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Ask Kady Anything

Secret committees and by-election monkey business

Ask Kady Anything: Secret committees and by-election monkey business

Greetings, all! You asked, I answered, so let’s get to it:

Steve Shaw asks:

So, full disclosure: As soon as I saw this question, I moved it to the top of this week’s to-find-out-about list, because I, too, had been idly wondering about the present status of this particular campaign pledge.

A bit of backstory, for those not (yet) fascinated by the inner workings of the parliamentary precinct: The Board of Internal Economy is the all-party panel of MPs that governs the operations of the House and surrounding territory (but not, it’s worth noting, the Senate, which has its own system).

Created under the Parliament of Canada Act, the BoIE — or Board, as Hill shorthand puts it — is chaired by the Commons Speaker — currently, Geoff Regan — and includes the House leaders of all three recognized parties (e.d. A “recognized party” is one with at least 12 MPs. Sorry, Greens.) as well as one additional member from the government and the Official Opposition, respectively.

Every two weeks or so when the House is sitting, those twelve members gather behind closed doors to discuss the often overlooked logistics involved in running what amounts to a city state.

In practice, that covers everything from how MPs should be permitted to spend their office budgets to rejigging the service hours for the parliamentary shuttle service, as well as more politically sensitive matters: Deciding whether the House pick up the legal tab for an MP facing a lawsuit related to his or her official role, for instance, or setting rates for post-election payouts for staffers unexpectedly left unemployed after the loss of their erstwhile employer, or looking into allegations of harassment against (or by) members, staff, or House employees.

It was also the Board that helped nix the proposal to turn the parliamentary grounds into a temporary hockey rink to host a special outdoor match as part of Canada 150 celebrations.

What’s crucial, though, is that all of the above deliberations took place behind closed doors — as, indeed, does virtually every Board meeting: only recently have they even deigned to post hyper-minimalist minutes from the proceeding weeks after the fact.

In any case, back in 2014, a scrappy young third-party leader named Justin Trudeau put forward a private member’s bill that would, if adopted, have changed the law to make Board meetings open to the public by default. The bill did have provisions to go in camera when dealing with material best handled confidentially, such as personnel or legal matters.

Alas for the eventual prime minister, despite garnering the support of his own party, the New Democrats and all other opposition members, the then-governing Conservatives were unpersuaded, and it went down to defeat on April 1, 2015.

Trudeau then made sure to add it to the 2015 Liberal election platform, and it even made it into his government’s inaugural budget. According to current officials, they’re still committed to bringing in legislation to, to paraphrase the song, open up the doors and let the sunshine in.

When that sure-to-be-festive day will arrive, however, remains a mystery. I couldn’t even pry a “soon” out of my sources, who were also reluctant to shed any light — no pun intended — on just what the holdup might be.

All of which is to say, in answer to Steve’s question as to the status: Not yet dead, but otherwise unknown. Stay tuned, I guess?

From an all but forgotten promise to a ripped-from-the-headlines hypothetical:

Neil Burnside asks:

For those who may not have seen it, here’s the National Post story that inspired this query:

NDP gave maps, advice and other help to a third-party anti-Liberal group in Ottawa by-election

As voters get set to head to the polls Monday in five federal byelections, new evidence has emerged that the New Democrats have provided strategic help and research to a third party that is endorsing NDP and Green candidates.

The National Post has obtained emails and memos written by the president and other members of Fair Vote Canada, a third-party group that has been a strong advocate of electoral reform. The documents acknowledge that the NDP campaign in the riding of Ottawa-Vanier provided maps and research to Fair Vote to help that organization decide where to deploy its resources to assist the electoral efforts of the candidates it has endorsed. […]

First, the boring but necessary disclaimer: In no way should the following be read to imply that Fair Vote Canada and/or the New Democrats did indeed break — or, alternately, faithfully abide by — federal election laws. That is obviously for Elections Canada to decide, should they choose to look into it, which as far as I know, they haven’t. (But I could be wrong.)

With that out of the way, though, here’s the rundown of how such collaboration could be illegal, depending on the specific nature of the assistance and other factors: Basically, it comes down to spending limits, which are set by Elections Canada and apply to parties, candidates and registered third parties like Fair Vote Canada.

If — and again, big if — the “strategic help and research” that the New Democratic Party provided to Fair Vote Canada could both be assigned a monetary value and be shown to have directly helped the NDP candidate in that riding by saving the party from having to pay for such activities itself — and do so while staying under the spending limit — that could, in theory, be viewed as an attempt to get around the law by shuffling the cost away from the campaign and onto the third party, which has a separate cap.

Alternately, if that assistance had an actual market value but was provided to Fair Vote Canada at no charge, it could put the group in danger of exceeding its own much lower spending limit of $3,000 per riding.

The rationale behind that rule is pretty obvious: If you’re going to restrict how much a party or candidate can spend on their campaign, you need to make sure they can’t just transfer the cost to a separate unregulated entity, whether it’s a registered third party advertiser or an individual. Otherwise, you might as well not even bother with an expense cap, as the parties and candidates would likely just come up with ways of working around it. (All parties and candidates, that is, not just the New Democrats, to be clear.)

Finally, a few quickies to close out this week’s selection.

Tracy asks:

Short answer: No

Long answer: Also no, but gets into the constitutional issues.

First off, any such change would, in fact, require amending the Constitution Act.

As the Supreme Court made crystal clear in 2015, that would mean not only a bill to establish term limits through Parliament, but getting the necessary provincial approval as well, which, in this case, would be done under Section 38, and require a greenlight from two thirds of the provinces representing at least fifty per cent of the population. Which is, well, almost certainly impossible, given the diversity of views on not just the makeup of the Upper House, but whether it should continue to exist at all, a question that the court concluded must be decided unanimously.

None of that would prevent individual senators from setting their own voluntary term limits, of course — or, indeed, stop a prime minister from requesting that they do so upon accepting appointment, which Stephen Harper attempted when he first started to fill those seats. Any such agreement would be totally non-binding, of course.

(There are, for the record, some very good arguments against term limits, but I’ll save those for another time.)

Kashie42 admits:

While not presented as a question, that’s an entirely fair confusion to have, really. As I’m sure Kashie and all the rest of you know, as far as the actual election laws of the land go, pretty much anyone can run for the leadership of a political party — technically, they don’t even have to be eligible to be elected as an MP, or even eligible to vote. It’s up to the party itself to decide what, if any, requirements are required to submit one’s name for consideration — either in its constitution, or when drafting the rules for a specific race.

As far as I know, though, none of them currently mandate previous political experience. That said, it is generally — although not universally — viewed as a positive to have at least some familiarity with the political process, as it tends to make it much easier to pull together a team and plot out a successful campaign.

At the same time, there are some benefits to being a relative newcomer: there’s a certain cachet to being an “outsider,” particularly if you make that a central point of your pitch, and depending on how high your profile was before entering the ring, your opponents may not be able to use your past comments or actions against you.

Ultimately, though, it’s going to be up to party members to collectively decide whether being party leader is, as they say, an entry-level job.

That’s all for this week! Remember, you can hit @kady with questions via Twitter using the #AskKady hashtag!

Cover: Vice illustration

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