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The Slanted Playing Field

Between elections it’s not uncommon for Parliament to makes changes and updates to the laws that guide our election campaigns. Sometimes that involves simple updates to make the laws more relevant to the current day, and in other cases those changes are bigger and more sweeping, like we saw with the Conservatives heading into the 2015 election.

Regardless of the size of the change or the motive behind it, that usually means that each campaign is run a bit differently than the last and that everyone has new things to learn about how to engage in the election. Going into the 43rd General Election this remains true this time as well, as the Liberals made some changes to Canada’s electoral laws in their term. Some of those changes were to undo some of the restrictive changes the Conservatives made in their attempt to make it harder for certain groups of people to vote, like people living in First Nations communities.

But some of the changes that the Liberals made in this Parliament were going into a different area, trying to deal with the rise of third party groups and their actions during elections. The Conservatives made changes around the rules that deal with them too, but the Liberals made changes to their own to those changes. Now as the campaign gets closer, we’re starting to see the potential impact of those changes and how the law looks when it is applied in the real world:

Here we have two stories that speak to the changes made by the Liberal government and how they are being implemented by Elections Canada. Firstly we see the news about Elections Canada’s interpretation of these rules when it comes to Environmental NGO’s, talking about climate change and the rules around third parties. At a training session given by Elections Canada, that because Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party, is openly denying that climate change is a thing and openly denying the science, any group that promotes a position that is the opposite of Bernier’s, like those of the vast majority of the scientific community, “could be considered partisan.”

The solution to this problem would be to simply register as a third party, but that brings big problems all of its own for most environmental NGO’s that makes registering not an option. As the Canadian Press piece points out, if these NGO’s (most of which are registered charities) registered their partisan activity as a third party group to Elections Canada, that could jeopardize their charitable tax status because the laws around charity status limit the amount of political advocacy they can do. That’s a serious catch-22, one that it seems that the law didn’t consider.

On the other hand of this situation we see another story from the Edmonton Journal, where the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers is registering as a third party. Under the current laws, that makes sense, because it’s a guarantee that energy, pipelines, regulations and sustainable development will all be a part of the discussion in this campaign. So instead of having to stay quiet, they registered and that is fine. They aren’t the first industry association to do this and if the law remains similar to this in the long run, I would expect that to become norm.

But where there is a problem here with this situation is that they are not a charitable organization, so they don’t have the constraints on their political action or speech. That puts groups with charitable registration on unequal footing compared to the private sector, where the rest of electoral law treats them evenly. That is a serious oversight that needs to be flesh out because just think of where we can take the precedent set by this situation. Would an anti-poverty charity be forced into the same situation if they decided to speak out against a proposal to cut transfer payments to pay for social services, therefore potentially increasing poverty? Would an international aide group face the same predicament in this campaign because Bernier’s PPC is proposing to slash Canada’s international development budget and they chose to speak out against it? What about a veteran’s charity that decided to speak out against a lack of funding to veterans? To all of those, it’s easy to see the same standard being applied and, in the process, potentially silencing the voices of those whose voices are already marginalized in our political debate.

And here is the thing about this folks; while so many people are talking about this situation today most people are sending their fire at Elections Canada. To those people, I just wanted to post this comment from Twitter which I hope can re-focus that energy:

Remember folks, Elections Canada doesn’t make the law, they simply interpret the law that is created by Parliamentarians for them. This situation seems to create a serious problem, one that seems to be more of a case of careless legislative oversight than outright parliamentary malice. But mistake or not, this is a big problem that needs to be resolved somehow ASAP.

The fact that the ability of civil society and charitable groups to speak on the important issues of a campaign is essentially being dictated by the wild ramblings of a far-right fringe party and what it opines on, despite the evidence of science and fact, is just wrong. We’ll see what the government and Elections Canada does about this situation because it would be laughable if it wasn’t such a serious problem. Election law needs to treat all third parties in an equal way, considering the other laws that interact with it. If they don’t, they that law fails the basic test of fairness. That’s what’s happened here somehow and at least for this campaign, this is part of the electoral law minefield that these groups will have to navigate.

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Provincial Campaigning in the 204

This week another political event started, with a provincial election in the province of Manitoba. Despite the fact that under Manitoba’s fixed date election law the next election wasn’t supposed to be for another year, Conservative Premier Brian Pallister dropped an early writ to try to take advantage and win a second term. His excuses for doing so included that Manitobans didn’t want to vote at the same time they were celebrating the provinces 150th birthday, which comes off as one of the lamest excuses for this kind of thing I’ve ever heard. That’s probably why the Winnipeg Sun of all outlets called this tactic “cheating” when he was floating it in the spring.

But regardless of how they got there, the race is on in Manitoba with election day on September 10th. The parties are criss-crossing the province and doing their best to earn the votes of Manitobans from all walks of life. The first week of the campaign has been relatively quiet so far, but two pieces of news from the trail jumped out at me today that really screamed out for comment. The first piece was all about some cheeky ads from the New Democrats that have drawn some commentary:

Yep, week one of the campaign and we’re debating the use of a cheeky three letter word. And not really the use of that word, just the creative suggestion of the use of that word. You can see the ad above for yourself and make your own judgements on the word in question. In my view, that word is pushing up against a boundary and probably isn’t the politest thing you could say in a campaign ad. But when you look at the context of the ad itself, how it’s used and the way it’s framed, it makes complete sense and works. Many of us can point to family and friends complaining about something a politician is done and using that word to describe them. So using here like this is totally above board, even if it is dancing close to the line.

But there is another way to judge this use of language in this ad and that is to test it against Pallister’s record and approach. I know the Manitoba Métis Federation would use that word to describe him, after he unilaterally cancelled the MMF’s agreement with Manitoba Hydro, calling the payment agreed to be paid to the MMF “persuasion money”, something that even Manitoba Hydro too offense too. Then Pallister also unilaterally cancelled self-government funding to the MMF, which was the third funding agreement with the province that Pallister scrapped.

There are other groups that would probably also share the use of that word to describe him too, after cuts and insults. But to help make this case, I present to you comments from Brian Pallister that he made just yesterday that seriously blew my mind and might just prove the NDP ad right:

Think about that folks; Pallister is running against NDP Leader Wab Kinew, the first ever First Nations person to lead a major provincial party and who has a serious chance to be the next Premier of Manitoba, which would make him the first First Nations person to be a provincial Premier. In that context, Pallister decides to make those comments, that because he grew up next to a reserve that he knows better, better than the guy who is from a reserve himself. He said he has “full understanding of reserve life”, somehow implying that Kinew doesn’t, which is amazingly self-righteous stuff folks.

And to top that, he’s saying that despite the comments from First Nations leaders in the province, including from those neighbouring First Nations that he says gave him this “full understanding”. Grand Chief of the Southern Chiefs Organization Jerry Daniels was on the mark when he politely called Pallister’s perspective “skewed”. Making a statement like that, given his history, takes some major cojones and yeah, might just lead people to calling him that three-letter word.

There are still more than a few weeks to go in this campaign and it will be interesting to see if any of this news breaks through or makes an impact on the electorate. One thing is for sure, while the start of this campaign in Manitoba has been sleepy, these stories show that it hasn’t been an completely uneventful campaign so far. We’ll see if it stays that way.

Friday Odds and Ends

With the big news around LavScam from earlier this week it’s turned out to be a much more eventful week in political Ottawa than most of us were expecting. It’s made for a lot to talk about, that’s for sure, and there will be a lot more to talk about on this topic before the time we vote in the fall. That will start this coming Wednesday when the House of Commons Ethics Committee comes back to try to call the Ethics Commissioner to testify about the Trudeau II report.

But as we go into one of the last weekends of the summer, I thought I would point to a couple odds and ends that have come out today that are interesting and might flight under the radar. The first story comes from Halifax and took place on the Rick Howe radio show. Turns out former Liberal MP turned gasoline pricing expert Dan McTeague was on and folks, it seems that he had a fair bit to say:

For starters, yes it’s notable whenever a former elected official in a party calls for their leader to go, there are no two ways around that. It’s never a good thing for a party to have that out there on the record. But is this huge? Not really. McTeague has been out of elected life for a while now and for the last while has been critical of the Liberals under Trudeau’s leader. When asked directly on Twitter a year ago if he were to run again now would he run for the Liberals, he replied with this:

I think that made his feelings pretty clear, so to hear his criticisms now shouldn’t shock. But that doesn’t mean it’s nothing; it’s still something to see a former MP from a party call for that party’s leader to resign. And yet as stinging as those words were, he didn’t stop there.

He teased that according to his contacts in Ottawa, the Liberals are nervous and that “there’s a lot more to come” on the SNC/PMO Scandal. Is there? We have no way of telling but given that the PM didn’t waive privilege to allow the Ethics Commissioner to fully finish his investigation, there is a potential ring of truth to the idea that there is more still out there to be heard. The fact is that because of the lack of that waiver, the full truth is not out there, which automatically means there is more to still learn. Is that news good, bad, or inconsequential? We just don’t know, but thanks to the actions taken by the Prime Minister that can’t be put to bed and the worst can’t be ruled out. It surely makes the case for a proper Ethics Committee meeting with Mr. Dion all the stronger.

On a different front we’ve heard a bit of interesting nomination news as the parties get closer to filling their slates for the 43rd General Election. In the past 24 hours we’ve seen a couple big name candidates step forward, for the Liberals and New Democrats, that have the potential to make things interesting:

For the Trudeau Liberals this is a big get. To have someone like Sandra Pupatello decide to come out of retirement to take on strong incumbent Brian Masse in Windsor-West, with everything that’s going on right now and the potential for her to seek the Ontario Liberal Leadership again, is good news for them. Can she win? We’ll see but this will be a hard fought race and Brian Masse is a hard working and very well liked MP. Windsor-West will surely become a riding to watch now for sure.

As for the NDP, seeing Sid Ryan come back to run again is a mixed blessing. It’s good in the sense to get someone of his stature to step forward in these hard times for the NDP. It’s good to see someone with his strong history in the labour movement stepping up. That’s a bit of an affirmation of Jagmeet Singh and his team. But on the bad side, Sid Ryan comes with a lot of baggage of his own. He’s known for being very outspoken on many issues, for better or worse, and he’s an oppo-research teams dream because you know there is so much out there on the record that he’s said.

That baggage continues on into his time within the labour movement and his outspoken criticism of national leaders like Jerry Dias and their unions. Does that mean that a union like UNIFOR won’t back the NDP in Oshawa because of Ryan’s candidacy? In other ridings that might not matter, but in the heart of GM country, having UNIFOR’s backing is huge. Remember the last time that Ryan ran federally in 2005-06, that was the campaign where one of UNIFOR predecessors, the CAW, backed the Liberals. That cost him a win in that campaign, and that’s history that has not been forgotten.

In any case, the potential candidacy of Sid Ryan in Oshawa has the same feel as the attempted comeback by Svend Robinson in Burnaby. It also carries the same kinds of risks, but with a lesser chance of Ryan getting elected. Adding a Ryan nomination to that of Robinson’s also says a lot about the current state of the NDP, it’s direction, who it is attracting and who it is pushing away. The same is true of the nomination of Sandra Pupatello in Windsor-West and the state of the Liberals. All of these nominations are big names from the past, but are they the candidates and direction of 2019? We’ll find out in October. But in the meantime, these nominations are noteworthy and give us more reason to pay attention to these two ridings. We’ll see just how many more noteworthy nominations will come in the next few weeks but 66 days out, we’re getting closer and closer to the starting line of this campaign, one that promises to be unlike any we’ve seen in a generation.

Vicarious Liability

Yesterday turned out to be a much bigger day than most of us thought it would be when we all woke up on a lazy mid-August day. Ottawa has been so quiet this summer as everyone focuses on the fall campaign and gets ready to go, yet yesterdays news on the LavScam front took care of that silence. The blunt and detailed report from Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion not only brought forward a decision on where the blame lays in this case, it also brought new details that hadn’t come to light that makes this all look worse. But back to that in a bit.

Later in the day Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to the media in Niagara-on-the-Lake and gave his response to the report. That response is one that I think will loom large over the election to come:

I’ve said it in the past and I said it on CFRA on Tuesday; the fact that he refuses to apologize here and accept the blame for what happened here speaks loudly to him and his personality, and not in a good way. This response was just a bad defence and really undercut everything else he said when he said that he “accepts the findings” and that “the bucks stops with me”. You can’t say that you disagree with the core of the findings while credibly saying that you are responsible. If you’re responsible, you’re responsible for all of it, period.

The other part of that response that felt so tone deaf to me was trying to use the “I’m saving jobs here” argument that he’s used since the early days of this scandal. Of course that line came after he denied anything happened, then said something might have happened and then said it was all about Jody Wilson-Raybould. Having multiple “stories” never helps your credibility too it should be noted.

But back to the jobs rationale, this simply doesn’t pass because it’s all built on an extremely flawed premise; that breaking the law is alright if you’re doing it for the right reasons. If you’re motives are pure, then the means that you use to achieve them are already, regardless of their legality. That is just pure garbage and insulting on it’s face. If a starving person breaks into a grocery store and steals food, is it a legal defence to say “I was starving, so it was alright for me to do this so I could feed my family”? It’s not. It may be a moral defence, but legally it would never fly in a court because while it is awful and morally wrong that this family is starving, in our society we don’t allow people to break the law to correct that moral issue. We use other resources, like food banks, social programs and other services to help address that issue.

In this case, there were other options at the disposal for SNC-Lavalin in the courts to fight this case and the Prime Ministers office knew that. It wasn’t “DPA or Bust”, yet in this case they chose to take what they saw as the fasted route, even thought it wasn’t legally or ethically right to do so. The stated goal at the end of this (however dubious) did not, does not and never would justify the means. Period.

On top of those facts we saw new details come out about this story that really show just how far down that road they really went, to the point where it looks shadier than it did at first. Some other pieces out there today go into greater detail about who was involved and how, but it’s still very striking to see. It made me think about that excuse about jobs and when I heard it, I couldn’t help but think of another quote from the past that seems to match the sentiment the Prime Minister was putting out yesterday:

A comparison to Richard Nixon isn’t flattering at the best of times, and even worse at times like these, but the quote is apt for this moment. Essentially the Prime Minister is saying that the ends justify the means, and that’s what Nixon was getting at way back then. When it comes to our criminal justice system, we know that’s not the case and this is the crucial mistake that the Prime Minister made in the past, continues to make today and I assume he will continue to make right through election day.

But in the end here this story all comes back to a very simple concept of political work, one that Mr. Dion pointed to in his report. He stated that Mr. Trudeau was “vicariously liable” for what his staff did in his name, even if Mr. Trudeau didn’t do it all by himself. When you work in politics for an elected official, one of the things that you learn fast is that your work is not your own and the same goes for your actions. You are an extension of your boss and what you do or say, good or bad, is always going to be ascribed to them. It’s going to be treated as their words and their work. There’s really good reason for that, because at the end of the day it’s that elected person whose name is on the ballot, they are the one who got elected and they are the one who is directly accountable to their constituents. They are management in this case, and they bare that responsibility.

And there’s nothing wrong with that; in fact, I’d argue that’s exactly how it should be. So if that’s true for a back bench MP, how is it that wouldn’t at least be equally true for the elected leader of the whole government? We wouldn’t accept it if a random MP from nowhere tried to pin all the blame on their staff so why would it be alright for the bloody Prime Minister to do it? That’s actually the opposite of “the buck stops here”, which goes to show just how nonsensical yesterday naya-culpa was.

Time will tell just how this will all affect the fall campaign but yesterdays “Sorry, not Sorry” display has the potential to be just as effective as it was the last time an Liberal Leader tried using those words in Ontario. The fact is that when you sign up to be Prime Minister of Canada, you are signing up to take all of the credit and all the blame; that what taking responsibility really means. Mr. Dion’s report has Mr. Trudeau dead to rites on this matter and the smart thing would be for him to accept that completely, without any exceptions, and try showing some real contrition. But if past behaviour is any indication, that’s just not going to happy here. Justin Trudeau has no problem saying “I’m sorry” when he’s apologizing for others, but when it comes to his own actions, those words seem to disappear from his vocabulary. After four years we now know that’s not a bug of his leadership, it’s a feature, one that might be too late to correct.

Conflicted, Again

Just yesterday I was on CFRA talking about the most recent revelations from the CBC’s Aaron Wherry’s new book on the Prime Minister, which talked about Mr. Trudeau’s views on the whole SNC/PMO Scandal. We pretty much agreed on the air that unless something big changed, LavScam wouldn’t be a big election issue. But this morning “something big” seems to have happen, and the news is not good for the Liberals:

You can read the report from Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion here but wow, this report doesn’t leave any question about the violations here. The quotes are damning, leaving little doubt about how wrong this was, as so many of us knew. Mr. Dion pointed out some of the following:

  • As Prime Minister, Mr. Trudeau was the only public office holder able to exert influence over the Attorney General
  • Senior officials, who included both senior ministerial staff and public officials, would not have acted without a full and clear appreciation of the Prime Minister’s position on the matter.
  • SNC-Lavalin’s considerable private financial interests would undoubtedly have been furthered had Mr. Trudeau successfully influenced the Attorney General in her decision to overturn the Director of Public Prosecutions’ decision relating to the company
  • Partisan political interests were improperly put to the Attorney General for consideration in the matter, contrary to longstanding constitutional principles relating to prosecutorial independence and the rule of law

Think about that last quote folks; partisan political interests were put to Attorney General for consideration, contrary to longstanding constitutional principles. Mr. Dion is saying clearly that the Prime Minister tried to put partisan interest over constitutional principles and prosecutorial independence, contrary to the rule of law. That is downright damning, there are no two ways about it.

Furthermore what this report from Mr. Dion makes very clear is that there was no reasonable or legal justification for what the Prime Minister and his office wanted Jody Wilson-Raybould to do. It vindicated her actions and proved that she was right in this matter, regardless of how some partisans will feel about it. The irony here is that many people thought that we wouldn’t see this report until after the election; that came out when it was announced yesterday that the Prime Ministers office had received a report from Anne McLellan (which the PM had asked for) and wasn’t going to release it until after Mr. Dion released his. So I guess we’ll see that other report pretty soon, right?

For the Liberals, this is very bad news. The fact is that Mr. Dion’s independence and non-partisanship is well known and respected in Ottawa. They can’t try to turn this into some partisan attack against them or try to flub it off as some trickery. This is real and it’s very credible. When you add to the fact that this was the fifth Ethics Commissioner’s investigation into this government and the second finding against the Prime Minister by him, added to the Aga Khan case, this builds a strong narrative of behaviour by this Liberal government.

Furthermore this finding today puts everything that happened back in the Spring around this in a whole new light. Remember all the stonewalling from the Liberals in committees trying to stop investigations into this matter? Remember the resignation of Gerry Butts? Remember the expulsions of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott? All of that looks much shadier now when you have the Ethics Commissioner standing up staying that Prime Minister was wrong.

Finally the big thing about this decision is that Mr. Dion laid all of the blame at the feet of Justin Trudeau, dismantling the argument that some made at the time that all these PMO staff were operating without the Prime Minister’s consent or approval, tacit or otherwise. Basically Dion says that they were all following orders and acting out the wishes of the PM. As Mr. Dion put it himself, all these staff people “would not have acted without a full and clear appreciation of the Prime Minister’s position on the matter.” That’s as clear as day folks, and Mr. Dion makes it clear where the buck stops in this case.

With a few weeks before the writ drops in the election, this news today guarantees that LavScam will roar back into the picture and will play a big part in the discussion and debate in the 43rd General Election. Having been found wanting twice by the Ethics Commissioner would be damaging to any Prime Minister, but it’s especially damaging for a Prime Minister who got elected on promising to be better and to bring “Sunny Ways” to the job. This is quite the opposite of that and is the kind of thing that has turned people away from the Liberals in the past. Will this move votes and reverse the gains the Liberals have made lately? Time will tell but this is a crucial moment for this election, even if it’s happening weeks before the writ is dropped. This chicken has come home to roost and wow, is it ever roosting bigtime.