Senate Sunrise

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Before coming to work at the Senate of Canada, I had never held the same job for more than 5 and a half years. While I never expected to stay so long, I’ve now spent more than 15 as the policy advisor to the Senator for the Northwest Territories.

I guess I wound up staying so long because the work was interesting, the conditions agreeable, the pay reasonable and maybe, most of all, I felt I was making a contribution.

Lots of friends have worked in the public service and one of their great frustrations was having everything they did edited, modified, limited, canceled, changed, misused by those higher up (and even lower down) the decision chain. When I wrote a letter, a speech or a report, only one person could ask for a change and as the years went by and I learned his voice better and better, the changes became fewer and fewer.

Over the years, I’ve written letters that went to 4 Prime Ministers, dozens of Ministers, Premiers, MPs, MLAs, corporate officials, heads of non-profits and ordinary citizens. Some of those letters actually changed public policy. I wrote ( and even gave) speeches, authored or oversaw reports, participated in meetings at every level and, most days, learned something new and interesting.

It was fun.

Obviously, I can’t list everything I did but there were a few highlights. In 2007, our office used caucus research funds to hire Jamie Bastedo to write a report on climate change in the arctic. Called “On the Frontlines of Climate Change”, it was one of the first popular reports about the impacts of global warming on northern communities and people. It was widely distributed across the NWT and across Canada and was even used as a teaching tool in a number of high schools and universities. This was the first of several papers that Jaime and I worked on – including one on alternative land using planning methods and another – which we co-wrote – on small-scale science and technology as an economic driver in the North.

I also worked on a lot of committee reports. A few stand out. For ”Sharing Canada’s Prosperity: A Hand Up Not a Handout”, on aboriginal economic development, I organized a policy team that included myself, Senator St. Germain’s policy advisor, Stephen Stewart and staff from the Library of Parliament to provide support to the Aboriginal Peoples committee. Though it is uncredited, I wrote the introduction to Negotiation or Confrontation, the report on the Specific claims process. Another report, done for the Energy, Environment and Natural Resources committee was “With Respect Canada’s North”. I assisted with organizing committee travel, provided policy advice and even traveled with Senators on a fact-finding trip across the NWT. I played a role – sometimes small and sometimes large – in another half dozen reports.

And , of course, there was the work on legislation. Everyone is making a big fuss these days because the Senate is amending government Bills but until 2008, the Senate routinely made amendments to about 25% of the bills that came before it. None of the governments of the day liked it but it was only during the Dark Years (2008-2015) that they used their majority in the Senate to thwart most changes. But in the early days, I helped draft a number of amendments, some of which made it into the law.

Travel in the north and to First Nations communities across Canada was a fascinating and rewarding opportunity and solidified my knowledge of northern and indigenous issues. I met literally thousands of people and learned from every one of them. And I like to think I helped my share, too, whether with tax problems, immigration issues or, most importantly, with dealing with residential schools.

It was a fascinating 15 years or work and continuous learning – imagine a job where they essentially pay you to think and read and study and then, report on what you found out. Not perfect everyday but a lot better than most jobs.

Of course there were dark times – the attack on Parliament Hill and the various Senate scandals, the Auditor general, the Harper majority – but the good outweighed the bad.

Pretty hard to sum up 15 years in 700 hundred words but that’s clearly somewhat more than ten minutes.

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Senate Sunset

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In a few days I’ll be retiring from my job at the Senate of Canada. When I came to work as Senator Nick Sibbeston’s policy advisor some 15 and a half years ago, I never thought I’d stay so long. I’d originally accepted the job right after 9/11 because I wanted to get back into government work after an 11 year absence. I thought I’d stay with him for a couple of years before moving on to the public service. I almost went a couple of times – I came very close to getting a job with the Canadian Space Agency in 2011 but it was not to be.

In the end I stayed as long as I did because the work was interesting and the working conditions amenable. The pay wasn’t as much as I might have gotten elsewhere but it was certainly a living wage.

Having been there so long, I can attest to some of the substantial changes that have occurred in this 150 year old institution this century. When I arrived, the security guards at the Senate were required to salute Senators when they entered the building. My own boss thought this was hilarious but you could see that some of his colleagues lapped it up. In those days, about the only real rules about expenditures was ‘don’t exceed your budget’ and ‘don’t get caught spending money on your private concerns’. Even then a few Senators got into trouble and one even went to jail. Senate administration generally would question Senators’ staff but never Senators themselves. Only the Internal Economy Committee – made up of other Senators – could do that.

In that atmosphere, is it any surprise that a few people might go astray? But in reality it was very few and, generally, it was among those Senators, appointed for highly partisan reasons, with already questionable moral compasses that proved the most troublesome.

Which is one of the reasons I’ve been supportive of the move to make the Senate much less partisan. There have been bumps along the road and there are still rocky times ahead I’m sure. But one by one the bad apples are being gotten rid of or at least polished up. The rules under which Senators and their staff operate have been tightened considerably – a process that had actually begun years before the Duffy suspension, trial and eventual acquittal on all charges.

There are new rules regarding harassment that will make sure that the behavior of people like former Senator Don Meredith is nipped in the bud, long before it gets to the point of sleeping with teenagers. One hopes.

And lessons were learned from the experience with the Auditor General, too, though not necessarily what you might think. Bureaucrats and especially auditors (accountants who failed the personality test) have very little understanding what the job of politicians actually is. The biggest shame I ever saw in the Senate was when Romeo Dallaire resigned because some piddly-assed number cruncher decided working to eliminate the use of child soldiers was not public business. And before you say, yeah but they found a million dollars in inappropriate expenditures, I’ll mention that they spent $24M to do it.

And tomorrow I’ll tell you about some of the great things I got to do working at the Senate because that is a bit more than 10 minutes.

Changes

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It has been a busy week both North and South of the border and maybe it’s time to take a pause and try to figure out what it all means.

Donald Trump has declined to participate in the next GOP debate; Fox News decided to cancel it. Trump accomplishes two things by this tactic – he assumes the role of front runner and proves it by essentially being able to pick and choose where he will appear. He has nothing more to gain from the debates – all the insults have been doled out and Trump needs to start looking more Presidential which he can start to do. His supporters are certainly convinced but they don’t make up a majority of the Republican Party let alone the country. Unless he mends fences (rather than build walls) with women and minorities, his winning ways will likely come to an end in November.

Meanwhile, Barrack Obama has done the tactically smart thing – appoint a moderate for his nominee to the Supreme Court. Judge Garland has won praise from both sides of the great divide including from a number of current GOP Senators. Already a few moderates – among those few that are left – on that side of the house have indicated their desire to hold hearings, Mitch McConnell be damned. They may still block the appointment but are then faced with the unenviable prospect of facing a much more progressive nominee if Clinton (or Sanders) is elected and who knows what if Trump becomes President. There is no certainty that he will appoint a hard-line conservative to the bench. He is nothing if not unpredictable.

In Canada, our Senate will take on a significantly different face today with the appointment of seven new Senators. All will sit as independents though one, Peter Harder, will be the government representative with the job of moving legislation through the upper chamber. He is a long time and well-respected bureaucrat who led the transition team for Justin Trudeau – so mostly non-partisan but clearly sympathetic to the government. Of the rest, only one has a political background, a former Cabinet Minister in the Ontario NDP government some 20 years ago. The others include a former Olympian, Chantal Petitclerc, and the judge, Murray Sinclair, who recently headed up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission dealing with Indian Residential Schools. One impact of the appointments is to reduce the Conservative majority to a plurality – a change which was helped by the decision of four of their caucus to sit as independents.

Finally, the CBC has announced that it will no longer allow commenters on its news stories to remain anonymous. This follows the decision to moderate all stories on Indigenous people in order to get rid of racists. While some will complain that this silences those who fear for their jobs or friendships if their identity is known, it is a significant step forward for public civility. Maybe some of the trolls will find the courage to come out from under their bridges – if not, their voices surely will be missed by no one but themselves.

And that is a very public ten minutes.

 

Mandates

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Parliament resumes today in Ottawa. The media has been full of stories about what the government will be doing as well as what they should be doing. The former is more significant than the latter. The agenda of the new Liberal government is crystal clear – set out in their platform document and repeated in the Throne Speech. It is unlikely to be swayed much by the demands of the opposition or the opinions of pundits. Neither – according to the polls – will the general public.

And that’s exactly how it should be. I say this, not because I agree with everything they promised (I most certainly don’t) or because I think the Trudeau Cabinet is anything special (other than the gender balance which is long overdue).  Rather, the government should be provided with the leeway to implement the program that the electorate voted for. One can make the case that only 40% of the voters supported them – just as the case was made about the Harper government – but that is the system we have. Fortunately one of the main planks in the new government’s platform was a change to that system.

The opposition will oppose, of course. One might hope they will offer some credible alternatives (and not simply repeat the elements of their own defeated government or platform). The second biggest mistake that the opposition parties could make is to be too vociferous in their attacks – which will make them look excessively partisan at a time when people have grown tired of that. The biggest mistake would be to use parliamentary tricks (or the Senate) to actually block key elements of that platform. That would make them look undemocratic – a charge from the past one might think the Conservatives would like to slide away from.

Things will change as time goes by. The government will make mistakes (and that is another reason not to be obstructionist – opposition parties need to give governments enough rope to hang themselves) and eventually, in 18 or 24 months, they will have implemented most if not all aspects of their platform. Indeed, anything not done in two years will probably have been given up on.

It is then that Parliament – hopefully a more open and active legislature than it’s been for the last ten years – will really come into its own. The government will be facing new challenges and will propose new solutions. The opposition should be doing the same – focusing on where the government went wrong or might soon go wrong and making the case for why they should be selected to govern Canada the next time around.

Because until the next election, the government will be the government. If it is a good government, they will listen to what the opposition has to say and will – to the opposition’s distress – incorporate the best of their ideas into their programs and policies.

I don’t expect that Ambrose and Mulcair will temper their remarks or limit their criticisms; this is politics after all. But maybe the media and the party partisans shouldn’t be so breathless in covering what they have to say. Because right now, nobody else really cares.

And that’s ten minutes.

Reading the Entrails

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The Throne Speech has been given and now it is time to read the entrails – if that’s not too violent an abuse of a metaphor. Opposition politicians have been quick to point out the Speech’s flaws while journalists have tried to parse what was and was not made a priority by the government.

The Conservatives seem particularly outraged that the Speech doesn’t contain planks from the platform they ran and were defeated on – notably tax cuts for everyone and a militaristic response to ISIS. Don’t they know that it’s not even called that anymore? It’s Daesh. Those Tories – they are so 2014.

The NDP at least are being more judicious – focusing on elements of the Liberal platform that were not mentioned in the Speech, such as rolling back the retirement age from 67 to 65.

Journalists have been reduced to parsing language, like old time theologians counting the angels on the head of a pin. What does this phrase mean and why was this word left out? Focusing on things that are not there is a strange approach to policy analysis – since really anything might not be there.

To put it in perspective, this speech was under 1800 words long and still covered a lot of ground. The first Harper Throne Speech in 2006 only mentioned the five priorities they had run their campaign on and still managed to drag on for over 2400 words. It had a lot more flowery language, however, so maybe it was in essence even shorter than yesterday’s effort.

A Throne Speech is hardly definitive. Its purpose is not to list every single thing the government plans to do but rather give a general view of the new direction the government intends to take and the largest priorities they plan to address in the next two years. For those who are worried about the lack of specific timelines, it should be understood that this is not the only Throne Speech we will hear during the life of this government. In about two years, the government will take a break.

Parliament will be prorogued, not to avoid scrutiny, but so the government can fine tune its course and message. This is a natural event in the life of every Parliament. At that time, matters left undone may be given new focus and emphasis and new issues that will inevitably arise in the next few years will be considered. The Cabinet will likely be shuffled at the same time as the government begins the inevitable progress towards the next election.

Speeches from the Throne have never included everything the government intends to do or ultimately does. What it tells you is what is likely to be top of mind for the next 6 to 12 months and what the government already knows how to accomplish. Details may be vague – because frankly they haven’t been worked out yet.

Writing actual legislation and preparing a budget is a far more onerous and complex task. Those will emerge – after suitable consultation it is promised – in February, March and the months that follow. Writing a throne speech is a simple task and, really, shouldn’t occupy too much of our analytical thoughts. What comes next is the important stuff.

And that’s ten minutes.

Sunny Days

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Today is the real first day for the new Liberal government. Everything until now has been a prologue – an important one but none the less simply a precursor to the important work ahead. A number of milestones have been reached, it is true. The appointment of a gender equal Cabinet – because it is 2015 – was of great symbolic and practical importance. The symbolism is obvious; the practicality will be displayed in the types of decisions such a group is likely to make.

The promise to bring in 25000 Syrian refugees has been modified in terms of timing but not intent. Of course, the Conservative opposition (and some on the left) have been quick to call this an abandonment of an election promise – after insisting vociferously that the timing should be extended for security purposes. But this, my friends, is what a rational government does; modify their commitments – without abandoning them – when evidence shows a change is required. Governments who stick to promises for purely ideological purposes are soon turned into failures and are eventually defeated. Just ask Steve.

Speeches have been made – at COP 21, APEC and the Commonwealth meetings – and processes have been put in place for consultations with the provinces and for starting a national inquiry on murdered and missing indigenous women. Yesterday, some questions were answered as to the future of the Senate. While Claude Carignan – the Conservative leader in the Senate – called it weird, my own boss (also a Senator) thought it was brilliant. It makes a clear break with the former partisan obsession of some Senators on both sides of the aisle and makes sure that Canadians understand that real reform – as much as possible within the limits of the Constitution and the Supreme Court allows.

It doesn’t surprise me that Christy Clark has said she won’t play along. I expect Brad Wall will follow suit. Both – despite party labels – are Harper-like Conservatives who would rather use the Senate as a political football rather than try any real reform. If either of them had the courage of their convictions – they don’t – they would introduce a constitutional amendment into their legislature and get the reform process started. Provinces have that power, you know.

In any case, all that – along with the appointment/election of new Speakers has simply brought the government to the starting line. The real work of governing will come with a Throne Speech today (it will be short and to the point) and a ways and means motion next week to implement tax changes effective January 1st. In January, the first of the new independent Senators – including a government representative – will be appointed, a budget will be brought down and a raft of new legislation to enact Liberal campaign promises (and undo the worst of the Harper era) will be tabled and debated in the House and Senate.

As for Trudeau, the honeymoon seems to be continuing – despite the phony scandal of nannygate – and I expect that the government will be given a year before real criticism, as opposed to partisan whining, will begin to reveal any weaknesses in the Liberal plan.

And that’s ten minutes.

Independent Senators

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I was going to take a short break form the blog today but Senator John Wallace changed my mind. He decided yesterday to leave the Conservative caucus and sit as an independent. Doing so, he endorsed the idea of a non-partisan Senate where, as the Supreme Court wrote, Senators could dispassionately examine legislation and provide ‘sober second thought.’

In itself, the defection of one Senator does not a revolution make but it does indicate the real frustration that some Senators were feeling with the strict control placed over them by the former PM. I’ve watched a number of them and while Senator Wallace always came across as a man with a gentle nature and a sense of humour, he wouldn’t have been my first pick as someone who would assert his independence. I’m a little surprised but not terribly shocked that he is.

But what it really tells me is that the disaffection with the partisan nature of the Senate runs deeper than even I thought. There must be a number of other Senators considering their options this morning and I would be both shocked and surprised if Senator Wallace isn’t joined by a few more of his colleagues as independents in the next week or two.

If he is the first of several or perhaps many, this could go a long way to solving the problem of the Senate in the short term while paving the way for a longer term solution that will see a Senate primarily composed of independents. Some of these may organize themselves in loose caucuses in order to maximize the effectiveness of their resources but, if they operate like the current Senate Liberals, there will be no connection to parties in the House and there will be no whipped votes or penalties for sometimes going their own way.

Right now, there is a certain amount of pressure on the new PM to waver on his Senate promises. A united and aggressive Conservative opposition in the Senate (where they hold a clear majority) could force Mr. Trudeau to appoint pro-Liberal Senators in order to get his legislation passed until such time as his new appointments process is asset up and running. He might get away with it if he appoints a number Senators who are 73 or 74 already. They would face mandatory retirement at 75 at which time they could be replaced using the new process.

But I don’t think Trudeau will do that except in extremis. He seems determined to keep his campaign promises even in the face of strong opposition. If he’ll do that with respect to the bombing mission in Syria, I doubt if the Senate will budge him. Rather, I suspect that Dominic LeBlanc and current Senators are working hard to make sure that John Wallace is only the first of the new independent Conservatives and not the last.

And that’s ten minutes.