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Horror Vacui

When it comes to the world that we live in, it’s amazing how some principles from one field remain very true in others. In regards to politics the world over, it’s equally amazing how some of the principles of physics apply just as well in the political sphere. And think when you think about it, it’s very true. “What does up, must come down”, “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction” and many others. In modern politics, so same laws apply in democratic societies and we have numerous examples of those.

But in following the news over the weekend and into today the big news in the Canadian political scene right now, the SNC scandal, another law came to mind for me that speaks so well to what we are seeing unfold before us; “nature abhors a vacuum”. Politics abhors a vacuum too, and right now we are witnessing what happens when a political vacuum is created and it’s not dealt with. So what is the vacuum we have now? The continued silence from the Veterans Affairs Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.

It’s a silence that has become more and more troublesome for the government as the days have dragged along in this scandal. And with every speaking point the government has come out with that does not involve the Minister giving her side of the story, that vacuum gets bigger, hungrier and continues to spread.

Today we saw the Ethics Commissioner announce that he will be accepting the NDP’s request to investigate this matter, stating in his reply letter to the NDP that “I have reason to believe that a possible contravention of Section 9 may have occurred”. That section “prohibits a public office holder from seeking to influence a decision of another person so as to improperly further another person’s private interest.” We also saw two Liberal backbench members speaking out, one from New Brunswick supporting the Oppositions call for a Justice Committee study, the other speaking out in support of Minister Wilson-Raybould. By the way, that meeting will be taking place on Wednesday afternoon and we’ll see what the government members do there, especially after the new Justice Minister David Lametti took to the airwaves on the weekend to state that he believed the PM and felt here was no evidence to support such a study. Oh yeah, then today he was quoted stating that a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC-Lavalin could still be on the table. Hmmmmm….

That was all topped off with two bits of news from the end of the day. Firstly, the Prime Minister stated that while Minister Wilson-Raybould can’t speak due to privilege (which the PM himself can waive), he could tell us all that he spoke with her in the past day. And according to the PM, “she confirmed” to him that they supposedly had a conversation about this and everything is hunky-dory. So let me get this straight; he invokes privilege to keep the Minister from speaking about her side of the story, but then goes onto give us his version of her side of the story? This is just odd and contradictory, especially in that how do you get to invoke privilege, but then talk about the privileged topic supposedly on the behalf of the person who can’t speak because of that same privilege? And then we’re just supposed to accept that all as the end of it? Nah sorry, that doesn’t wash and brings about a lot more questions than it answers. And like last week, the only person who can answer those questions is Jody Wilson-Raybould. But the second story to come out this afternoon adds a whole other layer to this situation that could get extremely sticky for the government. In the case of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, a case in which the government has stuck to privilege too, a development came out that not only causes problems for the crown in this case, but puts the SNC case in a potentially different and more problematic light.

The federal government is fighting defence requests for the release of un-redacted notes from meetings between officials at the Privy Council Office (PCO) and Crown lawyers.
In an email sent to Norman’s lawyers on Friday, one of the lead prosecutors, Barbara Mercier, said the documents being sought by the defence are being censored because they deal with “trial strategy” and censoring them is entirely appropriate.
“We maintain that discussions about how to run the trial are protected by litigation privilege,”  Mercier wrote.
That prompted defence counsel Christine Mainville to accuse the Prime Minister’s Office of trying to direct the case.
She also said the Crown should not be discussing strategy with PCO because the PCO instigated the investigation into an alleged leak of cabinet secrets Norman has been accused of orchestrating.

This discovery led the judge in this case to quip on the record “so much for the independence of the PPSC”. So here we now see the allegation that the Privy Councils Office, the civil service side of the PMO, was discussing a trial and its strategy with the crown. That is a huge no-no and raises a lot more questions in this case. But to make matters worse for the government, this story starts to have eerie similarities to the SNC case. Happening once might be an accident, but a similar thing that’s such a clear no-no happening twice? That starts to raise a lot of questions.

So in the span of less than a week, we’ve seen this story grow wider and wider, with the vacuum the government left open growing bigger and filling more and more of the story. It was said by many pundits on Thursday that if Minister Wilson-Raybould spoke out then and there was really nothing to this story, it would have killed it in it’s tracks. If that had happened, do you see backbenchers starting to get antsy? Do you give NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh the oxygen of a story where he seems to be starting to find his feet? Do you end up with this similarity with another big legal case? And do you end up with so many of your talking points that you’ve come to rely on in other cases, like “we are a country of laws”, getting blown up?

No one can say for sure but it feels safe to say that things would have been mitigated much more by the Minister speaking. So in the meantime, that vacuum that was created by the governments silence on this issue has been filled, and ably so by their opponents and circumstance, and now this issue is much messier and muddled than it was before. Yes, nature does abhor a vacuum and we’re seeing the effect of that in politics right now in spades.

No Comment

Many days on Parliament Hill, issues or stories will pop up that look bad on a government. When it happens, some of the most hardcore partisans jump up and down, snapping “Ah ha!!!! We got them!!!”, thinking that this will be the time that the government has finally slipped and will pay a big price for their mistakes. That scene plays out a lot, and nine times out of ten, those stories go away and cause nary a sleepless night for the party in power.

It’s an old adage in politics that governments usually defeat themselves, and many times it’s a result of a thousand small cuts, not a big massive blow. But sometimes a blow comes along that leaves a big mark, not enough of one to slay the giant, but enough to knock it off it’s balance, stagger it and have the effect of dozens of those cuts at one time. It doesn’t happen often, and really the last time I would argue that you saw one in Canada was the whole Mike Duffy affair. That left a mark in the Harper Conservatives, but wasn’t alone what brought that government to it’s end.

So when the SNC-Lavalin/Wilson-Raybould story broke yesterday in the Globe and Mail, it had heads in Ottawa spinning. The story had all the hallmarks of one of those stories that have left marks on Canadian governments in the past, which has made it all the easier to latch onto. And the story has so many tentacles, side stories coming out of it and potential effects on other issues that were mostly unrelated that it’s amazing to see the breadth of it.

So far the response of the government has evolved slightly, from a carefully worded denial from the Prime Minister and ministers, to comments from the Prime Ministers office that say Wilson-Raybould initiated any conversations, and even to some MPs trying to attack the reporting and their use of anonymous sources. As you can imagine, none of those have helped clear the air or put this story to bed.

As many other pundits more experienced and better-written than I have pointed out, there is only one person who can clear the air here, and so far, she’s giving the perfunctory “No Comment”. And there in lies the kernel of this story that has the potential to take it from a tiny cut to a concussion inducing uppercut that a heavyweight boxer would admire. At the end of the day, any potential illegal or corrupt behaviour revolves around if the story written by the Globe and Mail is true; did the PMO try to pressure the Minister of Justice and Attorney General to give SNC-Lavalin a break?

Only Minister Wilson-Raybould can answer that question, and as some legal minds have correctly pointed out, the Prime Minister can simply wave and privilege here to clear the air if nothing wrong has been done. It’s that fact that makes the “Jody called Gerry” quotes coming from the PMO seem even odder to me; if that’s the case and they are telling the truth, why not just free Wilson-Raybould to say that herself? Having a source in the PMO say that doesn’t give any more credibility to the words and still leaves them in the same spot, needing her to word to clear the air. If the Minister herself could say it, that would go much further here.

And with that, all of this rests on her shoulders, for better or worse for the government. For as long as the Prime Minister doesn’t free the minister to speak, the questions will continue to linger in the air and of course, there are rumblings and rumours that there is more to come from this story yet. If there was no fire to go with this smoke, now would be the time to clear the air and let her speak.

For the opposition parties going forward though, they need to keep the pressure up and not let this go until we hear from the minister one way or another. The Conservatives have used most of two entire Question Periods to go at the government on this, but in doing a decent job, Andrew Scheer has not been the knockout performer in the chamber to date. This role of interrogator in chief might be better put in the hands of another member of his team, like Lisa Raitt or Erin O’Toole. The NDP have gone after the issue too and it could breathe some new life into not only the caucus, but in their poll numbers over time. But for that to happen, they need to put other issues aside for now and focus on this. Every question they use on another topic right now might be a good question, but it’s one that’s not breaking through in the media cycle with this story. The NDP needs to follow the playbook they used during the Duffy affair when Tom Mulcair made his impact in the chamber but in the minds of all Canadians. Members of their caucus, like Guy Caron and Nathan Cullen are more than capable of putting in such a performance and I hope they decide to follow that example.

This story has all the makings to really shift the narrative in Ottawa and the run up to the Fall election, especially if the government stumbles or the opposition can prosecute this case. For the Prime Minister, this story will be the ultimate litmus test of his trademarked “Sunny Ways” approach, in that “Sunlight is the best disinfectant”. This story needs some sunlight and it’s the new Minister of Veterans Affairs alone who can really provide it. Right now, a simple “No Comment” won’t do and Canadians deserve to know the truth.

The Politician We Aspire To Be

Being involved in politics for over a decade, one gets to have many great experiences and gets to know many amazing people. I know that’s the case for me, and when I think back to some of the events I got to see first hand or the stories I have to pass along to my daughter and someday grandchildren, I can’t help but smile. And on a night like tonight, I can’t help but go back to those stories.

As you may have read elsewhere, this afternoon we lost a good man and a great public servant, far too soon. Former NDP MP Paul Dewar passed away at 56, a year after he shook so many of us with the news that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Paul served three terms as the MP for Ottawa-Centre, and served as the NDP’s Foreign Affairs Critic for most of that time, a role that he served in with great distinction.

I count myself as blessed to have gotten to know Paul in my time on Parliament Hill, especially over a three-year period during the last Parliament when I got to be part of the team staffing NDP MPs in the Foreign Affairs committee. But my first introduction to how good a person Paul was coming long before I met him in the workplace. In 2007, I was blessed with the chance to take part in political action training for equity seeking groups through my union at the time, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario. In that training, we were presented with many great examples of teachers getting involved politically and how they could make change, and Paul was one of their proudest examples, as a former Elementary teacher himself. And that pride went beyond his elected position; they told us that you could be a good person in political life and not have to sacrifice your decency to do so. Paul was a shining example of that, and while I didn’t agree with him all the time on policy matters, he showed how it could be done daily.

But it was when I got to Parliament Hill that I got to see that example up close, not only in how he acted publicly but how he maintained that same level demeanour in private. He was the consummate team player, who led by example. In a city of civil servants, he loved to serve his community and to help to make it better. He led with his heart and didn’t hold ill will against those who disagreed with him, which can be extremely difficult to do inside the bubble of Parliament Hill in the best of times.

In the last year, while fighting against this disease, Paul didn’t stop. In a last letter from Paul that was released tonight, he continued in that positive spirit of service and giving to the community and country. Last year he started “Youth Action Now” to help mentor and teach the next generations of leaders. Even in the darkest hours, he kept thinking positively and thinking ahead to the future. That was Paul, who he was and who I will always remember.

So tonight I know that I will be saying a little prayer, thanking Paul for what he gave us in his time here, the example that he gave us that will live on forever, and think of all the giving he will continue to do in Heaven. Thank you, Merci, Miigwetch and Marsii Paul for being you and for making our country a better place.

In the stoic stillness of my journey,
I have found my way to peace.
May you keep building a more peaceful and better world for all.
Let this sacred ground be a place for all.
Let the building of a better world begin with our neighbours.
May we dream together.
May we gather our courage and stand together in moments of despair,
and may we be bound together by joyous celebration of life.
We are best when we love and when we are loved.
Shine on like diamonds in the magic of this place.
My love to you always,

The Wrong Hill

Last night stories were making the rounds about NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, his by-election run and the pressures on him to with, along with the potential consequences of a loss. The story wasn’t new, as these rumblings have been bouncing around the Ottawa bubble for a while, but it again put a point on the challenges and issues that Singh is currently facing. Another story also came out yesterday regarding his leadership, specifically his removal of MP Erin Weir from the NDP caucus and the attempts of the NDP riding association in Regina-Lewvan to let Weir seek their nomination for the 2019 election.

Singh and the party have been clear that Weir will not be allowed to run under the NDP banner, and under the party’s rules, he has the power to stop Weir in his tracks. Some in the media have taken the case of Weir and added it to the pile of Singh’s mistakes and missteps as NDP Leader, but I must say that in this case, the media has it wrong. Jagmeet has made mistakes as leader and on policy has done things that I and many New Democrats disagree with, but turfing Erin Weir was far from being one of those.

Singh’s decision to remove Weir from the caucus was not just the right decision, it was one that was made easier and more justified by Weir’s own actions. Let’s remember what happened here; accusations were made about Weir’s behaviour, an investigation took place upholding one of those accusations, and Weir apologized for his actions.

Now if that was the end of the story, he might have a case. But of course, that’s not where it ended. At the same time he was apologizing, Weir went to the media to make accusations of conspiracy, that the accusations were payback from the party’s leadership for speaking out on policy differences. He continued to go to the media not denying what happened, but then point a finger of conspiratorial blame towards others. In the age of #metoo, there is no way that an “apology” that would ever pass muster, let alone from a politician. I would point out that even in the pre-#metoo world, that “apology” followed by attacking those who he was supposedly apologizing to would not be acceptable.

To top all of that off, some party members and former elected officials from Saskatchewan have taken to Weir’s defence. That defence included a letter from dozens of former elected New Democrats from the province, putting their clout behind the Regina MP. While doing media in support of that letter and Weir, former NDP Finance Minister Pat Atkinson even took a broadside shot at the then-President of the NDP staff union (a young woman of impeccable progressive credentials). You see the President of UFCW 232 wrote a letter of support for Singh’s actions, stating that allowing Weir back in the caucus “would put staff at risk and would violate their rights under the collective agreement to a safe, healthy and harassment-free workplace.” In one of the most unfortunate and disappointing things I’ve ever seen come from a respected elder in the party, Atkinson pointed to the presidents’ job, which happened to be a caucus press secretary, trying to intimate that somehow she wasn’t really representing her members and that her words were somehow to be viewed as suspect. Conspiracy, conspiracy everywhere folks!!! I still hope that if she hadn’t done so already that Atkinson would give that former staffer an apology because being the president of a union local of political staffers is beyond thankless. I speak from first hand experience when I say that she was a great union leader when she led our local.

All of this led us to this week, where the NDP riding association in Regina-Lewvan voted to let Weir seek the nomination there. Constitutionally and under the rules of the party, the answer here is very simple; the leader has to sign off on a candidate and he can say no to someone running. That was the case under Layton and Mulcair, and many potential candidates have gotten that red light. That’s true for all major parties, not just the NDP.

The riding association has said that the only chance the NDP has to hold the riding is to have Weir as the candidate, and honestly, it’s that claim that drew me into writing this piece. I’m surprised and rather disappointed that so many New Democrats that I have huge respect for and have looked up to for decades have decided to make this their hill to die on. There are many good reasons to be critical of the leadership of Jagmeet Singh to date, from the state of the party to some policy decisions that have put into doubt the party’s traditional support for western and northern resource sectors. I stand with my brothers and sisters in Saskatchewan on those issues all day long. But in the case of Erin Weir, Singh got it right. The NDP is more than likely to lose Regina-Lewvan, and maybe their other two seats in Saskatchewan too, and there are many reasons for that. But none of those have to do with Erin Weir. Putting Erin Weir’s name on a ballot does not fix those or change those reasons at all. There are dozens of good reasons why the NDP stands to do poorly in the federal election in Saskatchewan, and none of those are improved or even mitigated by having Erin Weir as a part of the team.

And folks that is the key thing here; I had the feeling from the start that there was a serious desire by the leadership to give Weir a chance to do the right thing at the beginning. I don’t believe there was this race to toss him and I don’t believe there was this huge desire to get rid of him at the start. But how does any leader in this day and age seriously keep someone who “apologizes” for their actions, who then in the very next breathe attacks the people who he is apologizing to while yelling “conspiracy”? If that was a Conservative or a Liberal MP who tried to do that, my NDP friends would be calling for their heads, and rightfully so. By acting the way he did, Weir made his apology look and feel insincere and by crying conspiracy in the media, he showed that he couldn’t be trusted by others in the caucus. That all falls back on Weir’s shoulders and he has no one else to blame for that but himself.

The First Drip

As I wrote about last week, one of the first big events of this Federal election season is just around the corner: The Federal Budget. And with all big events like these that happen on Parliament Hill, there are certain traditions that come along with it. The Finance Minister buys a new pair of shoes (that usually fits with whatever theme is being spoken to in that budget) and the announcement has to wait until after the stock markets close at 4 pm. There is the usual fun time to be had in the lock up then followed by the mad dash to leave it and spill the beans as soon as the Minister takes to his feet to give the budget speech. It’s a lot of theatre, even by the high standards of Parliament, but it’s also all part of the event.

Another tradition (or at least one that’s developed over time) is the annual guessing and pontificating about what will be in that budget, usually set off by “leaks” the come out beforehand. Some of these leaks turn out to be true, others not so much. Sometimes the leaks seem like an attempt to set the scene for the big day itself, but others seem more like trial balloons set out to see how everyone reacts.

Well today I guess we officially started that pontificating and wondering as we seemed to have our first budget leak of this election season. It came courtesy of Reuters, and honestly, it’s a bit of a doozy.

Canada’s Liberal government will propose a limited expansion to the country’s universal healthcare system in the spring budget to cover part of the cost of prescription drugs, two sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

This first leak is a fascinating to me for many reasons. For starters, last year the Liberals appointed former Ontario Health Minister Dr. Eric Hoskins to study a potential pharma care plan, so this is not totally out the blue. Further to that, it’s starting to sound like a plan that would land in the middle, where this party likes to place itself. Its not a full pharma care plan like the NDP would run on, but more than nothing, which is what we’d expect the Conservatives to offer on this front. If it’s true, it’s a cunning approach.

The part that I find most interesting is that this proposal already seems to be taking a different direction then Dr. Hoskins took when the Wynne Liberals brought in pharma care for everyone under 25 in Ontario. It seems to be a “part of the cost for everyone” approach, as opposed to a “all the cost for some” approach previously done in Ontario. That might be a way to defend itself from some attacks from the Conservatives for being too ambitious and costly, while also being able to say to the NDP they’re starting down the path and be patient.

But of the parties I see this policy being more aimed at, it’s surely the NDP. The Orange Team has put a lot stock early in the leadership of Jagmeet Singh into a national pharma care program as a signature policy, picking up the flame to finish what Tommy Douglas started decades ago. Naming Dr. Hoskins to this advisory role already took some wind out of those sails. In an election which promises to be heated and more polarizing than recent campaigns, this might be enough to attract those traditionally NDP voters who have wanted to see some version of this policy for decades. In theory, it could have the same effect that the Liberals promises on electoral reform had in the 2015 election.

Of course all of that is predicated on one big question: Will the Trudeau Liberals keep this promise? Like the example of electoral reform, many of those who were big on that issue feel burned by the end results of that promise. Does that make for a cautionary tale for those who have pushed for pharma care? Well that’s why what comes out in the budget will be so important. A budget is not a platform document; a budget is concrete and real, it’s happening and it’s a document of action that spends money to make things happen. Putting actual concrete steps on this idea in this platform would take the concept from the realm of promises to action, even if it’s early on. So what the government puts in that budget on pharma care will make all the difference. If they put real, concrete proposals with real money in this fiscal year towards it, that puts the NDP in a box on this issue. If the government decides not to do that, it will leave itself exposed to legitimate question of just how real this promise is.

So we’ll keep watching for more drips coming out before the budget and what other proposals and ideas leak out before the big day. They will tell us a lot about what the election debate will look like and tell us a lot about what ground the Liberals want to try to fight this campaign on. It promises to be interesting, or at least as interesting as Minister Morneau’s new shoes.