OTTAWA – Paul Calandra is the face of the Harper government in the Senate expenses scandal.
Calandra, 43, has been plucked from relative obscurity on the Conservative back bench and placed in the hottest seat in the House of Commons.
It is the suburban Ontario MP’s job to parry, deflect, ignore, stickhandle, absorb and otherwise squelch opposition questions about Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s role in the ongoing controversy over an alleged cover-up involving his office and his Conservative appointees in the Senate.
Calandra fielded 23 consecutive questions on the Senate expense affair to open Monday’s question period in the Commons.
His uniformly unilluminating responses ranged from a 17-year-old incident involving NDP Leader Tom Mulcair to the leadership of Liberal Stephane Dion, a hockey rink in Brantford, Ont., a diabetes fundraiser in the Yukon and the language skills of his Italian immigrant parents.
When his responses touched on the actual subject at hand — a $90,000 secret cheque to a sitting senator from Harper’s former chief of staff and the role of the Prime Minister’s Office in the alleged cover-up — Calandra was almost lyrically incomprehensible: “kids in short pants to Mike Duffy apparently is like garlic to a vampire!”
A former insurance broker from Markham, Ont., Calandra worked for a provincial Conservative member in Ontario’s Mike Harris government. He was first elected to the House of Commons in 2008.
From his recent question period responses in relation to the Senate scandal we know that Calandra’s father ran a pizzeria, and that he and his wife have daughters aged seven and five who get a weekly allowance.
Calandra has a time-honoured parliamentary role: The designated punching bag who stands and shoulders the opposition barrage when the government, particularly its leader, is in the soup.
Former Liberal deputy prime minister Herb Gray — The Gray Fog — was a master of the genre, embodying the place where opposition questions disappeared in a miasma of polite, monotonal verbiage.
Before him, the Progressive Conservatives under Brian Mulroney often used Don Mazankowski and John Crosbie, although Mulroney couldn’t resist leaping to his feet in his own defence when the going got rough.
Scott Brison, then the public works minister, played the role for the Liberals during some of the sponsorship scandal period.
All those question period fielders were cabinet ministers, but under Harper a new type of specialist has emerged: the sharp-elbowed parliamentary secretary.
Peterborough MP Dean Del Mastro handled the role for a while, until his own elections spending issues (he faces Elections Act charges in connection with his 2008 campaign return) made his role as ethics defender untenable.
Pierre Polievre has been a go-to question period scrapper on scandal questions for the Conservatives, and now Calandra.
He was elevated to parliamentary secretary to the prime minister in September after spending some time in the same role for former heritage minister James Moore.
Monday’s exchanges help explain why Calandra got the nod.
NDP critic Nycole Turmel premised a pointed question of fact on the Senate scandal by demanding Calandra respond in French.
Calandra seized the opening to launch an impassioned tale of his immigrant parents’ arrival in Canada in the 1950s and their efforts to learn the local tongue.
“Until they both died, they were both extraordinarily nervous about speaking English,” Calandra said in a fiery, wounded tone.
“Although they could speak it very well, they spoke it with an accent. They were always nervous about that, right to the end.”
He concluded by saying he’s trying to learn French, but that the gravity of the questions means he’s responding in English so that opposition MPs do not “get the wrong answer because I am responding incorrectly.”
Calandra’s response was an artful version of common Conservative question period tactics — ignore the question and strike back.
“I think in Mulroney’s day it was question period with answers,” said Bob Plamondon, the author of “Blue Thunder: The Truth about Conservatives from Macdonald to Harper.”
“Now it’s question and counterpunch.”
The tactic may be no more or less enlightening than question period responses of yore, but it is certainly more infuriating to the opposition.
“The responses are so disrespectful of this place, the institution,” Liberal MP Judy Sgro, a former cabinet minister who once fielded her own scandal-fuelled responses, said outside the chamber.
“The least they could do is put up a senior cabinet minister who has the ability to say something — anything.”
Dominic LeBlanc, the Liberal deputy leader, was clearly miffed that Calandra had shown disrespect in an exchange with Dion, a former Liberal leader, cabinet minister and author of the Clarity Act on Quebec independence.
And LeBlanc called out Calandra’s high dudgeon over the NDP dig about French responses.
“Mr. Harper values people who blindly repeat ridiculous answers, who avoid the questions in either language, who stick to talking points that make no sense,” LeBlanc blustered after question period.
“So I think Mr. Harper must really admire Mr. Calandra’s incompetence.”
Sgro gave a cooler assessment of Calandra’s efforts.
“It might just work for them,” said the veteran Liberal MP.
“That was a complete waste of time today. I may as well have been back in my office.”