The Commons: Accepting responsibilities without taking responsibility - Macleans.ca

The Commons: Accepting responsibilities without taking responsibility

In his seat across the way, Mulcair threw his hands in the air, not sure whether to laugh, cry or scream

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The Scene. “Who was responsible for the F-35?” Thomas Mulcair asked at the outset.

This was both straightforward and profound. A direct question, but a philosophical riddle. If a massive abuse of procedure and accountability falls in the forest, but no one is named, blamed and shamed as the culprit, did it ever really happen? One is reminded of the moment last November when Tony Clement could not say precisely who had broken the rules in the G8 Legacy Fund affair.

“Mr. Speaker, the Auditor General is very clear regarding the responsibilities in this respect,” the Prime Minister offered by way of response.

Mr. Mulcair seemed to feel a lesson was in order. Our parliamentary system, he said, is based on the principle of ministerial responsibility. The minister is responsible for his ministry. The Prime Minister is responsible for picking his ministers.  “Does the Prime Minister think,” Mr. Mulcair wondered, “that the Defence Minister has done his job?”

“Yes,” Mr. Harper offered. “The government and ministers accept their responsibilities.”

The leader of the opposition was unsatisfied. “Mr. Speaker, even if we were to believe that the Chief of Defence Staff and the generals were plotting behind the minister’s back to lie to Parliament, to lie to Canadians, which is highly unlikely, it would only prove that the Minister of National Defence is not in control of his own department,” he ventured, his hands folded together in front of him. “However, the Minister of National Defence knew the F-35 was a fiasco. The NDP, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, media report after media report all highlighted the numerous problems with the plane and its budgeting.”

Opening his hands and turning his palms upward, he posed the question(s). “When will the Minister of National Defence finally stand up and take responsibility for the F-35 debacle? Where is the accountability?”

The Prime Minister, his own hands folded in front of him, protested. ” Mr. Speaker,” he begged, “of course the leader of the NDP is putting words into the Auditor General’s mouth that he certainly never said.”

Specifically, the Auditor General’s office has expressed “significant concerns about the completeness of cost information provided to parliamentarians.” “In March 2011, National Defence responded publicly to the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s report. This response did not include estimated operating, personnel, or ongoing training costs,” the report reads. “Defence told parliamentarians that cost data provided by US authorities had been validated by US experts and partner countries, which was not accurate at the time. At the time of its response, National Defence knew the costs were likely to increase but did not so inform parliamentarians.”

Now Mr. Mulcair rose for a fourth time. “Mr. Speaker, the Minister of National Defence looked very much in charge when he climbed aboard the F-35 for photo ops. He looked very much in charge when for months he was denying any problems with the F-35,” he shot back, staring down the Prime Minister and wagging his finger at Mr. MacKay. “Here is the bottom line: The Minister of National Defence had the responsibility to know, the duty to find out and the obligation to tell the truth in Parliament. Now that his Minister of National Defence has failed so miserably, why is he refusing to act?”

Mr. Harper stood bearing talking points. “On the contrary, Mr. Speaker, the government is acting on the recommendations of the Auditor General. The government has not acquired the aircraft. The government has not signed a contract. The government has frozen the funds for acquisition. The government will examine the process. The government has said it will set up a separate and distinct secretariat and we will make sure there is independent verification processes. That is how the government will proceed.”

The NDP leader called this out as “nonsense”—the Conservatives, he noted, are still “fully on board” with the F-35. In response, the Prime Minister had assurances and, of course, a vow to “make sure our men and women in uniform have the best equipment.”

Dean Del Mastro, the Prime Minister’s dutiful parliamentary secretary, gave this a one-man standing ovation.

Mr. MacKay had remained seated for all of yesterday’s Question Period. And it was his parliamentary secretary who was put in front of the television cameras afterwards to explain the government’s position. And it was to Julian Fantino’s office that questions about what Mr. MacKay knew—submitted by this writer—were directed earlier this afternoon. But this afternoon, Mr. MacKay did stand.

On the first appearance, in response to taunts from the NDP’s Matthew Kellway, he offered the same sorts of reassurances the Prime Minister had offered. “The Auditor General has provided conclusions and made recommendations, and we have accepted those,” he explained. “We will continue now, with the guidance of Public Works, to move forward with a proper acquisition process to replace the aging CF-18s.”

A total of seven Conservatives stood to applaud this.

Mr. Kellway came back with a reference to shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.

Mr. MacKay stood for a second time. “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “as was mentioned, with no contract in place…”

In his seat across the way, Mr. Mulcair threw his hands in the air and stared at the Defence Minister, appearing not sure whether to laugh, cry or scream. (“Mr. Speaker, let us look at the actual contract,” Mr. MacKay once demanded of an apparent agreement that guaranteed 65 warplanes at a cost of $9 billion.)

“… no money misspent and now funds frozen, we are injecting more accountability into this process,” Mr. MacKay declared. “We will move forward. That is our intention, to see the CF-18 aircraft replaced with a proper aircraft. We will continue to make investments that support the men and women in uniform. I would advise the member opposite to do the same.”

Indeed, the best way for Mr. Kellway to support the troops would seem to be that he forget any of this ever happened.

The Stats. Military procurement, 20 questions. Ethics, four questions. Taxation, the CBC and gas prices, two questions each. Employment, government services, the budget, the environment, Rights & Democracy, Old Age Security, National Defence and oil tankers, one question each.

Stephen Harper, eight responses. Rona Ambrose, five responses. Peter MacKay, Julian Fantino and Christian Paradis, four responses. Gail Shea, Andrew Saxton, John Duncan and James Moore, two responses. Shelly Glover, Candice Hoeppner, Peter Kent, John Baird, Alice Wong and Denis Lebel, one response.