The Commons: This government of powerless men

In this moment, Tweeting Tony is quite possibly the most powerful man in Ottawa

by Aaron Wherry

The Scene. Once more, Ralph Goodale stood and beseeched the Prime Minister to explain himself, at least as it pertains to the potential sale of Saskatchewan’s PotashCorp. To his credit, the Prime Minister stood and did just that. Which is to say, he rose and explained that he and his position were in this case entirely irrelevant.

“I can assure him,” Mr. Harper assured Mr. Goodale, “the Minister of Industry will make a decision according to a legal process.”

Unsatisfied, Mr. Goodale turned to the Minister of Agriculture, wondering if perhaps the honourable Gerry Ritz, the elected representative for a larger parcel of land in Saskatchewan, might have something to say about the matter. Mr. Ritz leaned forward as if willing to respond, but it was Tony Clement who stood, the Industry Minister so emboldened as to refer to himself in the third person.

“There is a process under the Investment Canada Act which leads to the assessment by the Minister of Industry of the net benefit to Canada test,” he said of himself. “That is what is being done and that will be delivered to the people of Canada in the due course of time.”

One will forgive Mr. Clement if he lingers for the fullness of this allotted time, if he revels in this newfound regard. For in this moment, Tweeting Tony is quite possibly the most powerful man in Ottawa.

Scoff if you will. But in a land where no man dare admit responsibility, the technically authoritative is king. At a time when none will accept blame, exalted should be those who, having been passed the buck, are compelled to say it stops with them, if only by law. In this game of hot potato it is Mr. Clement who holds the starchy foodstuff high.

Consider this matter of interprovincial squabbling between Quebec and Newfoundland. “Mr. Speaker,” said the Prime Minister, when pressed on the issue by Gilles Duceppe, “there is a legal process to resolve this issue.”

Mr. Duceppe tried again. The Prime Minister shrugged, powerless. “Mr. Speaker,” he explained, “energy development is a provincial responsibility.”

Liberal Bryon Wilfert pressed the Defence Minister to explain the lack of an open competition before the government proceeds with the purchase of new fighter jets. The Defence Minister rose and, as he has repeatedly before, explained that the current government was merely following a process launched by the previous government he so otherwise despises.

The Veterans Affairs Minister was asked by Liberal Kirsty Duncan to account for reported shortcomings in the Veterans Charter. “I remind her that it was her government that adopted the new Veterans Charter in 2005,” he scolded of an initiative his predecessor was seemingly quite happy to champion four years ago.

The Foreign Affairs Minister was pressed to explain an agreement that will see Omar Khadr returned to Canada in a years time. As he did the day before, Lawrence Cannon stood to explain that his government had nothing to do with anything.

New Democrat Linda Duncan lamented for the recent harmonization of federal and provincial sales taxes in British Columbia and its effects on Alberta businesses. “Provincial taxation is a provincial responsibility in Canada,” shrugged Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, he who openly lobbied for the policy and whose government has financially compensated those provinces which have followed suit.

Lastly then it was the NDP’s Pat Martin who rose to colourfully hector the aforementioned Mr. Ritz—”Gerrymander,” Mr. Martin called him—about trouble with the eternally troublesome Canadian Wheat Board. Gosh, lamented Mr. Ritz, he would love to make improvements to the institution, but the Liberals and New Democrats keep blocking his reforms.

Alas. Nearly five full years after it took power, this government still so struggles to grasp power. (Or, put another way, just five years after taking office, Mr. Harper has realized his dream of a limited, largely powerless, central government.)

It was to wonder why the Prime Minister himself had even bothered to show up this day, why he had not simply left an arrow on his desk pointing in the general direction of the Industry Minister. But midway through this afternoon’s session, a dutiful backbencher was sent up to ask if Mr. Harper might stand and say something about the plight of David Chen, the Toronto grocer who has recently been celebrated for chasing down and detaining a shoplifter. The Prime Minister was only too happy to assert his authority in this regard.

“Now that the case has been ruled on and common sense has prevailed,” Mr. Harper told the House, “this government, myself and the Minister of Justice, have instructed the Department of Justice and instructed officials to look at possible changes to the Criminal Code to prevent incidents like Mr. Chen’s from occurring again.”

So the lines of authority are thus drawn. With the Industry Minister be given power over national resources and the rest of the cabinet charged with the redirection of all other concerns, Mr. Harper will be allowed to devote his full attention to rewriting the Criminal Code for the benefit of beleaguered corner store shopkeeps.

The Stats. Foreign investment, six questions. Veterans, four questions. Crime, three questions. Energy, natural resources, the military, ethics, Omar Khadr, foreign aid, bilingualism, Nigel Wright, arts funding and sports, two questions each. Internet access, taxation, aboriginal affairs, Quebec, the disabled, Iran, infrastructure and the Canadian Wheat Board, one question each.

Stephen Harper, seven answers. James Moore, six answers. Jean-Pierre Blackburn and John Baird, four answers each. Tony Clement and Lawrence Cannon, three answers each. Christian Paradis, Peter MacKay, Jim Abbott and Rob Nicholson, two answers each. Jim Flaherty, John Duncan, Denis Lebel, Diane Finley, Chuck Strahl and Gerry Ritz, one answer each.

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