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  • Testy times in the Senate

    04/24/2015 3:17 PM

    Manitoba Senator Don Plett was asked by a Conservative committee chair to "reconsider" an outburst at a Senate committee hearing this week in a discussion with a witness about a piece of union disclosure legislation. 

    The Senate committee on legal and constitutional affairs met twice this week in consideration of Bill C-377. It is a private members' bill, that has the backing of the Prime Minister's Office, and require unions to publicly disclose financial information on spending, salaries and political activities.

    Critics of the bill call it an all-out ideological assault on unions which would strip them of their ability to bargain by laying bare their finances including what they could pay workers in the event of a strike. 

    The government, and the bill's backer, Conservative MP Russ Hiebert, say it's time there was sunshine shed on the finances of unions, which get taxpayer help because union dues are tax deductible and unions don't pay taxes on things such as investment income. 

    The bill was amended in the Senate in 2013 under the influence of Conservative Sen. Hugh Segal, who called the bill unconstitutional and badly written.

    The changes, which significantly increased the dollar limits for financial disclosure, were made with the support of 16 Conservative Senators and the Independent Liberal Senators (read those appointed as Liberals but who now sit separately from the Liberal MP caucus under an edict by leader Justin Trudeau). 

    But the amended bill never made it back into the House of Commons for debate because Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament.  So, in a quirk of our political system, the bill is now back in a Senate committee, in its original form. And this time Segal isn't there, as he resigned last year and now works at the University of Toronto.

    He told the Canadian Press last fall the bill wasn't suddenly any more constitutional simply because he had left the upper chamber. 

    Nevertheless the bill began its second journey through the Senate committee Wednesday, and one of the witnesses was Toronto labour lawyer Paul Cavalluzzo, who said, among other things, that the Senate should ask the Supreme Court to look at the bill and determine if it is constitutional.

    Plett and Cavaluzzo, who were sitting one seat apart around the committee table, bared their fangs at each other over several issues including whether trade unions are voluntary, whether it is rich for Senators to be accusing anyone of lacking transparency, and comparisons between trade unions and charities.

    At the end of their back and forth, Plett ripped off a sheet of paper from his pad in clear disgust and told Cavaluzzo off.

    "Thank you very much for coming," he said. "I consider your time and my time wasted with you here today not answering my question."

    Cavaluzzo was insulted.

    "What an insult," he cried. "What an unbelievable insult from supposedly a public servant."

    Committee chair and Conservative Sen. Bob Runciman cut them off and then suggested Plett should recant.

    "Sen. Plett perhaps I think you might want to reconsider that comment. I don't think it adds anything to the debate at all."

    The meeting then continued.

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  • Freudian Joe?

    02/18/2015 3:39 PM

    Finance Minister Joe Oliver has been clear for several weeks the federal budget will be delayed until at least April hoping oil prices might stabilize so the government has a bit more certainty about its revenue estimates.

    The federal budget is normally in February or March.

    Some political tongue waggers however believe the government isn't really delaying the budget because it needs a more certain price of oil. It's because it is giving itself the opportunity to use the budget as a precursor to an early election call.

    The federal election is supposed to be on Oct. 19, but nothing prevents Prime Minister Stephen Harper from going to the Governor General earlier than that.

    Introducing a budget in late April or early May, could give Harper the chance to say he needs to go to the people for a mandate to address some of the issues contained in it, such as a Canadian economy with a $40 a barrell price of oil, more investments in fighting ISIS in Iraq, or more investments in fighting terror at home.

    Did Finance Minister Joe Oliver's slip of the tongue during a scrum today show this really is part of the consideration of budget timing? Here's the transcript. You decide.

    Reporter: When can we expect the budget sir?

    Oliver: Not before April. 

    Reporter: Not before April because we've been getting some mixed signals. 

    Another reporter: Early April? Mid-April? 

    Oliver: There's been no mixed signals. 

    Reporter: Ok.

    Oliver: I've always said not, you know since I made my statement I've said not before April.

    Reporter: What's the hold up? Like what are we February 18th or something?

    Oliver: There isn't, there isn't, yeah there isn't a hold-up. It's, you know, as I said before, we wanted to, we want to get as much information as we can. We want to see the commodity markets stabilize.

    Reporter: Do you believe oil prices have stabilized? have oil prices stabilized? 

    Oliver: Well they're somewhat less volatile than they were before, but the timing of the election hasn't changed. Sorry. Of the budget, as well as the election. 

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  • Terror in the capital

    10/22/2014 1:06 PM

    It was just another normal day in Ottawa.

    But then quite literally, hell broke loose.

    I realized something crazy was happening as I arrived on Parliament Hill shortly before 10 a.m. and more RCMP cruisers than I knew were on the Hill began racing towards Centreblock. On Wellington Street, the road that runs in front of Parliament Hill, an RCMP cruiser screeched to a halt so quickly it left the smell of burnt rubber in the air, and the cop jumped out and began racing towards Centreblock with his hand on his gun.

    I've seen police with their lights on not infrequently on the Hill, and usually it is an abundance of caution. A backpack left behind by accident by a tourist, being checked for explosives. A disturbance among protesters.

    But something about this felt different. The sheer number of cars and the urgency in their actions seemed higher than I've seen in the past. 

    It was several minutes before I got word that there had been shots fired on Parliament Hill. Shortly after that I heard a soldier had been shot at the National War Memorial, which is a little bit to the southeast of Parliament Hill. The memorial has two ceremonial guards standing on either side. Today the guards were reservists from Hamilton.

    The suspect then ran towards Parliament Hill where witnesses say he carjacked a car, drove it up to Centreblock and disappeared.

    Globe and Mail reporter Josh Wingrove took chilling video inside Parliament Hill, where shots were fired in the Hall of Honour, which is right in the middle of Centreblock. This is the same hallway were ceremonial events take place, where tourists mill about, and where the two biggest conference rooms on the Hill are located. It is usually quite busy.

    Reports say Sergeant at Arms Kevin Vickers, shot the suspect. Police later confirmed one suspect was dead inside Centreblock.

    On the streets around the Hill, police kept moving the public and media back, first one block, then two, then three. At one point, police shouted "run now" at reporters, as it was feared an armed suspect was in a building nearby.

    Downtown office buildings, including my own, were placed in lockdown. From my office I could see police snipers on the roof across the street, carefully searching. Management in my building told people to stay in our offices, and outside people said they could see police streaming into the building.

    There are police everywhere, armoured vehicles and swat teams and soldiers are running up and down the streets. Stores and restaurants on Sparks Street, the pedestrian mall one block south of Parliament Hill, were all closed down. 

    In Centreblock, staffers I spoke to were terrified. They were hiding under their desks, barricading the doors with tables. Parliament Hill security sent several messages telling people to do just that and to not open their doors under any circumstances.

    Police and Parliament Hill security are going door by door in Centreblock to identify everyone inside. If they can't get into an office, they are breaking down the doors. 

    Wednesday mornings on Parliament Hill are reserved for caucus meetings. The Conservatives, NDP and Liberals all meet in different rooms and normally reporters line up outside those rooms to try and chat with MPs as they leave. Two of these caucus meetings take place in rooms just off the Hall of Honour, where the shooting took place.

    The shooting began just as the meetings were supposed to begin.

    Manitoba MP Kevin Lamoureux says the Liberals, who meet in a smaller room in the basement of Centreblock, were evacuated through a back door from the basement, and then ushered through the construction site of West Block, and towards the Confederation Building, which is on the west side of Parliament Hill.

    Many other MPs remain in lock down inside Centreblock. Cell signals appear to be blocked in much of downtown Ottawa, making phone calls and text messages difficult to get through.

    The RCMP just had a press conference where they couldn't say much, including whether or not there is another suspect or not. Since much of Ottawa remains in lockdown and police still say the public should stay away from downtown, it feels as if they may not know the actual answer to this yet themselves.

    There are a lot of questions out there that will be answered eventually but at the moment, there is more unknown than known. Rumours were flying, including that there was another shooting at the Rideau Centre, a shopping mall just east of Parliament Hill. Others reported that a suspect had fled downtown on a motorcycle and was seen as far west as Kanata, on the Queensway freeway that runs through Ottawa. Police later said the Rideau Centre reports were false.

    The police say the situation is "fluid and ongoing." That's about the only thing we know for sure right now. 

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  • Franklin my dear, we do give a damn

    09/10/2014 7:36 AM

    Prime Minister Stephen Harper was like a five-year-old on Christmas morning Tuesday as he got to do what he, and many prime ministers before him, have wanted to do.

    He got to announce that one of the longest historical mysteries in Canada had been solved

    "This is a day of very good news," he began, seated at a table in a boardroom in Ottawa. "And that is that we have found one of the two Franklin ships." 

    There was applause around the table, and as Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq sat beaming beside him, Harper did something he doesn't often do, at least in public.

    He beamed with happiness. 

    For a man often described as emotionless and robotic, it was one of the biggest displays of happiness I've seen on him outside of the nights of his electoral victories in 2006, 2008 and 2011. Even some people as politically opposed to Harper as one can get made note of how nice it was to see that.

    Headlines around the world triumphed the achievement, the find of the two ships from the Sir John Franklin expedition in the 1840s which ended when the two ships were trapped in ice in the northwest passage. Franklin and his 128 crew members all perished. Neither they, nor their ships, have ever been found, although people have been looking for nearly two centuries.

    It was, until Tuesday, Canada's oldest cold case, a story which fascinated school kids in history class and with which, for some reason, our current prime minister has been obsessed. Just a few weeks ago he was on a ship in the Arctic looking for the Franklin, something he has done many times before on his annual August tours of the Arctic.

    There are the skeptics of course, who criticize the search for the lost Franklin ships as a money waster, a show of symbolism for which Parks Canada is paying dearly amid cutbacks to national parks and conservation programs.

    Surely Harper's political foes were rolling their eyes as he claimed the technology which found the ship is helping Canada assert its sovereignty in the Arctic. 

    Yes the debate will rage as to whether this means anything at all in that endeavour.

    But for one moment Tuesday Canadians got to see something in their prime minister that no sweater-vest advertisement or carefully posed family Christmas photo has ever been able to produce.

    Pure, unadulterated glee.

    ARCTIC FRANKLIN SHIP

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About Mia Rabson

Mia Rabson is a born and bred Winnipegger whose interest in politics seemed clear when she dressed up as Prime Minister Brian Mulroney for Halloween in the 7th grade.

Her interest in writing was no surprise to her parents, who learned early in Mia’s life that no piece of blank paper — or wall, for that matter — was safe in her hands.

She holds an honours BA in English from Queen’s University, a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario, and has completed a political journalism fellowship in Washington, D.C. with the Washington Centre for Politics and Journalism.

Prior to working for the Winnipeg Free Press, Mia briefly worked for the Detroit News in the paper’s Washington bureau.

Mia joined the Free Press team in February 2001, and in April 2001 was appointed to the Manitoba legislature bureau. In December 2004, she was appointed bureau chief at the legislature. She became the newspaper’s parliamentary bureau chief/national reporter in Ottawa in January 2008.

In 2008 she was nominated for a Michener Award with a team of reporters from the Free Press for its coverage of the province’s child welfare system.

She counts reliving the invasion at Dieppe, France, with veterans of the failed Second World War expedition and overcoming her fear of heights to touch the Golden Boy statue atop the Legislative Building among her favourite experiences as a reporter.

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