Accountability now! Sort of

James Bezan does what Paul Calandra would not. Yay?

Adrian Wyld/CP

Adrian Wyld/CP

When the Speaker concluded with his statement—a rare statement at the top of question period—the Conservatives stood and applauded. The Liberals applauded too. The New Democrats remained seated.

What might we have been applauding?

The bit where Speaker Scheer explained that has no authority over the content of answers barring some unparliamentary remark or personal attack contained therein? Or the bit where he quoted Speaker Milliken voicing that line about “it is called question period not answer period”? Or the bit about how Scheer has “no doubt that Canadians expect members to elevate the tone and substance of question period exchanges”? Or that “the rules of repetition and relevance” don’t apply to question period? Or that an attack on the character or actions of the Speaker could constitute a breach of privilege? (Hi there, Mr. Mulcair.)

“I also ask all members to heed my request of last Jan. 28,” Speaker Scheer concluded, “when I asked members, ‘…to consider how the House can improve things so that observers can at least agree that question period presents an exchange of views and provides at least some information. The onus is on all members to raise the quality of both questions and answers.’ ”

Applause almost all around.

And with that question period: Come for the incessant clapping, stay for the possibility of a modicum of accountability.

There was nothing terribly lacking in the question NDP MP Jack Harris asked on Monday. Sure, maybe he could have skipped the preamble. And maybe he could have said please. The question itself was fairly straightforward: “Can the minister now tell the House when this 30-day military mission ends?” But maybe if he’d been nicer about it, the defence minister would’ve responded with an actual answer.

Maybe too if Thomas Mulcair had just smiled more when he asked his question yesterday—”Will the Conservative government confirm that the 30-day Canadian commitment in Iraq will indeed end on Oct. 4?”—then Paul Calandra would have been more inclined to provide a direct response. Maybe the NDP leader shouldn’t have said that the Prime Minister had “failed” to answer questions about the “ill-defined” deployment to Iraq. Maybe the government’s feelings were hurt and that’s why Paul Calandra lashed out. We all get upset sometimes.

But even if Calandra was wounded by Mulcair’s unflattering words yesterday, he was still insistent today that there was some principle here.

“Look, the House of Commons is about accountability,” he explained to a TV reporter who stopped him after the Conservative party’s weekly caucus meeting. “It’s accountability of all members of Parliament. Just because you’re on the opposition doesn’t mean that you’re not accountable for the things you say and the positions you take.”

There is the vague outline here of some kind of reasonable-sounding idea. Parliamentarians should be accountable somehow. And Thomas Mulcair is the leader of the NDP, a party that employed an individual who posted some thoughts about an issue that some might contest, so Mulcair might be asked to account for that. Just because you sit on the opposition side of the House doesn’t mean you can’t be asked questions.

These are basically valid principles.

But the good people at Westminster suggest that Parliament—or at least their Parliament—has three main roles: “Examining and challenging the work of the government (scrutiny); debating and passing all laws (legislation); enabling the government to raise taxes.”

(Settle down, conservatives, in this case the word “raise” likely only means to collect.)

Our good book of practice and procedure explains that question period is the “part of the parliamentary day where the government is held accountable for its administrative policies and the conduct of its ministers, both individually and collectively.”

You will notice no reference in either of those quotes to the opposition. Possibly because that’s not really why we have a Parliament. Or at least it’s not the primary reason. The Magna Carta was not signed nor did William Lenthall tell King Charles I to get stuffed so that one day the parliamentary secretary to the Canadian prime minister could stand and publicly ask the MP for Outremont and the leader of the official opposition about the Internet posting of an employee of the leader’s political party.

We could perhaps set up some sort of parallel parliament, maybe in the abandoned embassy across the street from Parliament Hill, wherein members of the government could have some time set aside to ask questions of the opposition. We could make Calandra the leader of the governing opposition and let him sit in the front row. He’d probably have a lot of fun. And he would surely only ask decent questions.

Now, is it somewhat unfair to the government that Parliament exists primarily to hold the government to account? Possibly. It’s a terrible burden. So much expectation, so many demands; that square-shouldered bearded man getting on your case all the time, that feathery-haired kid getting all the attention. All of the finger-pointing.

But you do get a raise. And if you’re a minister you get a car and a driver (and people have to call you “honourable” for the rest of your life). And you get to spend all that public money advertising your good works on television.

In the interests of compromise, we might saw things off. Let’s say governing members get to use question period to ask questions about members of the opposition, but only if they first provide at least some bit of relevant information. So Calandra could have pursued his urgent matter about the NDP employee, but only if he’d first explained to the House the precise timeline for this country’s deployment of our armed forces to a hostile war zone.

Take, for instance, the response of James Bezan this afternoon when asked precisely the same question that Paul Calandra had been asked the day before: Would the current deployment to Iraq end on Oct. 4? Bezan, of course, had already twice answered this question outside the House, so it would have been particularly difficult for him to not answer. Indeed, that he, the parliamentary secretary for defence, was the government member who stood after Mulcair had put the first question was an immediately hopeful sign.

“Mr. Speaker, our government has been clear both inside and outside this House that the clock did start on the 30-day deployment on Sept. 5,” Bezan said.

This is very nearly the sort of answer we might demand. Save, mind you, for the assertion that the government has been “clear both inside and outside this House.” Outside, sure. Inside, not at all. On that count, this was actually an answer wrapped in obfuscation. (I’ve asked various officials to substantiate Bezan’s claim of clarity within the House, but have yet to receive a response.)

But it was an answer. And so, by the terms of the deal we just made up, Bezan was now entitled to attack the opposition.

“At the end of these 30 days, we will look at renewing the mission,” he continued. “The atrocities currently being committed by ISIL cannot be left unanswered. “It is outrageous that the NDP would have us do nothing in the face of that threat. It is time the NDP explained what it would do to stop ISIL and its terrorist regime.”

Vive la responsabilisation! Our accountability runneth over.

(Of course, sometime around then the Prime Minister was in New York revealing to a non-parliamentary audience that the Americans were seeking more assistance from Canada. Maybe, lest MPs feel slighted, he’ll send the House a postcard with that news.)

In fairness to Calandra, we could perhaps play this game of unanswered questions every day. Maybe we could have played it to some extent for every day of the last 147 years. Perhaps, in this case, the response was just so egregious, and the question so simple. Not fully complying with some notion of total and complete accountability is one thing. Attempting to shove the idea of accountability off a cliff is something else entirely.

It is also probably good to just periodically take stock of things. To meditate on our state of affairs. Sometimes it takes something outrageous to focus the mind. And if you wish to draw one conclusion from Speaker Scheer’s remarks this afternoon, it might be this: if there is a failure here, it is a collective failure.

Awhile after Bezan’s breakthrough, NDP environment critic Megan Leslie was badgering Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq. “Instead of bragging about what little this government has done,” Leslie asked with her fourth opportunity, “can the minister explain to us how it plans to meet its climate-change goals?”

The minister could perhaps not be expected to explain as much in the space of 30 seconds. But this was a relevant question. So relevant that perhaps the members of the environment committee—five Conservatives, three New Democrats and one Liberal— could decide at their next meeting to, in the interests of both accountability and providing at least some useful information, begin a study of this country’s options for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions in line with current and future international goals. A few months of meetings could be scheduled, every possibility explored, and an independent and comprehensive report prepared to explain the very real considerations of every option.

Is there any reason that shouldn’t be an expectation? Are our committees not capable of such independent study, on topics like health care for refugees or reform of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program*? That would seem like the sort of thing we should want Parliament to be considering. That it isn’t would suggest that we have much larger problems than how Paul Calandra answers for the government in question period.


*Post-script. Here is a list of studies proposed for the environment committee by the NDP. For the sake of comparison, here are the studies that the committee has actually pursued.