The Commons: Law and points of order

Respect for campaign spending limits may be debatable, but the rules barring photography certainly aren’t

The Scene. Bev Oda stood this to day to audibly commit various words to the official record. Really, it was the least she could do.

In keeping with the government side’s “operational decision,” John Baird stood to take the first two questions asked of the International Cooperation Minister this afternoon, but then the Liberals asked generally about the functioning of Canada’s development agency. Here Ms. Oda motioned to Mr. Baird that she could take this one and so she stood and mouthed various platitudes.

Then though, Liberal Anita Neville stood with her supplementary, wondering if, while she had the minister’s attention, she might ask some questions specific to the handling of KAIROS. And so she did. And so Ms. Oda apparently felt compelled to stand again. What followed from her had absolutely and precisely nothing to do with the particular issue at hand. But she spoke words. And she did so while standing. And that was apparently more than enough for members of the government side to leap up and applaud her when she’d finished.

Less enthusiastic was the response to another day of questions about how the Conservatives funded their campaign for high office in 2006.

“Mr. Speaker, this in and out scandal is more than forged invoices, it is more than police raids on Conservative Party headquarters and it is more than just the clique around the Prime Minister facing jail time. This is fundamentally a question about the public character of the Prime Minister, his lust to win at any cost and at any price,” Michael Ignatieff lectured.

There were various groans from the government side.

“Will he admit that he encouraged his party to break the law and defraud the Canadian taxpayer,” Mr. Ignatieff continued, “and will he have the decency to stand in the House and finally tell Canadians the truth?”

In his seat a few spots over from the Prime Minister, Tony Clement shook his head solemnly. (And no doubt thought about tweeting a frowny face emoticon.) The Prime Minister merely shrugged. “Mr. Speaker, as I have said before, there have been different court decisions on this particular matter, which has gone on for some years,” he said.

For sheer apathy, Mr. Harper would be outdone a moment later by his parliamentary secretary. “Mr. Speaker, the honourable member knows this is a five-year-old administrative dispute,” Pierre Poilievre said in response to a query from Liberal Dominic LeBlanc. “One court has ruled in favour of the Conservative Party and another court has not. Otherwise, it is the typical back and forth that one would expect in an administrative dispute of this kind.”

Mr. LeBlanc attempted here to supply the passion that seemed lacking. “Mr. Speaker, there will be a lot of people in federal prisons tonight who think they had an administrative disagreement with the federal government,” he snapped.

His fellows Liberals applauded, but Mr. LeBlanc went on, jabbing the air with his finger and turning a nice shade of purple in the face.

“The candidates in 67 ridings, the national top organizers and fundraisers of the Conservative Party are all in this up to their necks,” he declared. “They submitted fake invoices for fake expenses. They thought they could fool Elections Canada and the Federal Court of Appeal. Well, guess what? They cannot. So, why did this party use illegal money to campaign with dirty money in the last election?”

Mr. Poilievre was unmoved. “Mr. Speaker, the honourable member can become excited and animated all he wants,” he sighed. “The reality is that this continues to be a five-year-old administrative dispute that the Federal Court has ruled in favour of the Conservative Party and another has done otherwise.”

Indeed, for all this now entails—charges from the office of the public prosecutor, a ruling by the Federal Court of Appeal, the laws that govern how we practice formal democracy in this country—the Prime Minister would later explain that here was merely a debate over the definitions of national and local spending. It is entirely etymological, you see; an academic debate about the very nature of the English language.

The Liberals continued on and in keeping with their interest in testing the shyness of ministers, they called on various members of cabinet to stand and account for their own involvement in in-and-out transactions. No doubt in keeping with some other “operational decision,” each declined.

Various Conservatives had otherwise become engaged in something else entirely. Liberal backbencher Alexandra Mendes, apparently quite taken with the way the sun hit the stained glass windows of the House this afternoon, had taken out her Blackberry and snapped a few photos. Alas, the rules governing such things are quite strict: the taking of pictures is restricted to a select number of professional photographers each day and the images distributed must show only the head and torso of the individual speaking at a particular time.

For violating such restrictions, Ms. Mendes was pointed out by various members of the Conservative side. And at the conclusion of Question Period, a Conservative backbencher by the name of Greg Rickford was sent up to formally report the transgression to the Speaker. Ms. Mendes stood immediately to apologize and assure the House that the pictures taken would be deleted.

Let it thus never be said the ways and means of this Parliament are are not taken seriously, that the foundations of our democracy are in woeful disrepair. The doctrine of ministerial accountability may be infinitely malleable, the bounds of our electoral process may be entirely debatable (and dreadfully boring), but there are some things we still hold dear; the ability of our elected representatives to sit in their places without fear of surreptitious recording being chief among these principles.

The Stats. In and out, 15 questions. Air Canada, five questions. The environment, four questions. KAIROS and the budget, three questions each. The Quebec City arena, two questions. Pakistan, CIDA, Libya, the National Capital Commission, economic diversification and immigration, one question each.

Stephen Harper, nine answers. Pierre Poilievre, seven answers. Chuck Strahl, five answers. Peter Kent, four answers. John Baird, three answers. Josee Verner, Bev Oda and Lawrence Cannon, two answers each. James Moore, Jim Flaherty, Lynne Yelich and Jason Kenney, one answer each.

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