Stephen Harper has been Prime Minister for not quite nine years and, by now, everybody knows how these things work. You rise in Harper’s Conservative party by demonstrating a willingness to debase, when asked, any notion of accuracy or relevance. That doesn’t have to be your primary function—Jason Kenney often says things that are true and pertinent, and Finance Minister Joe Oliver, and Public Works Minister Diane Finley and many others. But raging non-sequitur idiocy must be part of your tool kit, along with other techniques, or you won’t get far.
For a year, Pierre Poilievre, minister of state for democratic reform, answered every question from the NDP’s Alexandre Boulerice, on any subject, by calling Boulerice a separatist. Oh, how we laughed. The two of them even joked about it at the Press Gallery dinner. There are cabinet ministers who made it to the big table, only after they demonstrated a sustained willingness to answer real questions with real baloney. Nor is the instinct new. More than a decade ago, I wrote a column calling Herb Gray “The Gray Fog” because it seemed funnier than calling him “the guy who never answers questions in QP,” and folks wiped away a tear. Good ol’ Herb.
To this cardinal virtue of successful governments—shamelessness—add Conservative innovations in the area of non-sequitur casting. Gone are the days when a Jane Stewart, human resources minister from 1999 to 2003, would get up, day after harrowing day, to take questions on a controversy in her area of ministerial responsibility. That simply gives trouble a face, the Conservatives tell themselves, so it’s better for a minister in hot water to answer fewer questions, not more, while some all-purpose wet blanket—a Poilievre back in the day, a Paul Calandra this year—takes all incoming flak. Done right, it kills a story for television. “Tonight: Minister in hot water. Here’s somebody you’ve never heard of, talking about it.”
All of this requires that government MPs behave in artificial ways, but the House of Commons is an artificial place, and success there requires very specific rituals, as does success in, say, gamelan or sumo. If you’re self-conscious, you can’t execute the compulsory figures. You have to just go with it.
So, of course, a question from the Opposition Leader on the terms of a shooting war would go to Calandra, who could not possibly know the answer.
Rob Nicholson, who, being the defence minister, might know, stayed seated and untroubled. [UPDATE: That’s wrong. He wasn’t there. Apologies to the minister — pw] [UPDATER: I was right the first time. He was there! I revoke my apologies to the minister, but hope his weekend is almost as restful as his appearances in QP. — pw] Being unable to provide information—not a bug, in the normal run of government QP management, but a highly attractive feature—Calandra had no alternative but to say something to annoy his questioner.
His two problems were that (a) even if you’re fond of Israel and worried about the NDP’s position on that file, this really wasn’t the time to be raising such questions; and (b) the questioner in, er, question was Tom Mulcair.
When Mulcair chastised Speaker Andrew Scheer for permitting Calandra’s non-answers, it was a bit of theatre. Any speaker in Canada would have permitted those non-answers, including any speaker in Quebec’s National Assembly, where Mulcair learned how to do this. There is no tradition of speakers enforcing relevance of answers in question period in Canada (there is in some other Commonwealth Parliaments), and Mulcair surely knew this. But getting snippy with Scheer had other consequences. It forced Scheer to defend himself; it pushed Scheer back on his heels, a feeling he may seek to avoid in future confrontations with Mulcair; and it shone a bright spotlight on Calandra’s own behaviour.
In short, and not for the first time, Mulcair showed he can be a bigger SOB than whoever is in his face.
Things started happening quickly after that. Already on Wednesday, Calandra’s smart-ass act was kiboshed for question period, and James Bezan, more earnest and lower-key, was the designated question-taker in Calandra’s place. By Thursday, actual ministers were taking questions, including Nicholson, who is rumoured to be the Minister of National Defence, and Chris Alexander, the immigration minister.
And then, on Friday, Calandra’s apology. I don’t know Calandra well, but, offstage, he is a pleasant fellow, in my experience. All he was doing on Tuesday was what government MPs have done for ages: ignore an honest question and go for the jugular. He did it with material prepared for him, no doubt, by the Conservative Research Group. He basked in his colleagues’ applause when he did it. When the prim schoolmarms of the press gallery tut-tutted, he chuckled, because the outrage of the prim schoolmarms has often preceded Conservative triumph.
I don’t believe any of this—the obfuscation, the wall-eyed oblivion in the face of the glaring senselessness of his own statements on the floor of the people’s House, the bravado in response to outrage—comes naturally to Calandra. He seems altogether too plain and gentle a man for any of that. But he has been taught that this is how you rise in today’s Conservative party. It is, in fact, how he rose until now. He has had to learn these habits, and part of what makes Calandra a figure of curiosity on Parliament Hill is the spectacle of such an ordinary fellow behaving, consistently, in such a bizarre fashion.
Just this once, he pushed too far. Part of his problem was that he was jutting his finger into the chest of a man, Mulcair, who would as soon bite his finger off as put up with the jutting. And then the government retreated, and then it retreated some more and, by this morning, Calandra’s recompense for doing what he was taught to do was that he was all alone.
The implicit bargain of Harperism is: Stick with me and we’ll all go far. For Canadian Conservatives, that’s mostly been true for nine years. But when it stops working, simple human nature reasserts itself. By Friday, Paul Calandra was no longer looking at his own performance through the eyes of The Team. At last he saw what anyone else watching him would have seen. From that moment, the apology was inevitable.