Hansard is worse for a joke about war

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

Thomas Mulcair thinks Stephen Harper should at least inform the proper officials before marching off to war. The Americans informed the United Nations of their plans to drop bombs on Syria. This afternoon, the NDP leader wondered if the Prime Minister, sitting two sword lengths away in the House of Commons, had offered a similar courtesy. At this, Harper saw fit to make a joke.

“Mr. Speaker, I’m not sure what point the leader of the NDP is making,” said Harper. “If he is suggesting, Mr. Speaker, that there is any significant legal risk to lawyers from ISIL taking the Government of Canada to court and winning, the Government of Canada’s view is that the chances of that, Mr. Speaker, are negligible.”

Islamic State taking Canada to court? Ha ha ha. Oh, Tom, you’re positively hilarious. Mulcair responded in unparliamentary terms. “Extraordinary, Mr. Speaker, living in a Canada where that sort of idiocy passes for argument.” He emphasized the I-word, the House erupted, and Speaker Andrew Scheer politely asked Mulcair to avoid language that “can cause a great deal of disorder.” So he did, and he even briefly moved on to a question about the Komagata Maru. The reprieve lasted no more than half a minute.

Mulcair’s roar returned. “The Prime Minister of Canada thinks he’s above international law,” Mulcair said, a question later. “He’s not, and Canada is not. That’s all we’ve got!”

Harper repeated, with more emotion than he generally emits in the House of Commons and more seriousness than his first reply, the legal grounds on which Canada will proceed in Syria. “If the leader of the NDP is suggesting for a moment that there is any case in the international legal community that stands behind ISIL, he is not only wrong, Mr. Speaker,” he said. “Five dozen members of the United Nations have united to confront this international terrorist organization. Canada is working with them.”

Eventually, the rest of the assembled parliamentarians asked and answered questions about matters unrelated to war. Harper and Mulcair and the rest of us, though, were left to ponder what we’d observed. The country learned that its Prime Minister is willing to joke about international law and, in the same breath, evade questions that are simple enough to answer. Asked if he directed anyone on the Canadian side to inform the UN of his government’s intentions, Harper might have said Yes or No, explained why, and moved on. Instead of joking that Islamic State has no case against Canada, Harper might have explained his government’s legal argument.

He might even have followed his defence minister’s lead.

Earlier today, outside the Commons, Jason Kenney articulated the government’s legal case, and he used definitive language: “It is a very clear principle, a customary principle in international law that if a sovereign government is unable or unwilling to control part of its territory from which hostile attacks are being launched then there is, therefore, a bona fide grounding in Article 51.” There: Canada’s intentions are legal, full stop.

Harper could have read from the same songbook in question period. He didn’t. He could have rationally laid out a legal case for war. He didn’t. He could have remained calm. He didn’t. He could have resisted the urge to make a joke. He didn’t. Hansard is worse for it.

The recap

The context

Jason Kenney decided, at some point, that a planned press conference just wasn’t the right vibe. The defence minister left Rob Nicholson, the foreign minister, all by his lonesome at the more formal presser. Kenney preferred the cozier confines of an extended scrum with reporters, where he answered questions about the legal basis for Canadian bomb-dropping in Syria. Yesterday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper played follow the leader when Thomas Mulcair asked him for a legal case for war. Harper’s argument leaned heavily on the American rationale, conceived and delivered last autumn to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon.

In her letter, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power invoked Article 51 of the UN Charter, which lays out member states’ inherent right of individual or collective self-defence. Kenney, citing advice of Canada’s Judge Advocate General, pointed to the same article of the same charter, which reads:

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.

Whatever water that argument ultimately holds or doesn’t hold (and there seems to be no international consensus on the matter), Kenney’s advice didn’t come from a stranger to the file.

Section 9.1 of the National Defence Act names the Judge Advocate General, currently Major-General Blaise Cathcart, as “legal advisor to the Governor General, the Minister, the Department and the Canadian Armed Forces in matters relating to military law.” Cathcart, who’s held the role for five years and spent another two decades in the office, is familiar with offering legal advice in a fight against terrorists:

In his capacity as the Director of Operational Law (2000-2003), he provided daily legal advice to the Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff and senior National Defence Headquarters (NDHQ) staff (including J3 Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations) on a number of issues arising from domestic and international operations. Major-General Cathcart was intimately involved in providing legal advice at the strategic and operational levels during the planning and execution of the Canadian Armed Forces participation (conventional and special forces) in the Campaign Against Terrorism.

But don’t expect that to convince a skeptical leader of the New Democrats.

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Hansard is worse for a joke about war

  1. Harper is moving in to the Preemptive Military Strike indoctrination, we could end up going into other countries whenever Harper feels he wants to spread his wings… Trudeau asked the right question..

    • Carpet… Trudeau? Surely you mean Mulcair.

      • That’s the problem with the NDP, they do everything they can to try and eat up any questions the Grits try to ask or have already asked, and whenever they do ask, the media always gives Tom the credit anyway, how can the MSM be objectionable toward Mulcair while they cheer him on for his prosecutorial skills, they(MSM) can’t, they should put their blinders down, and it also makes the MSM looks partisan. As far as I am concerned, it’s all about the headline for the dippers, and the media think Tom is the only one who knows how to ask Harper questions. If the grits had as much access to asking questions as the dippers, I’m sure they would do as good a job or better asking. Let me be clear with you my friend, If you think Mulcair is going to be as good a PM as you think he is an opposition leader, than you know very little about ones character. If Tom Mulcair is as angry now every time he asks questions in QP, than what makes you think he wouldn’t have that same kind of demeanor if he was elected PM. The Broadbent Institute is the new leadership of the NDP now, Tom right now is just a figurehead, because someone has to put a leash on him to help keep his anger under control, or the dippers will end up back in the corner where the grits sit now, next to the cons .

    • Carpet .Yes indeed. Harper’s terror bill and now this ratcheting up of our involvement – possibly in Syria – are being used as a diversion.
      If Harper can create a strong climate of fear across Canada it will – sadly – work.
      That’s why I was hoping that Justin would back off his foolish position that – even before reading the terror bill – he would support it!
      Tom Mulcair’s courageous and principled stand is supported by many Canadians – including ex-PMs, privacy and security experts, and legal experts – who care about civil liberties, the rule of law, and positive, preventative community-based de-radicalization strategies – including adequate mental health services.

      • I got to be honest, Tom Is pandering just like Harper, no difference. The NDP are trying everything to eat up old Grit policies to look like they are a center party. They are always trying to run on liberal policy, that’s all they’ve ever done, is steel grit policy. Canada doesn’t need an activist government in power and that’s what the dippers are, a party of activists. If you believe in Canada’s charter of rights, than the NDP are not the party for you, because they are one of the only 2 parties besides the cons, who want to dismantle the charter, though Tom likes to preach how much he respects it, you see that’s an example of pure pandering, talking from both sides of your mouth. If you think our charter should be dismantled, than your not a true progressive, or anyone else who feels the same, for that fact.

        • You know something else, if Tom felt he is going to win in the next election, than he should have made the same condition Trudeau did, because Tom, for the last month or more has given Harper the fuel to win the support he needs in the next election, because for the last month or so, we could have been taking about the sagging economy, no Tom Has decided to help Harper grow his support by talking about terrorism instead of the economy, you know the ECONOMY, the subject to dippers are not so good at.

  2. My understanding is that only Canada is joining the U.S. regarding bombing in Syria .
    All other nations have wisely demurred.
    Yet Harper made it sound as if all 60 nations “members of the United Nations” were involved, implying that this was an UN mission – yet another example of misleading the House and the nation.
    It was bad enough when – last October – he lied to Parliament and Canadians, saying our troops would not be on the front lines: now this.
    Harper should have learned from the U.S. experience of lying about the reason for their invasion of Iraq in 2003 – and consequently de-stabilizing the whole region.
    “What a web we weave when we practice to deceive”

  3. To borrow from Ricky Gervais, we’re witnessing Harper blossom from an idiot into an imbecile.

  4. Does Harper think himself clever when he responds with pathetically obvious, logical fallacies?

    Ab absurdo followed quickly by a false dichotomy, not to mention poisoning the well.

    He claims he is an economist. His record suggests otherwise. He sees himself as a retroist. His record suggests otherwise.

  5. Just wondering, Mr. Harper. Would you laugh if your son was in the military and HE was being sent on your mission?
    Think about it the next time you send our country’s soldiers on a dangerous mission!
    Oh, and one more thing: when the come back, don’t use them for photo-ops! TAKE CARE OF THEM.

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