Friday, June 28, 2013

My Stephen Harper Pride Poster

In honour of Pride Weekend...

Column: Wanna See My Trophy?

By Stephen Lautens

May 30, 2013

The first thing you have to know is Im not a golfer.
There was a time in my teens when I played a bit, but it never took hold of me.
I lack a number of things that are required to be a golfer. First, you have to care about the actual game of golf. On those rare occasions when I do golf, my golf game is the last thing on my mind. I spend most of my time chatting with fellow golfers, checking out the water hazards for wildlife or generally admiring the scenery.
I spend almost as much time looking for my ball in the weeds as I do keeping an eye out for the refreshment cart.
In short, I consider golf to be a pleasant outing that occasionally requires me to hit a ball.
Other more serious and speedier golfers are more than welcome to play through. For some reason I have noticed that these more dedicated golfers never seem to be enjoying themselves as much as me, which is strange since they are playing a much better game.
Golf is supposed to be a stress reliever, but some of these golfers look like they’re ready to pop an artery when a shot goes astray. My solution to an indifferent game of golf is to stock up beforehand with a plentiful supply of cheap golf balls.
I have a simple rule - when I run out of golf balls, the game is over.
I was once partnered at a charity golf tournament with an acquaintance who I knew took his golf seriously. He was a fairly tightly wound accounting executive, so I knew this was not going to be a leisurely stroll in the woods. He began by announcing that no round of gold should take more than three and a half hours and with that we ran the course.
I was leaving balls behind like Titanic survivors on ice floes. We only paused long enough for him to have the occasional mini tantrum when his ball didn’t behave as ordered. By the end of eighteen holes I was exhausted. I may have had a great cardio workout, but I can’t say it was enjoyable.
My golfing these days is restricted to charity tournaments I can’t get out of. That means I play at most twice a year, sometimes not at all.
I can’t justify spending the better part of a grand on my own set of clubs. The bag I inherited from my grandfather has an odd assortment of clubs he picked up cheap at various yard sales and were used for hitting more rocks than golf balls. Somehow they just don’t impress at some of these fancy country clubs.
So last week I borrowed a set of clubs from a woman I used to work with. I got through the first three rounds before I realized she had a left-handed putter. My game improved slightly when I switched to my right.
More importantly, in this recent tournament I was paired up with my friend Norm.
Norm announced he had his eye on winning a trophy. That would usually be trouble for both of us, since having me on his team would guarantee he’d finish well out of the money.
Fortunately for both of us, the trophy he had his eye on was “Most Honest Golfer” – typically given to the team whose score is so bad you know they didn’t cheat. Norm is my kind of golfer.
So next time you’re over, make sure to ask to see my golf trophy.

Column: Honestly


By Stephen Lautens

Calgary Sun
May 25, 2013

I dont know why so many adults have trouble with telling the truth.
Weve spent a couple of weeks with people who hold high office in this country struggling with the truth. Without naming names, weve seen a series of serious political scandals dragged out inch by painful inch.
Facts keep changing so fast that its hard to keep up with them, and theres clearly more to come. What were assured is the truth today will be further massaged, messaged and re-spun until its unrecognizable, and the spinners are counting on us being so confused by the blizzard of misinformation that we give up trying.
Im not quite sure when telling the truth became optional in public and private life.
The truth is often inconvenient. It can cause us great pain and cost us dearly, and its only natural that there are times when wed like to avoid its unpleasant consequences.
But were supposed to be adults, and one of those adult things is to tell and face the truth. I was going to say even politicians, but that really should be especially politicians.
And before you say Im hopelessly naive, let me assure you Ive been around politicians of every political persuasion all of my adult life. None of them are perfect, but not all of them choose to lie when the going gets rough.
The lie is supposed to get you out of trouble, but in reality it just compounds it. In the age of social media and ubiquitous cameras, someone is going to catch that lie and compare what you said with what you did. Were all on the record.
I think there are a lot of human failings that were pretty forgiving about, especially when we admit our own lapses while showing those other mostly forgotten and underrated emotions, a sense of shame and remorse.
I discovered in my own personal life that on those happily rare occasions when my behaviour was less than stellar, coming clean was the best policy. When I screwed up at work, after trying to fix the problem, my first stop was my boss office to explain what happened. Some were more understanding than others, but that isnt the point.
The real point is being able to live with yourself and for others to know that you are a person who can be trusted to tell the truth when the going gets tough. That is pretty much essential if your marriage is going to outlast your cell phone contract.
Like I said, sometimes our behaviour makes it hard to tell the truth. Were afraid of losing our jobs, loved ones or the idea that were perfect.
In fact, if something is hard to do, that probably means its the right thing to do. The path of the easy fix is usually turns out to be anything but.
For those things we do that are truly unforgiveable, I suppose you have little to lose by lying, but youre only putting off the inevitable. Often its the lie itself thats unforgiveable. Mistakes can be made, but betrayal is a choice.
Whether husband, wife, mayor, senator or Prime Minister, theres a price to be paid for losing someones trust, and the fastest way to do that is to lie your way out of a jamb.
By the way, lying includes not telling the whole truth as well.
And, if you dont think we can handle the truth, youre either underestimating the audience or really did something thats a deal breaker.
It also helps to say youre sorry once in a while.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Rule of Law - MPs Shelly Glover & James Bezan

Okay - I've tried to resist a boring legal lecture, but the 140 characters of Twitter make it impossible to get through to some people about the rules behind the Election Canada's suspension of MPs Shelly Glover and James Bezan.

The facts briefly are that Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand wrote to House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer notifying him that Manitoba Conservative MPs Shelly Glover and James Bezan failed to comply with the Elections Act. Their failure was to file corrected returns from the 2011 election. There have been ongoing discussions and a dispute about the amount and inclusion of various expenses in their campaigns that would put them over their spending limits. As a result, they have refused to file amended returns that show the expenses Elections Canada say should be included. 

They have therefore not filed a return that Elections Canada feels is not false or misleading.

So what's the penalty for this? Section 463(2) of the Canada Elections Act deals specifically with this:

463. (1) No candidate and no official agent of a candidate shall provide the Chief Electoral Officer with a document referred to in subsection 451(1) or 455(1) that
(a) the candidate or the official agent, as the case may be, knows or ought reasonably to know contains a material statement that is false or misleading; or

(b) does not substantially set out the information required by subsection 451(2) or required to be updated under subsection 455(1).

Membership in House of Commons suspended

(2) An elected candidate who fails to provide a document as required by section 451 or 455 or fails to make a correction as requested under subsection 457(2) or authorized by 458(1) shall not continue to sit or vote as a member until they are provided or made, as the case may be.

A little bit of legal education here. The act says "shall not continue to sit..." The shall is what we call mandatory language. There's no wiggle room or arguing it. If there was, the legislation would use words on the penalty like: "may", "including" or "can". But no - it says shall.

"Shall" means must, no ifs, ands or buts. That is statutory interpretation 101 at law school.

The problem is that House of Commons Speaker Scheer did not immediately acknowledge or table those letters from Elections Canada advising him that Conservative MPs Shelly Glover and James Bezan were in fact suspended by operation of section 463(2) of the Canada Elections Act. He has in fact refused to do anything, ignoring the clear requirement of the Canada Elections Act.

Various people have jumped on the "they are entitled to their day in court before being suspended" bandwagon, but that has no basis in law. They say it's unfair for Elections Canada to make such an important decision without putting it before a judge.

That position cannot be supported in law.

The MPs are free to apply to the courts to appeal their suspension (technically it is an application for administrative review to the Federal Court), but that does not invalidate or postpone the suspension. The suspension happens first and it is up to the MPs to convince a judge to try to set it aside.

Here's a simple example to understand how administrative law works.

Let's say you decide to build an extension on your house. You hire someone and almost have it built when a city inspector comes by and discovers you don't have a building permit. You say you don't need a permit, but the inspector (an unelected official empowered by a by-law) issues an order to cease all work on your addition.

You can go to court to lift the inspector's order, but in the meantime the order stands and you can't do any more work. In fact, you may have a tear down order from the city, not just a stop work order, and you would have to ask for a temporary stay of the tear down order while your case was getting to court. Otherwise you are legally obliged to tear down the work making your court hearing moot.

The Elections Canada Act works the same way. The Chief Electoral Officer has the power granted to him under the Act to declare an MP suspended from sitting until they file a satisfactory return. Once that determination is made, he notifies the Speaker that the MP is suspended from sitting under section 463(2).

The Chief Electoral Officer states in his letter to Scheer on May 27th that he "defers" to the Speaker for the enforcement of section 463(2) in the House, recognizing the complex relationship between the law and the "Supremacy of Parliament", and relies on him to enforce the law in the House.

Except Scheer has chosen not to act, meaning the Speaker of the House of Commons is also in violation of the Elections Act, both of which are meant to protect the integrity of the system. 

The Conservatives and surprisingly the NDP say let the courts decide. That's fine, but that's not what the law says about the suspensions. A court can lift the suspensions if the MPs can make out a case, but the suspensions stand until then.

The House of Commons can't just vote to ignore the law, either. That's called tyranny. They can change the law, but not refuse to apply it by a simple vote. The rule of law is our democratic safeguard.

It is very possible that the MPs would get an interim stay of the suspension order based on the traditional legal test of irreparable harm to their constituents and the working of government, but it is up to them to apply for it.

Wishing the law was different or saying it is somehow unfair does not change it, and refusing to apply it as it was clearly intended to be is a serious affront to the integrity of our political system that we should all be afraid of.

Read the letters from Elections Canada here and the suspension letter to Scheer here.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

If Only The King Knew

In the early days of the French revolution there was a saying among the common people: “If only the king knew.”

Although most of them would never see him, the common people of France loved their king, and instead placed the blame for their country’s problems at the feet of the local nobility and the king's advisors.

It was even said in the darkest days of Soviet Russia when the purges and pogroms were in full swing. "If only Papa Stalin knew," said the peasants and workers under the oppressive boot of local Commissars. Of course Stalin knew - the Commissars were carrying out his orders - but he managed to maintain the fiction that he was a good man who cared about the common people even as they died in their millions.

The theme of evil advisors to a good king kept in the dark as to real problems goes back to ancient times and fairy tales. It also goes forward to Harper and his current situation with overspending Senators, "rogue" Chiefs of Staff, personal $90,000 bailout cheques and Harper's mantra that "he did not know about it, and if he did, he would never have approved it."

It hardly requires pointing out how implausible is Harper's claim that he was in the dark and out of the loop. Harper is a famous micro-manager, concerned about the smallest details in his administration. He knows that his carefully crafted image as a moderate and competent statesman is brittle and is scrupulous about not allowing anyone to see behind the fragile mask.  

In the time of Louis XVI it was possible to insulate the king from unpleasant truths. Louis XVI didn't start his day with cable news, clipping services and a roundup of media reports. He didn't pay people to monitor social media. Frankly, even if they existed, he wouldn't have cared, since the common people had no vote and only the nobles mattered. There were no lawsuits to be brought against the government or scandals that could flash from one end of the kingdom to the other in a matter of minutes.

Harper doesn't live in that long gone world.

The Harper Government spends more on advertising, polling, communications and media monitoring than any previous Canadian government. It even spends money on monitoring its own backbench MPs to make sure they are staying on message. Harper, and his government, knows that he depends on popular opinion and managing his message, even if that message has to go through several iterations before they find one that works.

Harper is careful to allow all good news and staged photo ops to be about him while pushing ministers or disposable junior MPs into the spotlight to take blame or deliver bad news. The parroting of idiotic talking points - even those already proved to be patently false - are left to others who don't mind looking like fools or liars in the Commons in exchange for the many perqs and fruits of loyalty.

The king must be forever protected from any stain or tarnish.

The combination of the tight control of the people and message by Harper makes it inconceivable that he did not know what was happening in his own Prime Minister's Office when his own Chief of Staff Nigel Wright cut a cheque to Senator Mike Duffy for $90,000 to secretly fund his Senate expense problem.

Harper's own account is:

"That's what [PMO Chief of Staff Nigel Wright] decided to do and he decided not to tell me until the 15th of May, after speculation about the source of funds appeared in the media. As soon as I learned that on the 15th of May, I made that information public. Had I known before the 15th of May, I would have made the information known earlier, and had I known about it before it happened, I would have said not to do it."

The king did not know. The king - with what some call a paranoid and obsessive control over information and image - did not know that his trusted advisor was about to make the major political firestorm of Duffy's Senate expense scandal ten times worse by bailing him out.

It was all the evil advisor's fault.

We are to ignore Harper's micro-management. 

We are to ignore that Harper's advisor was chosen because he knew what was expected in the highest non-elected position in government where he worked daily and intimately with Harper on every sensitive issue of the day for two years. 

We are to ignore that the Duffy scandal was hurting the Conservative brand and threatened to spill over into Harper's own credibility.

We are to ignore that the Senate expense scandal must have been near the top of Harper's a daily briefing by his Chief of Staff at the PMO.

“If only the king knew."

That could have been true in 1789 with that particular king.

Not in 2013 with this one.