Today in demonstrating contempt for Parliament

Questions about Canada’s mission in Iraq, responses about something else entirely

Fred Chartrand/CP

Fred Chartrand/CP

Just after 2:15 p.m. this afternoon, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, leader of Her Majesty’s official Opposition, democratically elected member of Parliament for the riding of Outremont, stood in the House of Commons and spoke aloud a fairly straightforward question he thought the government should be responsible for answering. This being within the 45 minutes reserved each day for question period, Mulcair was well within both his rights and responsibilities to do so.

“Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister has failed to answer clear questions about his ill-defined military deployment in Iraq,” Mulcair said by way of preamble. “Yesterday, Conservatives refused, once again, to answer in this House, but the member for Selkirk-Interlake stated on CPAC that the mission will end on Oct. 4. Will the Conservative government confirm that the 30-day Canadian commitment in Iraq will indeed end on Oct. 4?”

Even the most devoted Conservative partisan would likely have a hard time arguing against the relevance of this question. Even if some argument could be mounted for not answering that question—”operational security,” or some such—we might all agree that standing and stating that argument would be the least we might expect from our democratically appointed government.

To respond for said government stood Paul Calandra, parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister.

This was already not ideal.

Calandra might know a thing or two about the responsible management of a pizza shop, and he does serve as the Prime Minister’s parliamentary secretary, but he has only slightly more statutory responsibility for the mission in Iraq than, say, I do. He is not the Prime Minister, nor the defence minister, nor the foreign affairs minister, nor even a member of the cabinet. He does have some responsibility for representing the Prime Minister as assigned, but this is only so useful as he is provided with useful information and empowered to provide it.

In the case of Calandra, it would quickly become apparent that he either had nothing useful to offer on the topic or was not so empowered.

“Mr. Speaker,” the parliamentary secretary said in response, “there is a great deal of confusion with respect to the NDP position on Israel.”

For all the theoretical intents and purposes of this particular moment in the daily democratic life of our country, he might as well have stood and told the Speaker of his grocery list or read aloud from the collected works of Edgar Allan Poe. He might’ve stood and made farting noises with his left hand and his right armpit. Indeed, that might’ve at least entertained the kids watching at home.

Instead, he went on about what some employee of the NDP had written about Israel, apparently in a post on Facebook.

You might not think this to be a matter of such importance that it need be raised at the first opportunity in question period, but then, obviously, you would be one of those people who does not understand how politics works.

Mulcair tried a second question.

“Mr. Speaker, I can understand the confusion. We are in the Middle East and we are under the “i”s, but we are talking about Iraq,” he quipped. “It took over a week for the Prime Minister to answer a simple question about the number of troops involved in the Iraqi deployment. It now appears that Canadian soldiers may require visas approved by the Iraqi government. Since this military deployment is still ongoing and since it is set to conclude in 12 days, precisely how many Canadian soldiers are on the ground in Iraq today?”

In response, Calandra bravely attempted to convince everyone that what he had to say in response was in some way relevant to the question asked.

“Mr. Speaker, what does the leader of the Opposition not understand?” the parliamentary secretary asked rhetorically. “Our friends in Israel on the front lines, combatting terrorism.”

Here, Calandra was in fact daring to revolutionize the very notion of relevancy.

A question asked about this country’s military mission in response to an international terrorist threat is applicable to Israel, because Israel has also to deal with terrorist threats. If we allow ourselves—if we dare to be so bold—to expand our minds, as Calandra would have us do here, we might see whole new ways that so much of what we do and say is connected.

Mr. Speaker, the member asks about shortcomings in our agriculture policy. But what of the people in Ukraine, many of whom also enjoy eating vegetables? Thankfully, this government is standing beside Ukraine in its time of need.

Mr. Speaker, the member asks about the funding of our health care system. You know who requires a healthy lifestyle to survive and thrive in this world? Small business owners, whose taxes we have just cut.

Mr. Speaker, the Opposition asks about the census, but how can they trifle in such details when the spectre of climate change means there might eventually be very few people to count?

Mr. Speaker, that question about what the Prime Minister knew about discussions with Mike Duffy reminds me of those pandas we recently scored from China—in that both the Prime Minister and the pandas are mammals.

After Calandra’s second go at something completely different, Mulcair appealed to the Speaker to impose some degree of relevancy on the parliamentary secretary. Then the NDP leader put in a new query.

“When asked at the foreign affairs committee just a couple of weeks ago, the minister said that a Forces agreement with Iraq outlining operating rules for Canadian Forces had not yet been completed,” Mulcair explained. “Has that agreement now been completed? If so, when can Canadians see it?”

Once more, the parliamentary secretary insisted on discussing what he’d read on Facebook.

In his seat, Mulcair gestured to the Speaker and seemed to be pleading, “Come on!” for sanity. When Calandra had finished, Mulcair stood and took direct aim at Speaker Andrew Scheer. “Mr. Speaker, well, that does not speak very favourably about your neutrality in this House,” he sighed. The Conservatives howled with indignation and the Speaker deprived Mulcair of his next two questions, moving directly to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau instead.

There is perhaps something to be said for not thinking of the Speaker as beyond reproach. He is not quite the Pope. But the NDP leader might’ve mounted an actual argument here, rather than passively-aggressively questioning Scheer’s fitness for the job. To question the Speaker is a serious charge that raises serious questions about what should be considered a serious institution.

We have been over this question of the Speaker’s precise powers in this regard before. It is provided for in the standing orders that a Speaker can cut short the remarks of a member “who persists in irrelevance, or repetition,” but that is apparently only applicable to debate. The Speaker can rule out of order any question that does not relate to the administrative responsibility of government, but that standard apparently does not apply to responses. Last January, Scheer pleaded that there was not much he could do about responses, barring a formal request to do so: “For me to deviate from this long-standing practice would require an invitation from the House, probably stemming from a review of our rules by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.”

We might debate that (I am tempted to, though the Speaker has the benefit of far more research). We might pull out the journals and haggle over the precise solution here. We might at least wonder why, if their invitation is required, MPs do not just adopt some kind of rule on responses tomorrow (though anything that puts the power of subjectivity in the Speaker’s hands will be tricky).

But then, why would we spend much time right now demanding that Andrew Scheer be held accountable for what Paul Calandra did?

We might concede here that some amount of evasion has forever been a feature of our official discourse. Artful dodgery is something of a thing, Herb Gray being something like the patron saint of such stuff. But then, we might also acknowledge that even our cynically expanded ability to tolerate this stuff has some limit, that not every dance around a question is equally forgivable.

We might, for instance, insist on expecting that, if the government of the day commits the men and women of our military to a conflict, that that government should grace us with straightforward explanations for that commitment. That if our democratically elected representatives stand in the House of Commons and ask specific questions about that commitment, that those questions—questions ultimately asked on our behalf—deserve answers, not merely responses.

This is not quite rocket science. These are merely the hopey-changey principles on which we aim to govern ourselves.

We might shrug and dismiss the silliness that sometimes ensues. But at some point, the silliness itself threatens to become the dominant force. And so we should be mindful of just how silly things have become. At what point does that silliness become a serious problem?

Feel free to answer that question with some rant against what some previously unheard-of associate of mine once tweeted. In fact, feel free to answer all questions that way from now on. If we all commit to that, we should have society ruined by Thursday.


Today in demonstrating contempt for Parliament

  1. Then get up en masse and walk out.

    • And refuse to return until Harper (not Calandra) apologizes for this clear contempt of Parliament – and Canadians in general.

  2. “This was already not ideal.”…you don’t say!

    Looks like Tom ought to have known better then to have gone all ballistic on the speaker, and paid the price for it; but we all have limits and Calandra is just about the limit for anyone. In this instance i wish JT having been thrown the ball a little early like that had stood up for Mulcair, just a bit.

    • Yes, me too! Altho it likely would only have led to the same thing happening to him! My disgust for this so called government knows no bounds! From Scheer’s permanent sneer to #HeilHarper’s hiding behind whatever he can find – they are a sad sad crew and we can’t be rid of them fast enough!!

  3. . If this keeps up at the rate of decline the way its going, theirs a good chance MPs will have to use boxing gloves in the next ten years if someone don’t start sorting this place out, and it wont happen on harpers watch. Just when you think the HOCs is at its lowest, it gets worse. Time for MPs to start cooling their jets, we’re only 2 weeks into the fall sitting, have some respect.

  4. Paul Callandra is the absolute worst kind of toady and an absolute disgrace to the country he is supposed to represent.
    Shame. Shame. Shame on Harper.

    • So – do you think he’s ‘worse’ then DDM??? LOL – I didn’t think that was possible!!

  5. Aaron, as I’m sure you’re well aware, the current Speaker and several of his predecessors have frequently had to remind MP’s that it is Question Period, not Answer Period. Also, I think most people realize that Question Period is pure theatre and has been ever since they put cameras in the House of Commons. A forum for grandstanding by the Opposition Parties of the day looking to get in their zingers that will be picked up by talking heads for the remainder of the week.

    If Canadians want answers, refer them to CPAC when it is NOT Question Period, or committee transcripts. Journalism these days has fallen so far and gotten so lazy when it comes to digging up these answers that it’s frankly pathetic.

    • Except in this case, these were rather straightforward and even non-judgmental questions, not grandstanding or zingers.

      The only thing that made that QP exchange “pure theatre” was the absurd responses from the government side of the house.

      If the government isn’t going to give answers, it should just admit that and shut up, not stand up and hurl bizarre non sequiturs.

      Journalism should not require herculean effort to dig up these answers, and elected MPs should have their questions answered, because that is why they were elected.

  6. Brilliant. Why does the Speaker in British HOC have more power? Or is it just that Mr. Scheer’s interpretation of the same power is impotence in the face of frank contempt of Parliament?

  7. I think the Conservative government is looking more and more incompetent and unpopular as the days go by, and it’s good to have mainstream media like Maclean’s reporting on it. I think this government could very well be beaten in the 2015 election, but I would just like to see the media really starting to criticize Harper, the way they did with Mulroney years ago – or any government, for that matter. But the media has always given him a bit of a free ride, if you ask me, considering the number of horrendously bad things he’s done to our country, and the ideas he has. I wonder why we aren’t seeing huge headlines saying unpopular things about him day after day the way we have with so many other politicians in the past. Perhaps people think there’s little alternative. Thankfully, the Liberals are winning back the support they had a few years ago. I’d like to see Trudeau get in. At least he seems like a nice guy. And he’s the kind of person who, when asked a question, would answer it, and not just get his assistant to do it. (without even giving him any information, either).

  8. For the life of me, I cannot imagine that the people of Paul Calandra’s riding will re-elect this clown!
    But I’m afraid he will be. People are simply clueless about the way he acts in Question Period.
    I can just imagine later in life when he reminisces about his time in Ottawa: ‘Yes, grandkids, I was a Harper puppet. I was used to block and give the stupidest answers you could ever imagine. I was a laughingstock, for sure. But hey, I now have a good pension.’

    • Well said Andy. The “Great Leader” likes this kind of people. This is why he promotes them. Pathetic and sad but true. Fortunately we have only 13 months left to put up with this clown.

  9. “We might shrug and dismiss the silliness that sometimes ensues.”

    An increasingly common reaction on my part to Mr. Wherry’s effusions such as this.

    It is unfortunate that parliamentary debate has degenerated in recent decades. It is conceded Harper has contributed to this. So have Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau. So have all their predecessors. So has the media. So have mindless twits feverishly posting on websites and blogs. Then again, decorum in all aspects of Canadian life is, IMO, rather in decline. Such is the result of “progress”.

    So why so agitated about a rather piddling example? Mulcair was asking questions he knew would not receive fulsome answers to, because fulsome answers would have put our military at risk in this particular operation (which operation BTW is fully supported by Mr. Trudeau). Mulcair is very smart, so there must have been some reason he asked questions he didn’t expect to have answered. Although I don’t know what exactly that reason was (perhaps he anticipated the exchange would bait certain Maclean’s columnists into further Harper chastisement), I have no doubt it was grounded in politics.

    Calandra’s response was, likewise, grounded in politics – I’m sure the anti-Israel musings of the NDP functionary in question had been the subject of much strategic discussion by the CPC and the plan was to shine a light on those musings at the earliest opportunity. This plan was undoubtedly based on an assumption – which this article confirms, since Wherry doesn’t even describe them – that the media was highly unlikely to bring those musings to public attention.

    As for Wherry’s mockery at Calandra referencing anti-Israeli sentiment in an exchange about combating middle eastern terrorism, I look forward to his explanatory piece about how there is no linkage whatsoever between what’s happening in Gaza and what’s happening in Syria and Iraq.

    • Ah, no.
      The date at which the 30 deployment ends was later provided to reporters.
      And answers to the other questions pose no “risk” to soldiers.
      You’ll need to do better than waving your hands to try and blame everyone for the governments shameful conduct.

      • Mulcair prefaced his question by asserting the deployment of Canadian military personnel to Iraq/Syria was “ill defined”. Is he (or you) seriously of the view that better defining that deployment won’t put those personnel at greater risk? Likewise Mulcair’s question about the public release of the deployment agreement with Iraq that presumably contains detailed information about location, strength of force, etc. – public release of that agreement won’t put troops at risk? Because those rubes in ISIS don’t know how to surf the internet well enough to find it?

        While I’m waving my hands, perhaps you need to be giving your head a shake.

        • This isn’t complicated.

          He first asked for clarification of the date the deployment ended – the answer to which was later provided to a reporter – at which point the embarrassing song & dance routine started.

          He then asked how many troops were on the ground in Iraq. Despite the terrible risk it puts them at, Harper has already said that several dozen were to be deployed.

          He then asked IF the agreement had been completed and WHEN the public can see it. He DID NOT ask Calandra what the details of the agreement are.

          It’s all right there in the text above. I can’t really see the point in lying about it.

          • I can’t really see any point in lying about it either, which is why I didn’t. I do see the point in a baseless accusation, however – it demonstrates no further effort to engage in civil discussion is warranted and thereby saves us both the trouble.

          • Implying that Calandra would have put troops at risk by answering any of Mulcair’s questions is lying.

          • ALGIERS, ALGERIA—An Algerian splinter group from Al Qaeda has beheaded a French hostage over France’s airstrikes on the Islamic State group, in a sign of the possible widening of the crisis in Iraq and Syria to the rest of the region.

            Participating in the coalition appears to have put another country’s nationals at risk. On the other hand, according to you sharing details about our country’s participation won’t increase the risk of retaliation and those who suggest otherwise are “lying”. I commend you on your knowledge of the enemy and won’t be gauche enough to query how you gained it.

          • So tell me very specifically which question could not be answered without increasing the risk that Canadian Forces already face.
            Don’t forget to quote the text of the question verbatim.

            I won’t be holding my breath.

          • “Will the Conservative government confirm that the 30-day Canadian commitment in Iraq will indeed end on Oct. 4?”

            Paraphrase: for the benefit of the fine folk in rural parts of Iraq/Syria with itchy dagger fingers, would Mr. Harper kindly confirm they’ve only got 12 more days to find a Canadian to add to their multicultural beheading mosaic?

            Please don’t hold your breath – I fear lack of oxygen might already be an issue.

          • Maybe you’re unfamiliar with the word “confirm”.
            In other words, the government already announced the length of the deployment.
            Or, as you would paraphrase:
            For the benefit of the fine folk in rural parts of Iraq/Syria with itchy dagger fingers, Mr. Harper kindly announced that they would have 30 days to find a Canadian to add to their multicultural beheading mosaic.

          • And further to your feeble attempt to defend the indefensible, consider the following question:

            You’re told you have 30 days to complete a task. You are not sure when exactly when this date began and therefore, how many days you have left.
            Do you put off the task until you have possibly run out of time, or do you try to complete the task as soon as possible?

          • Stating in advance of it that a deployment will be for 30 days and stating a deployment will end on a specific date are two different things. You do not grasp this, or choose to disregard it because of your contempt for all things Harper. If you read the reports about the “confirmation” of the mission length that followed the QP, the confirmation was that the mission started September 4, not that it would end October 4. This is because it might end sooner or later and because it is not a good idea to tell the enemy exactly when you’re leaving.

            If mission length is all so clear, as you repeatedly assert in your insistence that answering questions about a military mission doesn’t risk troops, why does Mulcair keep asking about it? Either mission length is clear, and answering questions about it therefore won’t additionally risk troops, in which case Mulcair is a simpleton to continue to ask about it, or mission length isn’t clear – for very good reasons – and clarifying will risk troops, in which case you’re a simpleton for asserting otherwise. I don’t think Mulcair is a simpleton.

            At any rate, as edifying as this has all been, I believe all defer on further exchanges until you demonstrate a tad more rationality.

          • Hate to break it to you, but according to the mathematics that the rational portion of the world uses, a 30 day mission that begins on Sept. 4 does indeed end on Oct.3.

    • Mulcair was asking a straightforward question, seeking confirmation of something another CPC MP had already asserted publicly outside the HoC. That Colander – he who strains to be relevant by spewing waste every time he opens his hole – would answer in such a fashion is beyond contempt. He has demonstrated that he and his party have no respect for the HoC or for Canadians.

  10. Par-lame-ment is a sad joke on taxpayers. Anyone thinking we should be forced too pay for this loonacy (sp intentional) is in need of a cranial assessment.

    Time to go electronic and let taxpayers decide, bet it would fix Ottawa. But wil nt happen as Ottawa is about illusions for our money. A corrupt brokerage house of other peoples money for waste and consumption of little to no value.

  11. It seems clear to me that something needs to be done by the Speaker when a question is asked and the answer is completely unrelated to the question. It makes the functioning of government look like a joke.

    Even the answer, I am not going to answer that question at this time would be better.

  12. There was nothing wrong with Mulcair’s statement to the Speaker, sometimes the truth hurts. What would you do if you asked your financial advisor about your investments’ returns, and he replied with an answer about his daughter’s cat, and the bank manager was standing right there saying nothing?

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