The Capital Chronicles

with Mia Rabson

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  • Haircuts and cupcakes

    06/11/2013 11:22 AM

    House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer is mulling over a point of privilege calling on him to let the House of Commons decide whether Manitoba MPs Shelly Glover and James Bezan should be allowed to sit and vote in the House until their dispute with Elections Canada over their 2011 election expenses is settled.

    Both MPs are going to court to challenge Elections Canada's interpretation of how certain advertisements they bought as MPs had to be claimed during the 2011 writ period. Glover's case is set to be heard next week (June 21) and Bezan's in September.

    The point is almost becoming moot since the House of Commons is sitting for a maximum of nine more days before rising for summer recess.

    But it seems the two Manitobans are not the only MPs still under the microscope for their 2011 campaign expenses. Mississauga, Ont. Tory MP Eve Adams is defending herself today after it was revealed she claimed nearly $3,000 in personal expenses such as hair styling, a traffic ticket, manicures and expensive post-campaign victory dinners. Some claims seemed quite petty, like a less than $3 bill for a cupcake several weeks after the campaign was over.

    Elections Canada allows candidates to claim $200 in personal expenses that they wouldn't otherwise have incurred if there wasn't an election. After the 2008 election there were numerous stories about MPs who had tried to claim hair cuts, new clothes and parking tickets. Most would have had 60 per cent of those costs reimbursed by the taxpayer, but Elections Canada was pretty careful about denying most of the claims.

    Candidates have to submit all their receipts along with their expenses. When I browsed through those documents for the 2008 election for Manitoba MPs several years ago I found a litany of interesting claims for everything from a $2 pack of gum claimed by Vic Toews' campaign to nearly $600 in clothes claimed by Judy Wasylycia-Leis. (Elections Canada only allowed $200 of that for her).
    All this is interesting mainly because if Justin Trudeau's motion passes to make what MPs claim once they're in office far more transparent, it could uncover even more of these, let's say, interesting, expense claims.

    If MPs are willing to try and get away with trying to get reimbursed for cupcakes and champagne during an election when they mostly know they have to submit receipts which can be easily viewed by the media, one can only surmise what they try to claim as MPs when the details of those expenses are kept tightly under wraps.

    That's not to say that every pack of gum or champagne dinner should be ineligible. There are probably times when they are appropriate.

    But few in the private sector would have sympathy for claims for manicures and hair styling, and an MP who makes six figures trying to get taxpayers to foot 60 per cent of the bill for a $2.63 cupcake is never going to go over well.


  • An MP scorned, an independent made

    06/6/2013 12:10 PM

    Parliament Hill is all a-Twitter today as news sinks in MP Brent Rathgeber has jumped the good ship Conservative for independent waters.

    Rathgeber said his discomfort with the Conservative caucus was more than a year in the making, but the direction of party brass to water down Rathgeber's private members' bill on accountability and transparency was the end of the road.

    He quit the Tory caucus late Wednesday night.

    The first response of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office was to say Rathgeber should resign and run in a byelection.

    "The people of Edmonton-St. Albert elected a Conservative Member of Parliament. Mr. Rathgeber should resign and run in a byelection," tweeted Andrew MacDougall, director of communications for Harper.

    Rathgeber practically scoffed at the suggestion, calling it "a little bit rich" considering Harper's history.

    He was referring to the fact two weeks after Harper was elected prime minister in 2006, he wooed Liberal David Emerson over to the Conservatives with the promise of a cabinet seat.

    The ink was barely dry on the votes electing Emerson as a Liberal before he was shedding his red Grit jacket in favour of a blue Tory cabinet coat.

    As well, last year most of the Conservative caucus voted against an NDP private members' bill which would have required any MP who was elected to represent a particular party, to resign and run in a byelection before he or she could represent another party. The bill, however, would have allowed an MP to leave their caucus and sit as an independent, as Rathgeber has done.

    The NDP voted for the bill, while most of the Conservatives and Liberals voted against it. Three Conservatives -- including Manitoba's James Bezan -- voted in favour of it.

    The NDP have tried repeatedly to get such a bill passed for a decade. In 1999, Reform MP Mike Scott introduced a similar bill but it went nowhere.

    The Manitoba NDP enacted such a law in 2006, with then Premier Gary Doer saying it was in response to reaction over Emerson's floor-crossing and that of Belinda Stronach. In 2005, Stronach was wooed to the Liberals from the Conservartives with a cabinet offer, which helped save the Liberals from going down to defeat over their budget.

    Since the last election, two MPs have left the party they were elected with to sit with another party. Quebec MP Lise St-Denis left the NDP in January 2012 to become a Liberal, and Quebec MP Claude Patry, left the NDP this past February to sit with the Bloc Quebecois.

    Rathgeber is the third to leave and sit as an independent. Thunder Bay MP Bryce Hyer left the NDP in April 2012 because he refused to vote with the NDP to keep the long-gun registry. He has since said he prefers the freedom being an independent gives him.

    In 2011, Edmonton MP Peter Goldring was arrested and charged with refusing a breathalyzer and was forced to leave the Conservative caucus pending the outcome of his case. He is listed by Parliament as an Independent Conservative.


  • Rare win for voter turnout, big fail for political spin

    05/14/2013 10:25 AM

    The spin doctors are working hard today to disect the byelection results in Labrador yesterday.

    Former Conservative cabinet minister Peter Penashue (pronounced Pen-A-shoo-way) went down to defeat at the hands of Liberal Yvonne Jones. Penashue stepped down in April, hours before Elections Canada released documents which showed his campaign in 2011 had accepted 28 illegal donations totalling $46,560, including from corporations and $18,710 of free flights from Provincial Airlines.

    Trying to understand the results of this byelection in terms of what it may mean for the greater political situation in Canada today is kind of like trying to figure out whether the Titanic went down by looking how a life raft fares with an iceberg.

    Labrador is a sparsely populated, community-oriented riding. So the Liberals trying to suggest this is a sign Canadians like Justin Trudeau and his message is at best premature. This is probably one of the most local ridings you can get in Canada. This was a byelection in which a well-known and popular politician prevailed for a party that has only ever lost this riding twice before. A byelection where the incumbent was in over his head when it came to figuring out how to finance an election (which makes the comment about Trudeau's inexperience seem rather ironic -- but that's a whole other story.)

    The Conservatives who are trying to spin that this is no big deal because well, majority governments don't often win byelections and well, the Liberals didn't win it by as much as one poll said they would a few weeks ago so really Trudeau messed things up and this is a sign he is in over his head, is just nonsense and kind of smacks of sore losership.

    Nobody should look at Labrador's results as a harbinger of what might happen in the next federal election in 2015.

    But one thing that happened that is worth a smile, whether it's a trend or not, is that voter turnout actually went up over the 2011 general election. Byelections almost always have extremely dismal turnout.

    In 2011, 53 per cent of Labrador voters went to the polls. Yesterday (and in advanced polls) 59.6 per cent of them did.

    In 14 other byelections since 2006, turnout didn't just go down, it plummeted -- between 18 and 35 percentage points.

    It's important to note turnout in the 2005 byelection in Labrador was also much higher than in almost any other byelection, at 53 per cent. It went up slightly in the 2006 general election to 58 per cent, dropped to 53 per cent in the 2011 general election and then up to 59.6 per cent yesterday.

    So obviously Labrador again tends to be a horse of a different colour than other ridings, but still: any time voter turnout goes up, it's a good day for democracy.


  • Mouthy and not-so-mouthy: how Manitoba MPs stack up

    05/13/2013 10:41 AM

     If there is a race in Ottawa to be the MP with the most to say, Manitoba's Kevin Lamoureux won the silver medal.

    According to Samara Canada, a non-profit think tank aiming to improve political participation, an analysis of words spoken in the House of Commons in 2012 showed Lamoureux delivered 222,451 words last year, just a few thousand shy of the 226,027 words spoken by the NDP's Peter Julian.

    Green Party Leader Elizabeth May was in the bronze position with 174,783 words. The Conservatives' Kellie Leitch was in the usually unenviable fourth position with 120,835 words.

    Samara's study looked at 54 days of debate in the House of Commons and then extrapolated to figure out how many words the MPs likely spoke over the full 129 days where the House of Commons sat last year.

    As a point of comparison Samara also then compared the word counts of MPs to the length of books. Julian's word count is the equivalent of reading Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance. Lamoureux could have read Conrad Black's A Matter of Principle.

    On the other end of the spectrum some MPs speak so infrequently they barely read a children's book. Conservative MP Rob Anders delivered 963 words, or the equivalent of the book M is for Maple, A Canadian Alphabet. Technically Anders is second-last, but the last entry on the list isn't entirely fair. Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield spokejust 922 words, which is the equivalent to reading The Cremation of Sam McGhee. However Ashfield was absent for most of the fall after suffering a heart attack.*

    Peter Penashue, the former minister of intergovernmental affairs who is running for his political life in a byelection in Labrador today, might have some trouble convincing people he truly spoke for Labradorians in the House of Commons since he barely spoke at all. Penashue had the third lowest word count of any MP, at 977 words, the equivalent of Robert Munsch's book Jonathan Cleaned Up - Then He Heard a Sound.

    The list includes only MPs who were there for the full year, so anyone who quit or was elected half-way through the year isn't on the list.

     Elizabeth May is the most talkative party leader, followed by the NDP's Thomas Mulcair, who finished 47th with 44,498 words.

    Prime Minister Stephen Harper comes in at 109th, with 26,758 words.

    Justin Trudeau is way down the list at 262, with 5,408 words. 

    Here are the other Manitoba MPs, and their placement out of the 302 MPs included.

    30. Pat Martin, 52,154

    63. Shelly Glover, 39,063

    68. Candice Bergen, 36,963

    133. Joy Smith, 23,081

    135. Niki Ashton, 22,850

    154. Vic Toews, 19,156

    174. Lawrence Toet, 16,249

    185. Robert Sopuck, 14,888

    214. James Bezan, 10,834

    218. Merv Tweed, 10,217

    228. Joyce Bateman, 9,651

    250. Steven Fletcher, 6,837

    268. Rod Bruinooge, 4,847

    It's important to note these counts include only debates in the House itself, not participation in committees.


    UPDATE: Samara has updated its report to note a mistake on the count with regards to Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield. A mistake in their calculations had Ashfield speaking just 922 words, the least of any MP in the House of Commons. Samara now says Ashfield spoke 9,529 words, which puts him at 231 of the 302 MPs on the list. This number should still be taken with a grain of salt, since as mentioned above, Ashfield was absent for at least two months in 2012 after he suffered a heart attack.


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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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