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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.

Deeper and Deeper

24 hours can feel like a lifetime in politics, and right now I bet that the Prime Ministers office would agree. Today’s big news of Jody Wilson-Raybould’s resignation from the Liberal cabinet was quite the shock to the system, almost more because of how it happened rather than it actually happened.

When the Globe and Mail story broke last week and the Prime Minister’s team refused to give a clear answer to the obvious questions that came from that reporting, it was clear that it was only a matter of time before something gave. Something had to give, either allowing the honourable Minister to speak and waiving privilege to allow that, or she had to leave cabinet, either by her own choice or by the PM’s choosing.

The fact that it took until six days for that “something” to happen is not good, and I would argue that for the government, this was the worst option for their hopes to putting this story to bed. If they had done nothing wrong, then allowing Wilson-Raybould to speak would have been the best option. She could have given her side of things and this story might have died right there.

By not taking that option, you were really only the left with the option of her leaving cabinet because there was no way for her to stay there under these circumstances without this issue being addressed. But when it came to that, the PM made it pretty clear last night that he didn’t plan on removing her from cabinet. It made that clear with his now famous statement that “her presence in cabinet should speak for itself”, as if her presence there was some kind of tacit approval of the governments story and approach.

If the PMO had been paying full attention here or truly practicing those “sunny ways” approach that they ran on, they would have seen the dangers and how this result would have come. It seems that through out all of this that they have underestimated her and thought they could push her back into place with no fall out. That’s hubris that’s now coming back to bite them in the rear.

Trying to make the case for a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC-Lavalin was already going to be very difficult politically, especially in an election year. Adding this whole scandal on top of that raises the bar of difficulty that much more, then adding to that is the news that’s come out today that SNC may now be facing more charges in relation to a contract to refurbish Montreal’s Jacques Cartier Bridge. That makes this that much harder for the government to do, let alone explain. And given that this government changed the law in the last budget to create the loophole to allow that agreement, there is nowhere else they can point a finger of blame. All of this right now is of their own doing.

Going forward though we’ll see where the story leads. We still have a lot to hear from Jody Wilson-Raybould, and by retaining a former Supreme Court Justice as her counsel to advise her, you get a strong impression that she does plan on speaking at some point. Further to that, this whole story has managed to do deep damage to the Prime Ministers relationship with Indigenous peoples, as we’ve seen more and more Indigenous leaders come to Jody’s defense, on the record. Being a big part of the Liberals coalition that helped to elect them in 2019, this will have lasting consequences beyond this scandal.

Tomorrow we’ll see the House of Commons Justice Committee have an emergency meeting to try to start a study on this issue. We’ll also see if the Liberals on the committee try to kill this in it’s tracks, or if they allow it to go ahead. Trying to kill it would look even worse given todays news, but so far that kind of consideration hasn’t stopped the PMO from other attempts to stop this that now look just as bad.

If we can say anything for sure about this week, it’s that if anything is going to change the narrative going into this Fall’s election, one that seemed so set in stone, this is probably it. This story brings back old narratives from past governments that this Prime Minister had no connection to, and puts a lot of tarnish on the narrative that they are better than before. Add to that yesterdays news about the Ethics Commissioners investigation, an amazing 5th investigation in less than four years of this government. And that doesn’t include economic anxieties that are out there and other pressures coming from all over, this does not bode well for the government.

Now if any of the opposition parties can actually take advantage of this or present a better image to the Canadian public, that remains to be seen. Before today none of them have shown that they are able to. But you never which straw will actually be the one that breaks the camels back and brings everything crashing down. I’d rather not play around and find that out by testing it, but to avoid testing it you need to have control of your message and such.

Right now the government has lost that; they created a vacuum by trying to get out of this by saying nothing, and now the narrative is getting pretty firmly set by others, events and a now-former Cabinet minister. We’ll see what happens tomorrow at the Justice committee and we’ll see what extra oxygen is brought into this story, but one thing is clear here; this has made the jump from “story” to “scandal”. It took us only six days to get here and heck, it’s only Tuesday. This might prove to be the longest break week this government has had so far.

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.

The Long Goodbye

Having had the chance to work in politics, you get to know some politicians very well. You also get to see that anyone can serve as a politician, as there are so many different ways to be one. You have some that love to focus on debate, others that are policy geeks, some that love to simply serve their constituents back home sight unseen and others that love to bask in the glow of the bright lights. The point being that there is a space where all MPs can shine, can find their way and a part of the job they love.

But even when finding that spot (which not all MPs find honestly), it can be a hard life. You have the very long hours, the travel from long distances, the stress that can come from the attention and of course the stress that it can create for families. Steve Paikin wrote a very good book on this very topic a while back, and for all the adulation that can come from being elected, there can be a big downside for many.

It’s for that reason, having lived and worked in that environment for close to a decade, when I hear that an MP has decided to step away for family reasons or because they’re ready to go, I take that at face value. Sure, we could speculate all day long about the “real reason” behind their decision but I have found that most of the time when that reason is cited, it’s for real. And normally after that person steps away from political life and you see them again outside the Ottawa bubble in their private lives, they seem much happier and relaxed. In short, it validates and further proves that they meant it when they walked away.

Sometimes though it’s hard to say what is going on, and a great example of this poked it’s head up today in the House of Commons by doing something very simple and rare for this person; showing up for work. Liberal MP Nicola Di Iorio (Saint-Léonard—Saint-Michel) rose in the House of Commons shortly after 10 am today as the Chamber came to order to make a point of order. This act by itself would not normally make anyone bat an eye except for a simple fact; he told everyone he was going to resign before now.

You see it all started back in April, 2018, when Mr. Di Iorio announced that he would be resigning, sighting family reasons. He said that he had achieved what he wanted in politics and was ready to leave. He even got a nice farewell tweet from the PM. It was expected that he would resign over the summer. All normal and above board, no problem so far.

But then the summer came and went and there was no resignation. In September he puts out a statement on Facebook saying that he’s reconsidering. Then House of Commons returned in mid-September and people started to notice that Mr. Di Iorio hadn’t return himself. This went on until November and people started to wonder “what is going on here?”. Liberal MPs were getting asked in the press if they knew what was going on, to which most said they had no idea. One MP is even quoted in the media saying “I thought he had quit”. Didn’t we all think that, didn’t we all.

Then news breaks from the CBC that Mr. Di Iorio has issues with the Liberal nomination process and wants to have influence on who his successor might be. For someone who’s walking away, you have to wonder why. But in the same interview he gave us another nugget; he told CBC what he had been up to. He told us the Prime Minister had given him a special task, to work on the issue of road safety. Finally, this story seemed to reach its end when shortly later he announced that he would resign his seat effect January 22, 2019 (ensuring no by-election could be held to replace him by the way). So after all that bad press and worse optics for the government, this seemed to headed to it’s conclusion.

Then a funny thing happened, or should I say, didn’t happen. January 22nd came and went without a resignation from Mr. Di Iorio. More days went by and people started to rightly ask “what’s going on?” again, and new life was breathed into this story. Then this morning came, and Mr. Di Iorio rose to spoke. At first, many were surprised to see him there. Many thought that surely, this was now the time that he was going to resign, giving what would make his second “final speech” to the House has he stepped away. But to assume the normal here would be obviously not understand Mr. Di Iorio’s pattern of conduct as an MP.

He rose in the Chamber to go after the New Democrats and specifically MP Nathan Cullen for daring to point all of this history I’ve laid about above. He said that the NDP was simply trying to “tarnish his reputation” and that he deserved credit for supposedly being the first MP to drive an electric car. But of all the eye-rolling comments he made in his rambling statement (which the Speaker had to interrupt to keep him “on topic”) there was one thing he didn’t say: I resign. After all of that, he still hasn’t resigned.

At this point you really have to wonder what is going on here with Mr. Di Iorio, because this has moved far outside the normal resignation that we’ve seen over time. If his reasons were as simple as the normal and respected ones I mentioned at the start, this pattern of behaviour doesn’t match that. In fact, the more that he says on this topic that doesn’t revolve around an actual resignation just raises more questions. Worse it looks bad, not just on Mr. Di Iorio himself, but on his party. I can’t help but feel sympathy for those Liberal backbenchers who are doing good work because right now Mr. Di Iorio is making himself into an essay attack ad from an opposition party and a talking point that they will have to defend their party against.

If Mr. Di Iorio was being honest and upfront with his party, his constituents and Canadians when he announced back in April that he was going to resign, then he owes it to everyone to finally take a final decision. Thankfully this afternoon that decision finally came with his actual resignation, announced by the Speaker of the House of Commons. This had gone on far too long and for him to have continued to do what he had been doing for months would have been an insult to the public. The fact is that people will now continue to ask questions and question his sincerity in this regard, and that’s not the work of any other MP or party. That’s all his own doing, and by letting this drag on so long, he’s just added more and more tarnish to his own name.

Episode 2 of the Magpie Brûlé Podcast is now Live

With the return of the House of Commons coming tomorrow, I’m happy to say that Episode 2 of the Magpie Brûlé podcast is now up and live. In this episode, I discuss the return of the House of Commons this week, I have an in-depth take on the weeks events regarding the NDP and I look ahead to probably the most important by-election we’ve seen in a long time in Canadian politics. You can listen it to the episode here or you can now download it on iTunes, just search for “Magpie Brûlé”.

Budgeting for the Fall

Next week the House of Commons will return for the final five months of sitting before this fall’s election. As MPs come back to take their seats they will be coming back to some big changes, none smaller than where those seats themselves will be. MPs will be starting to use the new “temporary” chamber located in the West Block, where our elected members will be debating and voting for the next decade at least while the Centre Block is being renovated.

As for the Senate, they will be enjoying their new space in the former Government Conference Centre (aka the former Ottawa Train Station) and taking a big step into the present at the same time. As soon as all the bugs are worked out, the proceedings taking place Red Chamber will now be televised. Forty-two years after Canadians from coast to coast to coast were able to watch the action taking place in the House of Commons, we will finally be able to do the same with the Senate.

Given the events that have happened since they last convened before the Holidays, it will be very interesting to follow the happenings that will take place under the new glass dome of the Commons. There are story lines for all the parties in the House as we enter the session, but what will be most interesting to follow is a certain big event that will come in the first half of this session. That event is the presentation of the Federal Budget.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau will table his budget at some point this spring, a budget that will lay the groundwork for not only what the Liberals plan to run on but will set the baseline for what the opposition parties will eventually put on the table. This budget will offer the government a big chance to set the direction they will go in 2019, whether if it’s a change of course or doubling-down on the path they’ve already set.

One piece of information that came out in the news today does offer an interesting potential wrinkle into what might happen. It came out today that the federal government only ran a $2.2 billion deficit in November, which is down from a $9.5 billion deficit that they ran in the same month last year. That’s an interesting turn of events given that Minister Morneau’s most recent fall update projected that this year’s deficit was going to be bigger than the last.

Being $7.3 billion ahead of your deficit number compared to the same time last year is an interesting place to find yourself in, especially in an election year. You do have to wonder how they got to this point but today its hard to say exactly what. But it if this trend continues, it could make the last budget before the 2019 election more interesting.

This offers the Liberals opportunities and some flexibility to maneuver either left or right, depending on where they want to go. Which way will they go? Will they use that extra capacity to increase spending in areas of interest, or take on a new policy initiative that will undercut a proposal or idea from the NDP to their left? Could that be money for the start of a pharma care program, for more child care spaces, to create more affordable housing, for more transit or for rural broadband? It could be any or all of those to some degree and would undercut the NDP’s chances of competing in the Fall in the process.

Or will they use that extra capacity to simply reduce the deficit, and undercut the Conservative attacks on the government for their years of deficit spending? Getting ahead of reducing the deficit and getting closer to budget balance could help to reinforce the Liberals economic credentials with Red Tory/Blue Liberal swing voters, while also helping to undercut the Conservative argument that the Liberals have no intention of ever balancing a budget again. They could take more space on the centre/centre-right of the spectrum and either undercut part of the Conservative message or force them further to the right.

Or will they use that space to do a bit of both? Invest a bit more here, lower the deficit a bit more there, and speak to all sides of the spectrum. That could be a way to hedge their bets but also could be a good approach given the relative strength or weakness of the opposition parties when. If Maxime Berner is eating away at the Conservative vote or the NDP vote isn’t rebounding by budget time, maybe the Liberals won’t feel the need to adjust too hard in one direction or the other.

Regardless of the choice they eventually make, the Liberals should be glad because they are in a position to actually have choices at their disposal thanks to this turn of events. If those figures showed that the deficit was on the same track or even a worse one than last year, that would take a lot of off the table for the government and leave them with fewer options, ones that would be less palatable and with greater political costs. We’ll see how it all plays out when the time comes but Budget 2019 will be the first big card to be played in this year’s election. It will have a lot to say about what the next nine months will look like and tonight it seems that the government has been dealt a better hand than they might have expected.