Must-see QP: Cabinet ministers and inevitably long days

Your daily dose of political theatre

Adrian Wyld/CP

Adrian Wyld/CP

Maclean’s is your home for the daily political theatre that is question period. If you’ve never watched, check out our primer. Today, QP runs from 2:15 p.m. until just past 3. We livestream and liveblog all the action.

The must-see moment

So many buzzwords describe cleaning up a political mess. Smooth-talking crisis managers would never call their work damage control (how about outrage containment or fallout restraint?), but Public Works Minister Diane Finley used her perch in question period to, if we phrase things kindly, defend her conduct in the case of her conflict-ridden granting of funds to a community centre just north of Toronto.

The ethics commissioner’s conclusion that Finley broke federal ethics rules by giving Chabad Lubavitch of Markham preferential treatment was a gold mine for Charlie Angus, the NDP critic whose job is to give the government hell whenever it’s even indirectly accused of anything untoward. Mary Dawson’s report flagged the involvement of Nigel Wright, the prime minister’s ex-chief of staff, as Finley considered the community centre’s funding application. Three words stand out.

Mr. Wright wrote that Ms. Finley had asked him whether he considered the Markham proposal to be ‘important.’ Mr. Wright told her that he had been asked by the Prime Minister to “sort it out.” Mr. Wright also wrote that Ms. Finley told him that the proposal was eligible for funding and that it had not scored as high as other proposals submitted, but that it had elements that made it a valid and appropriate recipient for funding under a particular funding program. Mr. Wright wrote that he indicated to Ms. Finley that it was important that the matter be considered carefully and fairly.

Finley broke the rules; Angus’s job was to hold her to account. His standard theatrics comprise an unsubtle mixture of indignation, sorrow and shame. This afternoon, Angus didn’t disappoint, even referencing the Wright-Duffy affair (follow the link below) for good measure as he questioned Wright’s apparent orders to sort out the mess.

“I didn’t even hear a sorry. You break the rules, you misuse public funds, you expect that when a minister breaks the rules, there’s a sorry. But, no, if Nigel Wright makes the call, it’s okay. This is the question here: All manner of projects go before, but not all manner of projects get moved up after they’ve been rejected because they aren’t in the public interest. I’d like to ask the prime minister once again for his interference in this project: When Nigel Wright was told to ‘sort it out,’ what does that mean? Is ‘sort it out’ the new ‘good to go’ for breaking the rules in the PMO?”

Earlier in question period, Prime Minister Stephen Harper had defended Finley as having acted in good faith when she approved the Markham project. Harper, who only responds to other party leaders, did not reply to Angus. Finley headed up her own damage control. We’ll parse her words, frame by frame.

“Mr. Speaker, the program was destined to help improve accessibility for the disabled.” Whatever the program’s design, Finley’s defence of a community centre’s good intentions is a weak opening move. She broke the rules when she approved the funding.

“It was evaluated and … did provide value for money and was in the public interest.” Dawson’s report casts doubt on the value-for-money defence. “It is noteworthy that the government ultimately withdrew the funding for the Markham project because the Chabad Lubavitch of Markham was unable to meet established timelines.” If ever an argument could be made that the program was worth government money, the eventual withdrawal of that funding renders the point moot.

“Mr. Speaker, it was clearly found that neither I nor any of my relatives or my family had any personal interest in this matter. Mr. Speaker, the commissioner further found that I was not friends with Rabbi Mendelsohn. In fact, she vouched that we had never even met.” Finley’s personal connection with Rabbi Chaim Mendelsohn, who made the application on behalf of Chabad Lubavitch, was far from Dawson’s only consideration as she investigated her concerns about preferential treatment. Dawson mused about possible roles played by Phil Harwood, Finley’s then-interim chief of staff, and Peter Kent, then-minister of environment and still the MP for Thornhill.

“It would appear that the political concerns expressed about funding proposals submitted by Jewish groups in the Greater Toronto Area, the persistence of Rabbi Mendelsohn in seeking support for his three proposals, the involvement of Mr. Wright and Minister Kent, the recommendation of Mr. Harwood, the misunderstanding of Mr. Cotler’s recommendation in relation to a different proposal and possibly several other recommendations from colleagues relating to the Markham proposal, the sources of which she cannot remember, all contributed to Ms. Finley’s decision to give special consideration to the Markham project and to approve its funding.”

Which led to Paul Wells pointing out a big, glaring problem with Finley’s response.

Finley’s defence was weak. Her saving grace may be that a three-year-old ethics breach simply can’t keep the opposition’s attention as long as a war in Iraq or a widely panned anti-terror bill. That’s a heck of an out.

The recap

The context

So many things can guarantee a cabinet minister a long day. Question period is a harvesting ground for arguments about failed programs (e.g. “the wasteful and ineffective long-gun registry”) and poor proposals (e.g. “the Unfair Elections Act”) and dumb statements (e.g. MP John Williamson’s latest adventure) that force cabinet ministers into several stages of damage control that may include denials, deflections, counterattacks or apologies, sometimes in no particular order. Every day is a long day for somebody, because government is enormous and something’s always going wrong.

Sometimes, ministers aren’t forced to account for a program or proposal or statement with which the opposition has major beef. Sometimes, they’re caught breaking a rule and the opposition kindly asks them to own up to the misbehaviour. Peter Penashue and Bev Oda, the one-time ministers of intergovernmental affairs and international cooperation, respectively, are the Harper-era poster-people for poor judgment. The opposition hounded them until they resigned.

Today, Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson dropped a report probably of some interest to New Democrats and Liberals: Public Works Minister Diane Finley breached federal conflict-of-interest rules when, as human resources minister in 2011, she personally intervened to grant funding to a community centre in Markham, Ont. Dawson concluded that Finley gave the Markham Centre for Skills and Independence preferential treatment, a violation of the Conflict of Interest Act.

I found that Ms. Finley’s decision to fund the Markham project was improper within the meaning of section 4 of the Act and that she reasonably should have known that, in making the decision, she would be in a conflict of interest under subsection 6(1). I therefore concluded that Ms. Finley contravened subsection 6(1) of the Act.

The ethics commissioner also reiterated every minister’s responsibilities vis-a-vis the public purse.

The public’s confidence in the handling of public funds and the fairness of government transfer payment programs is undermined when ministers do not maintain the government’s stated commitment to managing them with integrity, transparency and accountability. Ministers are in a position of power and have a responsibility to ensure that this power is exercised fairly and in a way that is open to all Canadians.

The Prime Minister’s Office says Finley acted in good faith when she approved the project. Don’t be surprised if the people across the way are skeptical.

UPDATE: This story broke just as I published this post:

A Military Police Complaints Commission report on the investigations into the suicide of Cpl. Stuart Langridge details a list of errors and failures by the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service, including a decision to withhold a suicide note he had addressed to his family.

Suddenly, Finley’s woes take a back seat (another update: or not—the Langridge report came up only at 2:44 p.m.).

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