The Scene. Tony Clement, his suit tightly buttoned up, arrived at precisely 3:30pm in the appointed room where the public accounts committee was scheduled to demand some kind of public accountability of him. The next hour and 45 minutes would mostly be spent trying to explain why there was little reason to be there.
He did not sit at the far end of the table alone. Beside him sat John Baird, the Foreign Affairs Minister who now officially splits his time between representing this country on the world stage and speaking on Mr. Clement’s behalf in the House of Commons. Around the two cabinet ministers sat a total of four previously anonymous bureaucrats. To the left of this group sat no less than eight Conservative MPs, here as members of the committee (or rather, as would soon become clear, loyal representatives of the Conservative Party of Canada). Behind these Conservative MPs sat their dutiful aides. And in the area reserved for the spectators appeared to be still more professional supporters, including at least one young man from the Prime Minister’s Office.
Opposite the Conservative brigade sat four New Democrats, one Liberal, their own dutiful aides and, for whatever reason, Pat Martin. Later, Elizabeth May stopped by, though her attempt to ask a question was foiled after the debate about whether she was allowed to ran so long that there was no time left for her to actually do so.
“It is indeed a pleasure to be here,” Mr. Clement said by way of opening. The rest was smiles and laughs and sighing.
In between enthusing about the greatness of everything done so far as the G8 Summit was concerned, Mr. Clement stressed his irrelevance. His office had merely been a “depository” for funding applications. He himself had merely been an “interlocutor” between the federal government and the mayors who sought to beautify their communities. (These words presumably brought to you by whoever in the Harper government is responsible for minding the official thesaurus.) In hindsight, he said, “it might’ve been better” if the G8 Legacy Fund had been handled entirely through official government channels. But, rest assured, every penny was accounted for. Indeed, if it should make you feel any better, know this: the Harper government knows exactly which gazebos, toilets and bike racks were built with that $45.8 million in public funds. This much would be noted regularly and repeatedly throughout the afternoon.
When it was Mr. Baird’s turn, he explained that unnamed “officials” of his had advised him that he should use the Border Infrastructure Fund for the purposes of funding these trinkets. “Informed by the best advice,” he had acted. Not that he was redirecting responsibility—”The buck stopped with me,” he declared—but not that it was his idea. And, anyway, apparently this sort of thing has gone on for 100 years. And, for that matter, if not for those gazebos, he seemed to suggest at one point, Canada might have slipped into a depression. (It is a well-known fact that FDR’s national gazebo strategy is what ultimately pulled the world out of the last depression.)
The Conservative members of the committee proceeded then to take turns honouring their primary responsibility to the party to whom they are pledged. When not sorrowfully lamenting for the official opposition’s tone, they lobbed friendly queries to the assembled witnesses. So far as they seemed to feel, we were here only to clear up the misunderstandings propagated by the NDP. At one point, Mr. Clement was asked to explain how the personal emails of his now in the possession of the NDP were only obtained by the official opposition because he had signed off on their release, as apparently required by the access to information law employed here.
The New Democrats, suffering no doubt from a certain pent-up desire to question Mr. Clement directly, tried variously to make his version of events seem preposterous. Most of this seemed to hinge on a form that bore the contact information for his office. It was Mr. Clement’s contention that he had nothing to do with this piece of paper. It was the NDP’s opinion that that was kind of odd.
Charlie Angus, wearing his nicest skinny tie, demanded to know the whereabouts of the “paper trail.” Mr. Clement managed to venture that “the trail is very clear,” while sidestepping the fact that said trail seems not to have been committed to paper. Asked by Gerry Byrne, the committee’s lone Liberal, why his office, however uninvolved it apparently was, had sent out rejection letters in regards to some projects, Mr. Clement allowed that “maybe we were being too polite.”
Some amount of discussion between Mr. Byrne and Mr. Clement seemed to establish that the communities involved had arrived at the final list of projects all on their own, with no input from the government. Indeed, it was eventually established that Mr. Clement’s primary involvement was advising the mayors in his riding—”my mayors,” he called them—that they could only have as many projects as could be funded with about $50 million. Mr. Clement said that the 242 projects they originally asked for would have cost something like $500 million. So in a way, you see, Mr. Clement had actually saved taxpayers something like $450 million. At one point, Mr. Baird noted that the government had not even spent the full $50 million it had allotted itself. In other words, you’re welcome, Canada.
If there was a climax to the proceedings it came when Mr. Angus came directly at Mr. Clement with a simple question: As it pertains to the auditor general’s contention that “rules were broken,” who broke the rules? Back-and-forth they went on this without much in the way of a direct answer. Of the auditor general’s concerns, Mr. Clement allowed that “I would like you to know that I take that to heart.” The paperwork, he conceded,” “was not perfect.” The paperwork, Mr. Angus shot back, “doesn’t exist.”
“I take my share of responsibility,” Mr. Clement said.
And that will have to do. Because whatever trinkets were spread around a cabinet minister’s riding with public funds, whatever rules were broken and whatever notion of parliamentary accountability subverted, Mr. Clement’s having to say this much would seem to be the only consequence on offer.