working as a federal civil servant. So it was with that in mind that I read a new opinion piece from the Globe and Mail that came out last night from another former Hill staffer, painting a picture of political work that was just too over the top for me to stay silent about.

The writer of the piece, Omer Aziz, spent a total of less than a year as a staffer after a distinguished education according to his website. He was educated at Queen’s University, the Paris Institute of Political Studies, Cambridge University, and Yale Law School. He also worked for the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, which would make him a good choice to work for the Minister of Foreign Affairs. So the man is no slouch, credit where credit is due. But I must take serious issue with his piece, not only in how he describes the work, but also how he describes the problem and what he prescribes as the solution.

The basic premise of this piece is that political staff inject politics and political thinking and considerations into the policy process and that is somehow dirty, corrupting and the source of all that is wrong in Ottawa. And his solution is as simple; get rid of half the political staff in Ottawa and the place would run so much better. He also goes onto say that there should be a “formal, publicly acknowledged policy process” because somehow he postulates that doesn’t exist already. By the way, that formal process does exist; it’s the legislative process that is the whole raison d’être for Parliament.

In my view this piece comes from a naïve place and starts with equally naïve assumptions. The biggest assumption is that “Political = evil, bad”, and that’s just wrong. Can some political behaviour be bad? Absolutely. But political behaviour can also be good, and bring about great results. Look at all of the progressive policies that we have in Canada that have come from good political behaviour; public healthcare, CPP, Employment Insurance and many others. Those didn’t come to pass from simply philosophical thought and discussion making it happen; that took political will and action.

And why did it take political will and action? For the biggest reason that I have a problem with this opinion piece; We are a Democracy!!! Democracy means having people participating, voting, taking part in the process. What Mr. Aziz seems to try to describe is some kind of top-down, panel of experts on all to rule and determine what we do because “they know best”. But that’s not how democracies work, and that’s a good thing. In a democracy, you need to have the people with you, you need to have enough buy in to make the policy work. That’s not a clean, simple process and is far from being an academic one; in many cases, it’s just as emotional as anything else and a cold, clinical approach to policy making can’t account for that.

The idea of the concentration of power is brought up and I would point out something that shouldn’t shock people. Yes, there are hierarchies within elected government and that makes sense. It makes sense that the office of the Prime Minister, you know, the person who leads the elected government, should have a bit more clout than the office of the Minister to FedNor. It equally makes sense that those who work directly for the Prime Minister, the leader of their party, will hold more sway and more power. And guess what? That’s no different than any workplace, public or private. It’s true in the civil service, it’s true in factories and mines, it’s true at the local McDonald’s down the road.

The problem is not where the power lays, it’s how that power is used and managed. Like Mr. Aziz, I’ve heard horror stories from the Harper years about political staffers going after civil servants and having spent my time in the civil service during the Harper years, I hear horror stories from that end too. But while dealing with the Harper government and with the current Trudeau government, I also heard good stories of political staff who operated with respect, care and collegiality. I can point to colleagues in all political parties who I have dealt with who meet that positive description. So to try to paint all political staffers as a marauding crew of vandals burning and pillaging their way through the civil service towers of downtown Ottawa is just wrong.

In my experience, one common denominator to how politicians and their political staff operate is if the politician has ever managed staff before. We have to remember that politicians come into office from all kinds of different backgrounds, and most of them have never been responsible for managing a staff. They don’t know how to be the “manager“ or the “boss”, and that can lead to troubles from time to time. Sometimes that involves not having general expectations laid out for their staff, or in others that can go the other way and be micromanaging to a damaging level. Also there is the whole idea of the portfolios a minister or opposition critic may have; if they are in a subject area they have no background or experience with, that can make them very dependant on their staff. That can turn out good or really bad, but can be a reason for issues.

So in the end would Ottawa operate better without all that political staff? Is that the panacea that it’s being presented as? Simply put, No! Political staffers work long, grueling hours with tonnes of stress and heavy work loads not because they choose to make it that way. It’s that way because there is that much work to do, and there’s always more that’s been dropped off to the wayside. These staff fulfill important roles, despite the value of their work being run down like this on a regular basis.

Finally, I will just close on this last point. We have a political system, and there needs to be a conduit, that can make that connection between the political and the civil service. Our system is political because we vote, we choose new policy directions and ideas, we pick a team to bring those ideas to life. Their legitimacy comes from those ballots, and the legitimacy of those staffers comes from who they work for. Staffers are only acting on the will of their bosses and the only power that political staffers have is the power given to them by their bosses. So to lay the blame at the feet of staff for is just wrong. Staffers didn’t create that environment and if it needs correcting, it’s the elected people, who are directly answerable to the electorate, who need to do it. As a staffer, you accept that you serve at the pleasure of your boss, and you accept that if you mess up you will have consequences. But if the boss gives no consequences or encourages or turns a blind eye to bad behaviour, who is really to blame here?

Democracy is not always neat and tidy; it can be messy from time to time and can result in poor choices and mistakes being made. But the alternatives are no better. Political staffers are an important part of our political process, whether if we like to admit it or not. The fact is that there are thousands of political staffers in Canada who go to work everyday determined to make their country a better place. They are not all hyper-partisan toadies without conscience. Most are doing this work for all the right reasons, just like the non-partisan civil service. They are all a part of the democratic ecosystem that we have and all have a vital role to play.

Lost in the Spin Cycle

A week in political life can be a funny thing. Some weeks seem to fly by and feel just free and easy, but others seem to be painfully long, never ending and just unrelenting. For the Liberal government, this week has surely been the latter. And when it comes to that, I have an honest admission to make. When this story broke last week, I said to one of my colleagues that the best thing about this story for the government was that there was a break week ahead. In the moment, I genuinely thought and felt that once everyone cleared out of Ottawa, that would help take some of the heat off of this story and allow the government some time to get all of their ducks in a row to deal with it head on.

Well I admit it, this week has proved that I was so wrong on that count. Somehow during this break week, the SNC/PMO Scandal has grown and gotten new oxygen every single day this week, and in almost all of the cases, it was the government itself supplying that oxygen en masse. There has been a series of own goals from the government that has compounded their issues and helped this story grow to the point where they have lost complete control of it.

And today that continued, with the Prime Minister adding more to the story on two fronts. For starters, he gave more details about his conversation with Jody Wilson-Raybould back in the Fall. According to the PM, she approached him to ask if he intended to instruct her on the SNC-Lavalin prosecution, to which he says he said no and that it was her responsibility to decide. Of course, that’s his work, and his attempt to speak for her again. And of course, he is talking about a subject that he says is subject to privilege, which is keeping the former Minister from speaking about the same topic. I would assume that if the person who has the privilege, keeps talking about the subject that privilege covers in public to the media, that it would give the other party to that privilege to speak. Seriously, how long does the PM think he can talk about these things, giving his side, while trying to keep the other person in that conversation from speaking? It’s totally untenable nor credible. But if the logical gymnastics involved in that piece wasn’t enough for you, well the PM upped the difficulty level and decided to throw a new logical pretzel into this story:

Yeah, according to the PM all of this would never have happened had Scott Brison hadn’t resigned and that Jody Wilson-Raybould would still be Justice Minister. Amazingly there is some honesty in that comment; it’s true that the PM probably wouldn’t have moved Wilson-Raybould from her portfolio if he didn’t have an excuse to shake up his cabinet. Brison leaving gave him an opportunity to move people around, that’s true. But just because Brison left, that didn’t mean that Wilson-Raybould had to be moved. There were 30 other members of that cabinet who could have been moved who weren’t touched, so to infer that because Brison went Wilson-Raybould had to move too is nutty.

In fact, it really feels like the PM’s office gave no thought to what they sought to gain from this statement, because I can’t think of how pointing that out excuses anything that’s happened so far or explains the reasons for any changes to his cabinet. But what it does do is invite many more questions than it comes close to answering, like the following:

  • If Wilson-Raybould would still be Justice Minister if Brison hadn’t resigned, given the comments he made about her duty to go to him if she was being pressured (where he tried to suggest she was derelict in her duty) does that mean that the PM still would have confidence in her if Brison hadn’t resigned?
  • If no changes were coming if Brison hadn’t resigned, does that mean the PM really had no intention of creating a new Rural Economic Development portfolio? Was it only created because Brison left?
  • When Brison resigned, why did he need to move five people around? Why did Wilson-Raybould need to be shuffled and why didn’t someone else in the cabinet get moved?
  • If the PM is insisting that Wilson-Raybould would still be Justice Minister if Brison hadn’t resigned, what does that say about his view of his new Justice Minister David Lametti? Why isn’t he pointing to the qualifications of his new Justice Minister as a justification for the change?

And I could go on but one thing is very clear here; the PMO didn’t think this comment over before they used it, despite the fact that many journalists have commented that various PMO sources have been test-driving this line with them for days. That comment was the whipped cream on top of the crap sundae that this week has been for the government, and the cherry was provided by Scott Brison’s husband.

Yep, that’s quite the solid burn and totally earned. So what started as what should have been a quieter week away from the hustle and bustle of Parliament turned into quite the opposite. On Tuesday when the House returns, the government will be coming back to a full blown scandal, complete with quotes a plenty and all kinds of fodder for the Opposition parties. If any question during Question Period from either the Conservatives or NDP are not about this scandal, they should be hauled out of the chamber and charged with political malpractice.

This story has reached this point, all with the Opposition barely being able to land a punch on the government, but that’s mostly because the government has been too busy doing it all to themselves. The next two weeks in Parliament promises to be very lively, probably more so than we’ve seen in the entire 42nd Parliament to day. We’ll see if the either the Government or the Opposition parties are able to find their collective feet on this topic but one thing feels very safe to say; this promises to be an extremely consequential period and will go a long way to telling us what this Fall’s election will look like.

Another Case of Foot in Mouth Disease

This has been quite the week in Ottawa, between big snow storms and the political drama coming out of the PMO, and that just by the end of the day on Wednesday. So, you would think that with a long weekend coming before us, the government may have chosen to lay low for the next couple of days so as not to create more problems for themselves. Well, if you assumed that, it turns out that you would be wrong, and another layer has been piled onto this case.

This afternoon the Chair of the House of Commons Justice Committee Anthony Housefather decided to do a bit of a media blitz. That wouldn’t be abnormal for a lot of MPs on most days but given the SNC/PMO scandal that has been going now for a week, one would think that today may not be the day to seek out a microphone. That would be especially true for the Chair of any House of Commons committee, given that they are supposed to be neutral and usually don’t comment too much on matters before them. You’d think that staying quiet would be the order of the day, so as not to be seen as pre-judging a matter before you. But do you think that’s what happened here? Yeah… Nope. For some reason that seems to escape any normal, rational explanation right now, Mr. Housefather decided to go on CJAD in Montreal and say this:

Yeah, it’s bad, it really bad. And just to make sure that no one missed it, he later went on CFRA in Ottawa and said the same thing over again. I’m seriously gobsmacked at this turn of events because not only is he out there speaking when he just simply shouldn’t be, not only is he going after Jody Wilson-Raybould’s qualifications to have been Justice Minister, he’s also adding what seems to be about the eight or ninth excuse/explanation that we’ve gotten from government members so far.

And let’s be clear on one point; Jody Wilson-Raybould was the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada for three years. In that time, I feel very safe in saying that she had more than a few dealings with the Province of Quebec, in the province or at least with francophones. During those three years no one from the government benches ever raised the language issue publicly, nor has any member of the House of Commons that I am aware. So, I would take that as a serious sign that her lack of French was not an issue or a reason for this.

This is all making the government look really bad, and as each error seems to bring another, the compounding effect of these gaffes become harder and harder to ignore. This past week might have been the worst that the government has had yet, and its still only Thursday. Right now, it seems like the Liberals are not organized, not prepared and have yet to get a handle on this. This case of “Foot in Mouth” disease will only serve to show that this government is losing more and more control of this situation, while raising more and more questions about why they simply won’t let Wilson-Raybould speak. Moments like these, when piled on top of moments that happened earlier this week, give the impression that the government has something to hide. Whether if they do or not is quickly becoming immaterial, because the impression that they do is quickly building. And so far, all the blocks and labour used to build it have been supplied by the Liberals themselves. That long weekend can’t get here fast enough.

Shade Instead of Sunshine

Today Canada was watching closely at a bit of drama that unfolded in certain committee room in downtown Ottawa. Calling an emergency meeting of a House of Commons Committee is not an everyday event, but when the situation warrants it, they come. I’ve had the chance to take part in more than a few of them in the past, with the most recent coming in September when the Natural Resources committee called a meeting to discuss the acquisition of the Trans Mountain pipeline. Calling such a meeting is one of the few tools that the Opposition has in our system, as all it takes is for four members of a committee to request that meeting for it to automatically happen. In this Parliament, that’s meant three Conservatives and one New Democrat can come together to call such a session.

That is what happened today, as the Conservatives and New Democrats called for a meeting of the House of Commons Justice Committee. They called it to try to initiate a study on the whole SNC/PMO scandal, to get answers and get to the bottom what happened. The Liberal members on the committee controlled the outcome, as they hold the majority of the seats in the committee itself. So it was all in their hands as to where this all went, and what happened.

In the majority of these kinds of special meetings, the government tends to simply just vote down the suggested motion and try to get everything done within 15 minutes; that’s what they did with the meeting I mentioned above back in September. But given the gravity of this story, and how badly the government has managed it to so far, the simple tactic of “refuse and hope it goes away” really wasn’t an option.

So what did the Liberals on the committee do? Well they tried to outsmart everyone and in the process, only seemed to have outsmarted themselves. The Liberal members came to the committee with a motion of their own, one that was on their terms and was their attempt to re-spin this story. To best explain the difference between the two motions, I will explain them like this: The Conservatives brought a motion to have a study to get to the bottom of exactly what happened in this case while the Liberals brought a motion to have a study about how Attorney Generals operate properly, the Parliamentary conventions involved and seeks to explain how the government did no wrong.

In the committee the Liberals went to great pains to say “hey, we’re offering to do something, and you’re still mad…. There’s no pleasing you!!!” while trying to ignore the actual matter at hand. Listening to the government members of the committee, it became very clear very fast that there was no clear message from them, as their explanations and excuses kept running into one another. And when that was pointed out by the opposition, indignant cries of “partisanship” flew from their mouths in reply.

The best example of the talking points and strategy simply not adding up here was the inclusion of a witness list in the Liberal motion. The Liberals motion included three witnesses, including two who have publicly said on the record there is nothing to see here. Their motion did not include 6 people the Conservatives had in theirs, including Jody Wilson-Raybould herself. In an attempt at compromise, NDP MP Nathan Cullen tried to amend the Liberal suggestion to add a few more witnesses, including Wilson-Raybould.

That brought an explanation that was a car wreck of logic; Liberal members said they couldn’t discuss witnesses to invite in public because that is not how things are done in committee. And if it stopped there they actually had a point; almost all House of Commons committees that I worked on in the past determined things like witness lists “In Camera” (also known as a private session). But there was a big problem with their logic; They included three witnesses in the motion, in public. So why was it alright to discuss those three names in public, but not others? It made no sense and was a clear gaffe on the behalf of the Liberals. When you add to it the indignant words from some government members pleading this was all a “Witch Hunt” (hmmmm… where have I heard that before?), it made it all look worse.

And really that was how most of the meeting went on the government benches. This was seriously one of the worst attempts at the old “bringing out your own motion to blunt the one you don’t like” plan that I have ever seen. The plan seemed to be half-baked, underestimated the other side of the table and was poorly executed. It was seriously ham-fisted and did nothing to help their cause. It was so bad that it even made a below-average performance from some Conservatives on the committee look better by comparison, which was quite the feat.

Today’s performance before the House of Commons Justice committee was simply a bad sign for the government and another bad day to add to the past week of them. Today they could have really taken some of the air out of this by seriously considering the Conservative motion and going ahead with it, as is. If they had, they would have a chance to appear much more transparent in this whole matter and would have been the best place available to try to mitigate the damage.

But by trying to deny the chance for Jody Wilson-Raybould to speak before the committee, and formally voting in public to not call her, it gives her greater credibility. And they did that, despite the fact that there are no guarantees that she will ever actually be able to speak due to the privilege concerns. They could have invited her, be seen to not be afraid of what she might say, and have a legit chance she never gets to say a word. But instead they went out of their way to try to shut her down today, shut down questions being asked and tried to suffocate it all with the Parliamentary equivalent of a university lecture series.

Those are not the actions of a confident government and those are not the actions of someone with nothing to hide; they are quite the opposite and just raise more questions. In the span of a week, the government has managed to completely lose control of this story, has missed multiple opportunities to deal with it head on and really have no one but themselves to blame for the mess they find themselves in. Is it too late to correct course? It’s hard to say but these are the kinds of things that can happen when your words say you’re all about “Sunny Ways” while your actions continue to show you throwing shade. After a while, people start to notice when the sun doesn’t come around that much anymore.