A basically decent few days for the House of Commons

Various questions, some answers

(CP photo)

(CP photo)

John Baird seemed to want it noted that the Prime Minister had just responded to a straightforward question with a straightforward answer.

Thomas Mulcair had asked whether any members of the Canadian military were on the ground in Syria and Stephen Harper had responded simply, “No, Mr. Speaker,” and sat back down. And now the Foreign Affairs minister was calling out in mock outrage. “Why won’t you answer the question?” he cried. Various Conservatives chuckled at the chide.

It was obviously a bit rude that Mulcair did not thank the Prime Minister for such clarity.

So far as the cause of parliamentary democracy is concerned, this week is at least going better than last week. No question about this country’s involvement in Iraq has yet been answered with a rant about what some obscure employee of the NDP wrote on Facebook. The Prime Minister has not yet made news about Canada’s possible contribution while seated on a stage in another country.

Instead, on Monday, Baird stood in the House and managed to refrain from wandering off topic while responding to questions from the opposition. And within those responses was useful information: the government had not yet made a decision about increasing the country’s involvement, indeed cabinet had not yet considered the question. He committed to get back to an NDP MP with specific information on the number of soldiers in Iraq. And, on the matter of a vote in the House, he had actual information at hand to counter the official Opposition’s concerns.

On Tuesday, the NDP leader reprised his Perry Mason routine for an 18-question set with the Prime Minister. Here, if nothing else, we learned that the government’s commitment to a vote on a combat mission included any mission involving aerial combat and that the government hoped to have a decision within the next few days.

There had been laughing and groaning from the Conservatives at some of Mulcair’s questions—about how long the Prime Minister expected the conflict to last, how victory would be defined and what sort of exit strategy was planned—and the NDP leader had fussed over the precise terms of Canadian involvement. Afterwards, Conservative MP Laurie Hawn, a former pilot in the Canadian air force, lamented to reporters that the leader of the Opposition’s questions on the rules of engagement and the duration of the effort had been “not very bright,” as well as “simplistic and frankly nonsense.”

Perhaps Hawn could volunteer to advise the NDP on which questions to ask. But for now, it is tempting to lean on that thing your mother told you about there being no stupid questions. Your mother might also point out that the leader of the Opposition’s primary task is to ask questions and that there is perhaps no better time to ask questions than just before committing a country’s men and women to the cause of violent conflict. (And so far as questions go, wondering how long the mission might be expected to last, what victory might look like and how combat is defined seem like the sorts of things we might want to be thinking about right now.)

At least until the country completely gives up on parliamentary democracy, governments are just going to have to continue to sit there and take these questions. If it is any consolation, governments remain basically free to say whatever they want in response to those questions.

As Baird would surely like noted, the current government has responded to this week’s questions without engaging in completely irrelevant nonsense. Huzzah. But that’s not to say it’s been all nice and sweet.

Off the top this afternoon, Mulcair wondered how many soldiers were currently on the ground in Iraq.

“Mr. Speaker, the leader of the Opposition already knows the answer to that question,” Harper lamented. “There are 26 soldiers today. The government has authorized 69 soldiers, as is well known, and that is obviously a maximum. Those numbers will fluctuate depending on decisions of operational commitments.”

This much was already known, because the government told the NDP (honouring Baird’s pledge of Monday) and then the NDP told the press. But it is always nice to have a minister of the Crown state as much on the floor of the House of Commons. You know, as if this place matters.

The NDP leader proceeded to badger the Prime Minister a bit about how previous attempts by the NDP to clarify this fact had failed. The Prime Minister managed a reasonable-sounding explanation. “Mr. Speaker, once again, the government has authorized up to 69 personnel,” he said. “People will come and go from the theatre. The decisions on the operational needs within that number will be made by commanders on the ground.”

There were useful questions and answers then about whether the government is interested in bombing Syria (“The government has not made a decision”) or getting into a fight on the ground in Iraq (“That is not something we are considering”).

There was some back-and-forth about the precise cost of the mission with the Prime Minister committing only that whatever the Canadian Forces do it will come out of the current budget. Awhile later, Liberal MP Joyce Murray followed up with specificity on this point.

“Mr. Speaker, can the Prime Minister inform the House as to the projected total budget for the current 30-day deployment in Iraq?” she asked. “Since I have just heard that this money is coming out of the current National Defence budget, can the Prime Minister tell us whether he plans to request supplementary funds from Parliament for this mission or future missions, given the substantial budget cuts to the Defence ministry?”

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson, who is rarely asked a question he does not like, was typically dismissive. “Mr. Speaker, on the last point the honourable member is wrong. The budget for National Defence has gone up this year under this government,” he said.

J.L. Granatstein might quibble.

“That being said, with respect to this deployment it is not over yet, but I know we are doing the right thing helping to protect the people of that area,” the minister continued, jabbing his finger downward at his desk, “and taking a stand against this terrible terrorist organization.”

So maybe price is no object.

All things considered, we might hope that all government initiatives were subject to this sort of attention and scrutiny. But we also might not rest on the laurels of the last three days.

Awhile after the questions about Iraq had ceased, the Conservatives sent up Ryan Leef to lob an easy one at the Prime Minister so that the Prime Minister could stand and announce to the House which of the Franklin ships had been found.

If the House of Commons is the proper venue for the first announcement of sunken treasure, it is probably also the right place to announce the next phase of this country’s military involvement in Iraq. And after that it would be useful to have a debate, one that included the Defence minister and the Foreign Affairs minister and involved a robust discussion with facts and arguments.

Then John Baird could mock everyone’s concerns.