On Brazeau, Infamous Crimes, and Parliamentary Privilege (or, Can Brazeau be Booted from the Senate?)

It has been a bad week for Senator Patrick Brazeau. After he was charged with assault and sexual assault in relation to a domestic incident at his Gatineau folks began asking whether Brazeau will be allowed to keep his seat, or whether he could be kicked out of the Red Chamber. To address some of the legal aspects of this question, I wrote a piece for Canadian Legal Ease. If you haven’t seen Canadian Legal Ease yet, it’s a fantastic new website run by some smart folks who want to make legal issues more accessible. It’s goal is to foster greater public discourse on issues facing Canadians. You’ll find well-informed articles from academics, lawyers, and students — all written in an accessible, easy-to-understand manner. Check it out!

You can read my piece on Brazeau here. The answer? He could very well be removed, but it’s ultimately up to the Senate itself.

(Thanks to Ben Oliphant for a substantial amount of editing and other assistance.)

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Spin Doctors – MP pension reform

Happy Monday!

This week in The Hill Times, the Spin Doctors were asked to opine on whether MP pensions are in need of reform. Here’s what I have to say.

Do you think MPs’ pensions should be reviewed and cut back?

It’s definitely time for Parliament to start examining options for MP pension reform, in order to bring them more into line with pension norms for other Canadians. It’s only fair: MPs are in a position to make maximum RRSP contributions, and receive multiple other benefits by virtue of their positions. The Greens would also examine pushing back the eligibility period to age 65, thus reducing the potential for double-dipping. We must strike an appropriate balance between providing compensation sufficient to attract high-quality MPs, and providing equity between Canadian workers.

But pensions are only a small piece of the pie. Green leader Elizabeth May has also called for greater financial accountability from our elected representatives in other areas. For example, Ms. May is the only MP who has agreed to publish all of her expense for public scrutiny. She has also suggested capping MPs’ current base salary of $157,731 in order to accommodate more seats in the House of Commons without increasing the total budget line for MP salaries.

What’s more important, however, is ensuring each and every Canadian has an adequate income after retirement. We urgently need a pension system that will keep the elderly out of poverty, require minimum additional contributions, and have low administrative and investment costs. The Greens have also called for an enhancement of the Canada Pension Plan by phasing in the doubling of the target income replacement rate from 25% to 50% of income received during working years.

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Spin Doctors: Harper’s invite-only budget “consultations”

Happy Wednesday! Here’s my Hill Times Spin Doctors piece from this week.

In a recent letter to Conservative MPs and Senators, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he would be sending Cabinet ministers across the country to hear Canadians’ views on the upcoming budget. What do you think of the initiative?

Fanning cabinet ministers out across the country for pre-budget meetings amounts to little more than an expensive exercise in public relations. After all, when has Prime Minister Harper ever truly listened to Canadians? It has long been evident that his government is intent on implementing its own agenda at any cost. If that agenda conflicts with the views and priorities of Canadians, we’re out of luck, and on the hook financially.

The fact that at least some of these “consultations” are by invitation only puts to rest any notion that the government actually cares about hearing from Canadians. The Prime Minister’s own parliamentary secretary, MP Dean Del Mastro, hand-picked the groups from whom he wanted to hear, excluded all other interested parties. Del Mastro wouldn’t even allow the public to attend his meeting, citing space constraints.

If Harper hadn’t run Canada back into deficit through years of wasteful spending and politically-motivated tax cuts, we wouldn’t now be faced with growing debt and 5-10% program spending cuts. So I won’t hold my breath for a budget that addresses the issues Canadians care about, like growing the green economy, addressing climate change, keeping people healthy, and strengthening our communities. If past budgets are any indication, we can expect to see large handouts to the grey, polluting industries of yesterday, and cuts to services and programs that help the most vulnerable Canadians.

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Spin Doctors: Is a cabinet shuffle in the cards?

Apologies. This appeared in last week’s Hill Times. I’m late posting it.

“Concerns over Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan’s health has sparked speculation over whether or not (and when) a Cabinet shuffle will take place. Do you expect Harper to shake-up his top bench in the new session? Why?”

Frankly, a cabinet shuffle won’t change anything. The composition of cabinet matters very little so long as Stephen Harper remains Prime Minister. The PMO has iron-fisted control over every single cabinet portfolio, leaving precious little room left for individual cabinet ministers to meaningfully direct their files or take on departmental initiatives of their own. As Don Martin once wrote, cabinet ministers now “play the role usually reserved for potted plants.” In other words, they’re nice visuals at a press conference.

The events of last week illustrate the absolute control of the PMO over cabinet ministers, when Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver signed his name to an embarrassing, hyperbolic “open letter.” In it, he accused First Nations, environmentalists, and other ordinary Canadians who oppose the Northern Gateway Pipeline of attempting to hijack progress with a radical ideological agenda and undermine our national economic interest.

It’s hard to believe that Mr. Oliver would take it upon himself to conceive of and produce this ridiculous and insulting rant. The letter is perfectly consistent, however, with the operations of the centralized PMO spin machine, which truly runs the show. Mr. Oliver isn’t a fool, and it’s tough to imagine he had no qualms about putting his name on a missive filled with such inflammatory and untrue accusations. But in Harper’s Ottawa, the PMO calls the shots; ministers are mere window dressing.

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Spin Doctors – Green Party priorities for 2012

Happy Monday! After a holiday hiatus, the Hill Times is back this week, and so is Spin Doctors. Our question today is the following:

“What will be your leader’s top priorities in 2012?”

The Greens had a record year in 2011. Elizabeth May became the first Green MP elected to serve in Parliament, and in a few short months, she proved that just one MP can have a major impact in an Ottawa dominated by talking points and party discipline. But 2012 promises to be even better!

This year, May will prioritize several major policy initiatives as well as critical procedural reforms in the House of Commons.

Substantively, May’s number one priority is to keep Canada in Kyoto. The vast majority of Canadians want action on climate change, and the Conservative plan to withdraw from the legally-binding Kyoto process jeopardizes our planetary future and puts our own economic prosperity at risk. We have an obligation to protect our planet and insulate our economy against economic shocks brought on by a changing climate. Canada needs a real economic shift to green jobs, and May will push for this.

On the procedural side, you can expect May to seek reforms to rescue our democratic institutions from the Conservative abuse of process. She will work hard to persuade the government that amending legislation after first reading is not a political or partisan loss – it’s a normal part of the legislative process, consistent with the obligation MPs owe to Canadians to do due diligence and “get it right”.

Finally, May will continue to work for more respect and decorum in the House by building bridges with MPs from all parties.

Happy new year to all!

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Harper undermines Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

I loved this week’s Hill Times Spin Doctors question. The Greens have been outspoken on how Harper has undermined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty through a nuclear trade deal with India. We need to stop nuclear proliferation if we want  global security, and this should be the focus of our anti-nuclear efforts – not mere sanctions against Iran.

Though the commitment has yet to be discussed in the House, Prime Minister Stephen Harper effectively announced Canada’s support and intent to match likely future sanctions against Iran, a country looking to become a nuclear state. Is this the right decision?

Harper might talk the talk, but the truth is that his government has spent years undermining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Canada is a signatory. Actions speak louder than words, and Harper’s actions show a blatant disregard for global security and world peace.

Nuclear technology is inherently dangerous because it is inextricably linked to nuclear weapons proliferation. Yet Canada continues to peddle nuclear technology around the world without adequate safeguards, even to countries with known nuclear weapons programs.

Notably, Harper has been pushing a nuclear trade deal with India. In the early 1970s, Canada built a heavy-water research reactor in India for civilian nuclear power application. The agreement to not utilize this technology for military purposes was violated and in 1974 India exploded its first nuclear bomb. Despite the history by India of violating agreements, Harper refuses to require that India sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a condition of the present deal. Re-opening nuke trade with India violated the Non-Proliferation treaty. At the time, Trade Minister David Emerson said India has been in “the penalty box long enough”.

Canada must play a greater and more honest role in global nuclear disarmament by recommitting to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and working toward the proposed Fissile Material Cut-Off treaty. Disarmament is vital to global security. The Greens condemn the actions of the Harper government, which undermine the treaties that protect us from the development of new nukes.

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TransPacific Partnership is wrong for Canada

This week’s Spin Doctors topic was on Prime Minister Harper’s plans to have Canada join the Transpacific Partnership.

“With the U.S. delaying its decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has announced that Canada will apply to join the TransPacific partnership. Is this the right decision for Canada?”

My answer:

The move to sign Canada on to the TransPacific partnership is policy by headlines, and is not designed to advance Canada’s interests. It’s a thinly-veiled strategy to help detract from the massive blow Harper suffered when Obama decided to delay the Keystone XL pipeline decision. The government talked a big game on the pipeline, assuring everyone it was a done deal, and now Harper’s doing damage control.

Joining the TransPacific partnership has enormous potential to further undermine Canada’s sovereignty. This rash decision means Canadian consumers are looking at higher prices for many foods, as the deal will exert pressure on us to dismantle our supply management systems for a variety of agricultural products. Other concerns include intellectual property protections for drugs that could limit access to life-saving medications, and provisions that would continue to allow industry to sue countries for environmental protections.

Participating in yet another trade agreement is completely unnecessary, as we already have global trade, which is afforded strong protections by way of the WTO and the GATT. Yet the Conservatives continue to doggedly pursue their ideological liberalization agenda by signing new, unnecessary deals that chip away at our sovereignty, like CETA and trade deals with Asia. The TransPacific partnership prioritizes corporate profit at the expense of people and the environment.

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Spin Doctors from this week – unilingual AG

I’ve promised to start posting my Spin Doctors pieces that are appear in The Hill Times each week. This week’s question was about the appointment of a unilingual Auditor General.

“The Liberal caucus walked out on a House of Commons and a Senate vote, on Nov. 3 to protest the appointment of Michael Ferguson, a unilingual former New Brunswick auditor general, as Canada’s new AG – what message did the party send to Canadians?”

My answer:

The result of the House and Senate votes was a foregone conclusion, whether the Liberals showed up or not. This is a perverse consequence of our antiquated first-past-the-post voting system, which gives the Conservatives near-absolute power, despite receiving support from less than 40% of Canadians who voted in the last election.

The Liberal walkout was merely symbolic, but I think the boycott expressed some of the frustration that much of the opposition is feeling right now.

As Official Languages Commissioner Graham Fraser has said, bilingualism is a key competency for top civil servants. This is presumably why the Auditor General job description clearly stated that ability to speak both English and French is a requirement. By selecting a unilingual Auditor General, the Conservatives have delivered a figurative slap in the face to francophone Canadians.

Installing a unilingual Auditor General signals to Canada that the government does not take our country’s commitment to bilingualism seriously. Perhaps this is unsurprising. The Conservatives have finally formed their much-coveted majority government, and have done so without winning over Quebeckers. Perhaps they are cynically rethinking the need to embrace policies that protect language rights.

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Elephants and escaped steers: Huffington Post blogs

Some exciting news – I’m now a contributor to the Huffington Post Canada! Law school has kept me busy enough that there’s not much time to blog on here, but I’ll try to keep cross-posting pieces I contribute to other publications.

Here’s the HuffPo piece I wrote a few weeks ago after Toronto City Council voted to retire its three surviving elephant to the PAWS Sanctuary in California – Zoo Elephants Deserve a Second Lease on Life. Such a great victory for these three majestic animals – they deserve to enjoy some wide open spaces after decades spent in the cold confines of a Canadian zoo. Thank you, Toronto councillors, for showing compassion and empathy for the elephants.

And here’s another piece I wrote, in response to the obscene and disturbing shooting of two escaped steers by police in Gatineau – Gatineau Steer Shooting: Let’s Stop the Bull. The YouTube video of the steers being gunned down has hit hundreds of thousands of views, and people around the world are expressing their revulsion with police actions. I suggest that we should consider the fate that awaited the animals had they made it to the slaughterhouse instead of escaping. The public reaction to their shooting says to me that we are innately sensitive to animal suffering, so we must now turn our minds to the conditions farmed animals experience at all stages of their lives – and deaths.

Sorry for being a bad blogger. I promise to start updating each Monday with my Hill Times Spin Doctors piece!

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This week’s Spin Doctors piece – my advice to new MPs

The question of the week for my Hill Times Spin Doctors piece is a good one:

“What one piece of advice would you give new MPs?”

Here are my thoughts

Over a third of our 308 MPs are newly-elected, and these 108 rookies exceed the critical mass needed to change the culture of Parliament. My one piece of advice? Reject the blind partisanship and incivility that infect Parliament.

The political climate in Ottawa has become poisonous, but it doesn’t have to be like this. And it shouldn’t be this way, because the casualties of bad behaviour are values Canadians hold dear – democracy and collaboration.

That nearly 40% of Canadians don’t bother to vote is a clear sign that democracy is in trouble. By refusing to engage in mudslinging and incivility, new MPs can let Canadians know that Parliament is turning a new leaf and is ready to do better than in the past.

Not only would a new, cooperative approach help stem the tide of political disengagement, but it’s also the best way to actually get things done. MPs can accomplish far more by listening to each other respectfully and working together. Insults and party talking points certainly didn’t help MPs tackle the issues Canadians care about in the last Parliament, and it’s high time for MPs to give cooperation a chance.

I hope new MPs are mindful of the substantial influence they have in the House of Commons, and I hope they use it to set a respectful and collaborative tone of debate for the next four years.

I won’t be surprised if most of them ignore this advice, but I’ll be happy if they don’t.

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