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The Commons: A matter of principle

Was it righteousness or incompetence that cost Canada a seat on the Security Council?


 

The Scene. “My question is for the government,” Bob Rae said. The Speaker having just called a start to Question Period, that seemed appropriate. And this being the Liberal foreign affairs critic’s first chance in quite awhile to publicly question the Conservative side—the Liberals lately preferring to focus on more domestic, which is to say “real,” matters—he seemed eager to get full measure for his minute and a half.

Specifically, Mr. Rae wanted the government side to account for its failure to secure a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Notably, the government side was more than eager to accept all blame.

“Our government is very, very proud of the principled foreign policy positions that we have taken over the past five years,” government House leader John Baird enthused to applause from the Conservatives around him. “Our government makes foreign policy decisions based on what is right and not what is popular, and we have nothing to be apologetic about.”

This is the line, as they say. Indeed, after a couple days of trying to explain that it, like everything up to and including the state of primetime television, was all somehow Michael Ignatieff’s fault and despite an odd aside from the Prime Minister about “secret votes,” the government has settled on explaining the failure to secure a seat as so—the direct result of its own unwavering righteousness.

At least that would be one way of looking at. Another way would be to simply shout “Yay Canada!” and not think too much about it—that principles would only be worth invoking if for the purposes of implying that our rivals for that seat, the vast majority of the UN’s membership, and every previous government that successfully gained a spot at the Security Council table are and were somehow lacking by comparison.

That the government would so enthusiastically question the fortitude of so many may seem shocking. Then again, that the government often does not intend its official statements to be taken seriously is a caveat worth keeping in mind at all times.

Nonetheless, Mr. Rae chose to engage the government on its own terms, turning to face Mr. Baird, raising his voice and shaking his fist in the House leader’s direction. “A significant refusal on the part of the government to even talk to the government of China over many years, a decision to exclude a number of African countries from being recipients of aid and now freezing our entire CIDA budget into the indefinite future, a complete abnegation of responsibility with respect to climate change,” he said, rhyming off his own account of the government’s principles and simultaneously expanding the vocabulary of everyone within earshot. “When will the government take responsibility for a major diplomatic failure on the part of Canada?”

“We have nothing to apologize for,” Mr. Baird responded. “Again, we make foreign policy on this side of the House based on what is right and not what is popular.”

Here the implication seemed explicit. And so here Mr. Rae made a great show of losing his temper, castigating the members opposite quite loudly. “Mr. Speaker, since when was incompetence a matter of principle?” he snapped quite succinctly.

“There is no finer example than what the government has allowed to happen with the government of the United Arab Emirates,” he continued in his round-the-world review. “How could we have sunk so low in our diplomatic capacity that it would have allowed these negotiations to go completely off the rail, threatening our entire operation in Afghanistan? That is what we are faced with. It is incompetence. It has nothing to do with principle.”

If Mr. Rae could not find the principle at play in this diplomatic dispute over direct flights to Dubai, Mr. Baird stood ready to assist.

“The government always chooses arrangements that are in the best interest of Canada and provide value to our men and women in uniform,” he proclaimed. “This government has shown an unprecedented commitment to our men and women in uniform and I can say to my friend from Toronto Centre thank goodness the dark decade, the 10 lost years of the previous Liberal government is over, thanks to the leadership of this minister.”

There was an exasperated “ahh” from the Liberal side.

A few moments later, the Defence Minister stood on unrelated matter to suggest that the current government was doing right by our men and women in uniform precisely because the previous Liberal government had done right in initiating the purchase of several billion dollars worth of new fighter jets. And then, as if to laugh in the face of irony, Mr. MacKay was compelled to proudly declare that, “We will not play politics on the backs of the military.”

If the principle thus conveyed seemed inherently contradicted, no matter. As always, it is best not to think too seriously about such statements.

The Stats. Foreign affairs, nine questions. Ethics, seven questions. The economy, five questions. The military, four questions. Omar Khadr, health care, religion, the Quebec City arena, immigration and infrastructure, two questions each. Securities regulation, agriculture, trade and equality, one question each.

John Baird, seven answers. Peter Kent, six answers. Christian Paradis, five answers. Jim Flaherty, Peter MacKay and Rona Ambrose, four answers each. Rob Nicholson, Tony Clement and Jason Kenney, two answers each. Leona Aglukkaq, Gary Goodyear, Dave Anderson, Peter Van Loan and Lynne Yelich, one answer each.


 

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