So hi! Guess where I am! I’ll give you a hint—I’m in one of the two camera-ready committee rooms, and there are actual reporters here who aren’t me! Yes, you got it—I’m at the Public Safety committee, where two RCMP officials are about to spend an hour shifting uncomfortably in their chairs and avoiding pointed questions over what they told—or didn’t tell—the committee during an earlier appearance last week (as liveblogged by Aaron Wherry here).
Opposition members demanded the return appearance by the Mounties in question—Raf Souccar and Bob Paulson, the RCMP detail in charge of handling security and background checks for PCO—on the grounds that they had somehow neglected to tell the committee that they hadn’t told anyone that the then-minister’s paramour was, as the euphemism goes, known to police. Wow, that sounds awfully confusing when you write it all out like that.
In case you’re wondering, we’re late getting started because the chair—Garry Breitkreuz—had to table the committee’s report on Tasers, but apparently the vice-chair—Roy Cullen, a Liberal—is going to get the meeting started, and hand the gavel over to Breitkreuz when he’s done with his House business.
The witnesses have taken their seats at the table—there are four of them; three men and one women; three uniformed and one in a business suit; three with hair and one rather spectacularly bald.
Okay, here we go. Whee! I love recalls. The chair is a little nonplussed by the two additional witnesses—only Souccar and Paulson were on the list—and invites them to introduce themselves.
Oh, it’s on. Serge Menard just asked for the witnesses to be sworn in. Insert “Oooh” here. The chair—it’s Breitkreuz, by the way—is triply nonplussed by that request—what, is he new in town?—and suspends the meeting for a few minutes to figure out what the heck to do.
Much scampering about by committee staff as the witnesses look bemused. If any of them appeared before Public Accounts during the RCMP pension investigation, they should be all too familiar with the practice of swearing in witnesses. At the very least, the parliamentary censure of embattled assistant commissioner Barbara George ought to have raised a red flag.
Okay, seriously, what’s the holdup? Are they searching for a Bible? Really? Really? I have to think that, oh, the big room full of books next door—the whatchamacallit; Library of Parliament—might just have a copy to spare.
Roy Cullen doesn’t see why the committee needs sworn testimony from the RCMP—”if we can’t believe them, we’re in real trouble.” Here, here, grunts another member. Marlene Jennings backs him up, although more longwindedly, but notes that if Menard insists, that’s his right. The Liberals are not asking for the witnesses to be “forced” to take an oath before making comments.
Dave Mackenzie is quite appalled that someone would ask these witnesses to take an oath. Appalled! It’s an appalling thing! “Why wouldn’t we ask the members of the committee to take an oath?” He asks. “It’s the same thing.” Well, no. It isn’t.
Menard is sticking to his guns—he notes that last time, these same witnesses said things that were later contradicted by a press release. That’s why they’ve been recalled to committee, and he’s going to insist that they be sworn in.
Seriously, am I the only one who remembers how every single witness—including RCMP officials—was sworn in at Public Accounts? Nobody seemed to find it appalling then.
Well, they’ve now wasted nearly half of the hour allotted to these witnesses, which means the committee will go til 5. Joy. And it turns out that a motion is required to compel a witness to take an oath, which the Bloc Québécois makes, even though it’s clearly doomed. It’s defeated, and that’s that. What a useful exercise that was.
Dosanjh wants to know what changed: why did the Mounties say one thing at committee, but another after being informed by PCO that they would “go public” with a statement that they—the RCMP—had not told PCO about any possible security concerns related to Couillard. The answer seems to be that the RCMP didn’t want to get into a “he said, he said” with PCO over who told what to whom, but Dosanjh seems sceptical. Paulson admits that it is his position that the matter should not have been confirmed or denied, which sets off Dosanjh. “I’m somewhat incensed,” he confesses to the witnesses. They could have answered the question at committee, rather than waiting for PCO to issue a statement. Dosanjh wonders why he didn’t tell PCO why the RCMP has a policy of not confirming or denying. “You didn’t tell us that you didn’t contact PCO,” he reminds the witness. That, Paulson says, is a conclusion the committee may come to; he is still not willing to discuss this specific case. “You chose silence with the committee,” Dosanjh insists.
On to Serge Menard, who—mark my words—will end up looking like a Cassandra of committee for raising the issue of the oath. In his typically prosecutorial way, he reads back the testimony from the last meeting—hypothetical though the examples may be—which really does seem to suggest that, in a hypothetical situation that is very much like that which arose with Couillard, the normal policy would be to inform PCO of the concerns.
Souccar takes over for Paulson, and delivers a rambling monologue on the difference between hypothetical and actual situations, but Menard reminds him that it wouldn’t have been difficult to verify whether the information on Couillard was accurate. Wouldn’t that be a dangerus situation of which PCO should be informed? Souccar reminds him that you can’t always believe what you read in the papers, but Menard gives him the eyebrow of don’t-pull-that-with-me. Unfortunately, he then runs out of time. Next round, I’m sure.
Thomas Mulcair takes over for the NDP, and points out that the PM’s National Security Advisor, Margaret Bloodworth, who appeared before committee yesterday, said that she would have expected to hear from the RCMP if there were Couillardesque security concerns, albeit in an answer couched in hypotheticals. Paulson mutters. Menard is grinning beatifically at his colleague; the NDP and the Bloc seem to be of the same collective mind on this one.
A bit of a side ramble down media memory lane by Mulcair, who reminds the RCMP of the privacy issues that came up during the Juliet O’Neil case, only I’m not totally sure what that has to do with this case.
Is there anything that Souccar didn’t know at the time he last testified, but is now aware? “That PCO was going to go public,” says a somewhat snippy Souccar, who doesn’t seem to want to answer the question in anything other than the vaguest of generalities. Mulcair wonders who else he has talked to since the last meeting—Paulson, “people in my office”—and Mulcair, who is velvet but relentless, wonders if he’d be willing to share any notes that he’s made since then. “Some of them,” he allows.
Around and around and around they go. Souccar again cautions Mulcair—and everyone, really—against believing everything they see on television, or read in the newspaper.
Dave Mackenzie—the parliamentary secretary for Public Safety, which is responsible for the RCMP—praises the witnesses, and accuses the opposition of conducting an “inquisition.” He doesn’t think the committee should be “haranguing” people for following the rules, and concludes by saying that he has no questions.
That, too, may come back to haunt him.
Marlene Jennings is trying for a tone somewhere between the overt scepticism displayed the NDP and the Bloc and the nothing-to-see-here truculence of the Conservatives. I’m not actually sure if that’s possible, but we’ll see if she manages to pull it off. She wonders whether the only answer that would make sense is that Couillard was a “mole”—which is, I guess, sort of a backhanded way of asking whether she is a mole.
Souccar once again chides her for drawing conclusions based on information in the public domain—she’s not “armed” with all the facts. So does that make what’s in the public domain false? It’s not clear. Just because he told the committee that Couillard was “known to police” didn’t mean that she was a criminal, as was reported by the media—bad media!—but Jennings assures him that neither she, nor anyone else, had leapt to that conclusion.
Yay, it’s Serge Menard again! He notes that the witnesses have claimed that providing more information could damage ongoing investigations, but he’s not sure how—the only one that he knows of is the internal inquiry by Foreign Affairs, and he doesn’t see how that could potentially be compromised by the committee’s line of questioning. In response, Souccar gives an excellent demonstration of the official neither-confirm-nor-deny standby policy that has served the RCMP so well by not confirming or denying whether there is any other investigation underway. But don’t mistake that for not being forthright.
Menard points out that he’s giving half-answers right now, and gets impatient when Souccar dodges again. He notes that the RCMP has known from the beginning what the committee wants to find out; why can they simply not answer the questions?
Rick Norlock—Team Government, AKA Team Why Are We Bothering With Imaginary Scandals. He suggests that the Liberals are just mad that the RCMP aren’t willing to give them the “salacious” answers that would serve their political agenda. “Don’t blame the civil service,” he implores the committee, causing jaws to drop and takes to double across the capital.
Not surprisingly, the target of his little homily, Marlene Jennings wants a minute to respond—just one tiny minute—but the chair moves onto Roy Cullen. He wants to know more about the process—the logistics of background checks.
More about spouses and scope and background checks, with an entertaining hypothetical from Paulson that involves him and his wife being arrested for shooting up heroin in a park—which wouldn’t happen if there was more support for safe injection sites like InSite. I’m not sure where Cullen is going with this; he wonders if the portfolio affects the depth of the background check, and Souccar says that the initial check wouldn’t differ from minister to minister. The department, however, may conduct a separate background check, but that would be the responsibility of the department itself.
Dear Foreign Affairs Background Checker,
Don’t make any plans to leave the city over the next week or two. I have a feeling you may be receiving a very special invitation from committee in the near future.
Dave Mackenzie wonders whether the background check system has changed since the coming of Canada’s New Government, and the purging of Those Awful Liberals. Apparently not.
Bonnie Brown wonders what a ministerial candidate would have to do to raise a red flag. Would shooting heroin in the park push it over the line? She’s concerned about global problems—the “war on terror”, as some people—not her, but some people—call it. In these uncertain times, state information—and the conveying thereof—can be a lucrative business.
Souccar admits that this is an “excellent point”, which means he’s not going to answer the question, I bet. This is a process—it may not be the best process, and it can always be improved, but it’s about balance, and … Yeah. He’s not going to answer the question. “We don’t go around and do spot checks on ministers,” he says. Maybe if they did, they’d come up with things. Isn’t that called “policing”?
Paulson wants to take back his heroin analogy—too late; it’s already been immortalized in liveblog form—and assures Jennings that they would be aware of the risks that she describes.
Jennings still wonders why the appearance of Couillard on the arm of the minister wouldn’t trigger at least a soft ping of could-be-troubleness. There’s no really good answer to that.
Dosanjh begins his second round—which may be the last, unless the chair takes a crack at them as well—by apologizing if the witnesses had thought he was accusing them of not being forthright. He then goes into a very long explanation of what he thought, versus what might have happened, that eventually seems to come down to his belief that somehow, PCO was involved in attempting to control what they told the committee.
“Here is the ultimate question,” Dosanjh finishes. If it had been a serious, life-threatening situation, the RCMP would have an obligation to tell PCO. Souccar agrees that, in that case, he might have been more inclined to share the knowledge if “irreperable damage” would otherwise occur. In that case, Dosanjh wonders, why didn’t the witnesses answer the question?
I’m definitely getting dizzy, which is why the chair’s announcement that the meeting is now over—at least, the public portion thereof—is a very welcome one.
Not a moment too soon.