Calandra: So that happened

They call it Question Period, not Fundamentals of Human Dignity Period

(Fred Chartrand/CP)

(Fred Chartrand/CP)

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.

Related posts:
Paul Calandra apologizes to the House.
Paul Calandra: The designated obfuscator

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.


Calandra: So that happened

  1. Impressive column. I particularly liked the shout out for Mulcair. It’s about time someone pushed back. Dion would have sputtered in outrage, when he ought to have threatened to wield his mighty book bag. Lord knows what MI would have done – quote Berlin maybe.
    Other then that, i’m not buying what you’re selling. Some of us remember[vaguely now] govts previous to the Harper/Chretien 2 decade clusterFu*k on democracy and respect for democracy. Not saying everything was wine and roses back in the day, but if there is one weakness in your narrative, that’s it. There was in fact life, and yes even honour among pols, before Harper/Chretien pissed in our soup. Awfully close to the line of it’s just written in the stars, it’s inevitable or possibly apologia for scoundrels and worse there Paul.

    • Yes, in Mulcair there is now a more lawyerly Official Opposition leader than we have seen in the past. Most observers seem to be supporting Mulcair over Calandra. Mulcair may get an approval rating bump for challenging the obstructionist Calandra. But is Mulcair relevant outside the House? Thus far he does not have the populist skill of Justin Trudeau to tap into electoral support to oust Harper. So far Harper is not threatened by Mulcair because Mulcair can bite at him in the House, but can’t beat him at the ballot box.

      • Mulcair is the most effective Official Opposition leader since fellow-lawyer, John Diefenbaker.

        Harper toys with Trudeau in the House – and Junior keeps reading his scripted questions.

        As Mulcair systematically lays out the New Democrat’s policy platform – and Trudeau systematically makes personal (“old men” Liberal critics) and policy (bungling economic data re the EI) gaffes increasing numbers are wondering if Junior is really ready for national leadership.

        If his surname was Smith instead of Trudeau, he would not be Liberal leader, let alone an MP as he lacks the experience, accomplishment, ability and gravitas necessary for mature leadership of a nation facing major environmental, and socio-economic challenges.

  2. At last he saw what anyone else watching him would have seen. From that moment, the apology was inevitable.

    Actually, no. Part of my deluxe “everything but the kitchen sink” large pizza I was given the option for $50 to have Calandra say anything I wished in the house. Extra large Coke or crying? I prefer Pepsi, as you probably already knew.

  3. Right. “can’t execute the compulsory figures.” .. so we’ll mark ’em
    down on style points and artistic merit. But we’ll still give ’em a
    pass on technical merit cuz, well, ya know … markets. Wizards.

  4. “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.”

    Perhaps you should have written this column back then, instead of making it sound cool by giving him a bad-ass nickname.

    • But that is one of the problems of this otherwise good piece – things have gotten progressively worse and worse. Comparing Calandra et al., to Herb is like comparing a particularly gassy, skunky beer to a good pint of olde fashioned scrumpy cider; both will give you a headache if you over do it. But only one will give you a sore head, a sore ass and a taste in your mouth like a coal miner’s armpit.

    • You’re right. Remind me when Gray wept in Question Period for responding to questions about a shooting war with references to a Facebook post by somebody no one had ever heard of?

      • The difference between Herb Gray and Paul Calandra is that Gray was a gentleman who was well-respected and came from a more honourable tradition. This was mentioned in the obituary pieces to him earlier this year. Calandra is unlikely to receive the same type of accolades from his Parliamentary colleagues, and is part of a government that shows much more contempt for Parliament.

        • “The difference between Herb Gray and Paul Calandra is that Gray was…”

          …a Liberal. So it was cool when he did it.

          Next time, try to get to the point quicker.

          • You don’t do distinctions do you!

      • That’s a point in Calandra’s favour? What Craig said.

        • Oops…that wasn’t for me. Dang format.

  5. Nor is the instinct new. More than a decade ago, I wrote a column calling Herb Gray…

    That’s all and dandy Paul but the reformers, riding high on their white horses, were going to be different. Remember swearing an oath to god not to take the Platinum plated pensions… Remember being open and accountable, Yes there were others, in the passed like Herb Gray, that obfuscated, but this gang of holy rollers were going to lead by example….hmmm

  6. And the un-precdented “Caladra Rule” is also about to happen. so $hit happens.

  7. Further Update: According to the the research arm of the Andrew Coyne Institute, the minister was in fact there, and he has the pics to prove it. Advantage Coyne, your serve. Let’s see you get those crossings out eh!

  8. As often with good articles a second reading gives an even more rewarding experience than the proverbial “first press”.
    Just how far our Parliament has fallen can be measured by how much team players[ on all sides but principally on the govts] are all safely snug inside their own bubble or cocoon. What has Harper wrought truly by this, other than making clear that the path to long lasting political success lies over whatever gets in the way of the team bus?[or is it steam roller?]
    It’s a complete mockery of Parliaments purpose – a place where representatives of the nation may come together and attempt to hammer out the very best policy they can. A goal that even the least may contribute to. An imperfect reflection of the popular will. Consensus be damned. Now it is war by all means, all the time. Now it isn’t about us, no matter what flights of rhetoric, it’s all about them and where they think we ought to go. It’s the hive mentality run amok.

  9. Good piece, Paul. The type of histrionics that have become a vital part of the role of PM’s Secretary under Prime Minister Harper has demeaned Parliament. That’s not to say there isn’t a larger issue of top-down message control that crosses all party lines, but Calandra and his predecessors have managed to look particularly foolish in QP – an accomplishment in a way. I thought it was kind of interesting that in the aftermath of his sideshow on Tuesday several Ministers – including Raitt, Ambrose, Kenney and Shea – offered up actual answers stripped of hyperbole and rhetoric. Now, I doubt the NDP or Liberals would say the answers satisfied them, but there definitely seemed to be a concerted effort to put the train back on the tracks post-Calandra.

  10. And on Monday, the NDP is putting the “Calandra Rule” up for a vote, giving the Speaker power (and more importantly, responsibility) to discipline for repetition and non-answers. The Conservatives can either vote for it and look like fools in the future when they can’t change their 9-year method of operation, or vote against it and have it on the record that they’re fine with what Paul Calandra did.

    Well played, Tom, well played.

    • Yes Kalin, Tom’s follow-through is impressive.

      • I’m betting it wont go anywhere, mainly because there is no corresponding public outrage. That’s a pity. It should however be interesting to see who says nay.

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