The Commons: Repeat after Rona

How Ms. Ambrose spared Christian Paradis

The Scene. To his credit, Christian Paradis did not avoid the House this afternoon. No doubt knowing he would face a new round of questions about the latest in an unfortunate series of circumstances, the former minister of public works and current minister of natural resources took his seat along the front row all the same.

No doubt knowing he would not have to rise to answer a single one of these questions, he surely did so quite comfortably.

“Mr. Speaker, in September 2007, one week before it closed, the request for proposals for renovation of the West Block North Tower was amended and the qualifications needed to bid dramatically downgraded,” Liberal Marcel Proulx said first, reviewing the newest revelation for the benefit of the House. “Experts in the construction industry have said this would have benefited only one bidder, LM Sauvé.”

Nearly every other day of the last month has brought some new curiosity such as this—another clipping to tape to the wall in search of connections. Were it not for Richard Nixon, it might all be the stuff of whispered conversations around the booths at Hy’s. As it is, 38 years after those two-bit burglaries, we sit around the press gallery wondering how properly to attach the suffix “gate” to the situation.

Once more it is difficult to know whether to curse or thank the 37th president of the United States.

“Who in the minister’s office approved this amendment?” Mr. Proulx finally asked. “Why were experienced contractors not required on a building as valuable and historic as West Block?”

As noted, Mr. Paradis would not respond to this. Instead, up stood Rona Ambrose, the pleasant-sounding and present minister of public works. ”Mr. Speaker, the Government of Canada has contracting laws, policies and regulations in place,” she reported. “Public servants are responsible for and manage this entire process, including the contract award.”

“Ohh,” the Liberals groaned in mock revelation at this attempt to redirect their call.

“As I have said repeatedly,” Ms. Ambrose continued, “if there is any wrongdoing with individuals or contractors they will face prosecution to the full extent of the law, including under the Accountability Act, and taxpayer money will be recouped.”

Mr. Proulx tried again. Ms. Ambrose rose to repeat herself, then to make her redirection more explicit in case Mr. Proulx had failed to grasp the insinuation the first time. ”If the member does have further questions they can be directed to the public servants who will be in front of the committee tomorrow to answer on the substance of this matter,” she said.

After Gilles Duceppe had tried his luck and John Baird had successfully obfuscated another few moments of the House’s time, the matter was turned back over to Ms. Ambrose, whose third answer would be the same as her first. Her fourth answer would be a verbatim reciting of same.

Undaunted, Liberal Geoff Regan rose and registered his own indignation. “When did the Minister of Natural Resources, the former public works minister, first learn about this mess and what steps did he take to clean it up?” he asked aloud.

Ms. Ambrose stood and repeated herself.

Mr. Regan wondered if the government might save everyone the trouble and just admit its wrongdoing here and now.

Ms. Ambrose stood and repeated herself.

Denis Coderre went next. Ms. Ambrose stood and, turning to the second page of her script, invoked something called the “fairness monitor.”

Mr. Coderre took another turn. Ms. Ambrose stood and repeated this bit.

Every so often, from the far left corner, would come a pleading cry. “Do your job!” it begged of Ms. Ambrose. “What are we paying you to do?” it moaned. But, of course, Ms. Ambrose was doing precisely what it is she is presently paid to do—and quite finely at that. Video of this afternoon’s performance would likely rival anything you glean from pursuing a degree in political science.

Awhile passed and then the daring duo of Pat Martin and Thomas Mulcair—our socialist superheroes who swoop down without fail to loudly scream in the general direction of injustice wherever it may or may not lurk—were up to do as they do. ”Mr. Speaker, nobody should be able to buy a government contract in this country but yet, days before the closing of the West Block contract, Public Works amended the tender to give special favour to one rinky-dink contractor who, by some happy coincidence, gave $140,000 to a well-connected Conservative lobbyist,” Mr. Martin proclaimed, his consonants coming like machine-gun fire. “Now the current government seems open for business, but only if we pay to play.”

Amid the cliches, there were two questions—one substantive, the other presumptive. ”Who specifically ordered the West Block renovation contract to be rigged in favour of Sauvé construction,” Mr. Martin demanded to know, “and what Conservative minister ordered them to do so?”

Ms. Ambrose stood and, turning back to page one, repeated thyself. Then to Mr. Mulcair, to register the NDP’s indignation en francais, and then one last time to Ms. Ambrose to say once more what she had already said, evenly and unremarkably and leaving no room for contradiction, half a dozen times before.

Nixon may have given us modern politics, but his invention is still being perfected. At present it is a battle between the uncontrollable story and the careful, incessant repetition of professionally crafted words and phrases. Rona Ambrose might not have been enough to save Nixon, but she was today more than sufficient to spare Christian Paradis any further embarrassment.

The Stats. Ethics, 12 questions. Taxation, four questions. Government spending and Omar Khadr, three questions each. Water safety, the public service, Nigel Wright, veterans, agriculture, seniors, foreign investment and foreign affairs, two questions each. The economy, fisheries and trade, one question each.

Rona Ambrose, 10 answers. John Baird, nine answers. Lawrence Cannon, four answers. Peter MacKay, Ted Menzies, Diane Finley, Tony clement and Gerry Ritz, two answers each. Rob Merrifield, Jim Abbott, Gail Shea, Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Keith Ashfield and Gerald Keddy, one answer each.

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