The Commons: The ghosts of statesmen past

Joe Clark gets his portrait, Maxime Bernier is merely hanged

The Scene. Not that anyone expected to see him within a kilometer of this place, but, for the record, Maxime Bernier was not in his newly-assigned seat when Question Period was declared open at 2:15pm this afternoon.

Which is surely his loss. For he missed quite the show.

Rising with the first query, Stephane Dion’s voice cracked, the leader of the opposition apparently so excited at the prospect of an obvious advantage to claim over his government tormentors.

“Mr. Speaker, five hours before the foreign affairs minister resigned, the Prime Minister said, ‘I don’t take this subject seriously.’ It is true. He did not take this subject seriously and this speaks volumes about the appalling lack of judgment of the Prime Minister. Why was the Prime Minister more interested in protecting his protege than protecting the interests of Canadians?”

The Prime Minister, safely away in France, likely would have objected most to the suggestion that Bernier was any kind of protege. A project, maybe. But a protege? Surely we know better by now than to ever believe this PM would entertain the idea of grooming a rival, let alone one of Mr. Bernier’s capabilities.

In lieu of Mr. Harper, the government sent Peter Van Loan up. Indeed, the House Leader rose on this day no fewer than 29 times—all but two of those to take questions about the duly disgraced former minister of foreign affairs. Even when the opposition begged to be belittled by someone else—the Justice Minister or perhaps the Public Safety Minister—Van Loan persisted. And if he didn’t suffer from arthritis in his knees when the day began, he is most surely stricken now.

His mouth, for that matter, was showing its own signs of wear. “Mr. Speaker, the matter the Prime Minister was referring to was of course the issue of the private life of the member for Beauce, and the Prime Minister continues to be of the view, as does everyone in this government, that the member’s private life is his own private life,” he offered to Dion. “With regard to the breach of the rules, however, as soon as the Prime Minister was aware that a cabinet rule had been breached, the Prime Minister took action.”

Yes, a “breach of the rules.” A technicality for all intents and purposes. That Mr. Bernier lost track of some classified material is the problem. That he left said documents in the possession of a woman with reputed ties to organized crime? Entirely beside the point. Apparently.

If the government side was particularly emboldened by this logic, it was difficult to tell. Many of them, so vocal in their righteous indignation over the last few weeks, sat with their heads down this day, suddenly very interested in their paper work. From approximately where he’d yelled “Balderdash!” the other day, Jim Abbott sat and pecked away at his laptop.

Van Loan eventually took to pouting. “Well if they want to hear the answer, they can listen to it,” he sulked as the Liberals heckled him. “If they do not want to hear the answer, they can keep talking.”

With that he sat down to sympathetic cries of “ahhhh!” from the other side.

Surely, the Liberals were in a good mood this day, smiling and satisfied at the sight of their demoralized opponents. “Don’t let the bed bugs bite!” chirped Todd Russell with one of the afternoon’s finer heckles.

Indeed, when Jack Layton lowered himself to pursue the same line of questioning, the official opposition taunted him too, delighted at his late arrival to the bandwagon.

Normally at pains to seem measured and reasonable, it was Bob Rae, apparently not one to be trifled with, who danced most gloriously on the government’s anguish this day. “Mr. Speaker, it is clear that the only stage the Conservative government is standing on right now is the vaudeville stage,” he sneered. “This is amateur hour on the Rideau.”

“Ohh!” cried various members of the Conservative side, throwing their hands in the air and pleading with the Speaker for mercy.

“Why do you sit on your duffs and do nothing for five weeks?!” he yelped with his second opportunity.

Again the government ministers groaned—thoroughly besmirched at such mention of their posteriors.

It was the House leader at this point, wounded and winded as he was, who offered the day’s most inspired jest. “Mr. Speaker, either they want to hear answers or they want to make funny speeches. It is question period. I am here to answer.”

Oh that Mr. Van Loan. Such a kidder.

All silliness aside, it is perhaps instructive here to remember what a serious position the foreign affairs ministry once was.

Previous to 1993, the position was officially secretary of state for external affairs and under the likes of Borden, Mackenzie King and Diefenbaker, it was assumed by the prime minister of the day. Otherwise it was the place of future PMs (St. Laurent, Pearson, Chrétien) and practiced Parliamentarians (Paul Martin Sr., Mitchell Sharp, Allan MacEachen). Sidney Earle Smith had been president of the universities of Manitoba and Toronto before taking the position. Mark McGuigan was dean of law at the University of Windsor.

Officially a minister’s portfolio for the last decade and a half, the generally respected likes of Lloyd Axworthy, John Manley and Bill Graham have claimed the title.

And, as luck would have it, almost an hour after QP was called to an end, the Right Honourable Joe Clark strode happily into a committee room down the hall to receive a celebration of his time in politics. One of our briefest prime ministers, he subsequently spent nearly seven years in external affairs. And though the official purpose of the reception was to unveil his prime ministerial portrait, pointed mention was made of his efforts in regard to apartheid and famine.

There were nice speeches and distinguished guests and, of course, the painting itself—a handsome likeness of a young Joe lecturing the House, a giant right hand chopping the air.

“Hanging is so final,” he joked. “I didn’t want to foreclose my options.”

For sure, Mr. Bernier this week won himself his own kind of hanging. But, suffice it to say, he will now never be among that, to use Senator Majory LeBreton’s words, “privileged group on men and one woman” who can claim the high honour of an official portrait.

The Stats. Maxime Bernier, 28 questions. Asbestos, NAFTA and natives, two questions each. The Arctic, ethics, fisheries, lobbying, education, health care, tourism and the environment, one question each.

Peter Van Loan, 29 answers. Tony Clement, three answers. Rob Nicholson and Chuck Strahl, two answers. Dave Anderson, Loyola Hearn, Stockwell Day, Monte Solberg, Diane Finley and Jim Flaherty, one answer each.

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