Ottawa

The Commons: Darkness in the mid-afternoon

Is it just us or is it getting dim in here?

The Scene. The obscenity on the Hill carries on undaunted.

Maybe it is just the season—as soon as the clocks are turned back each fall, Ottawa is suddenly made even darker and colder than usual—but the daily insulting of the public’s intelligence seems particularly dreary of late. For sure, it has been worse. And it may yet get worse. But has it ever seemed so witless? Has it ever felt so leaden? Is it just us or is it getting dim in here?

There is much to be said—with expletives and otherwise—about the government’s recent penchant for shutting down debate. But it is surely more than that.

It is, no doubt, certain practicalities: the temporary status of the two opposition leaders, the prolonged nature of certain disagreements or the lack of some tangible new gazebo-based outrage to focus on, for instance. But it is also the collective and universal decision that sound economics, study and evidence are not particularly necessary when formulating public policy. It is the rote demagoguery. It is general neglect. It is smug disregard. It is the willingness of grown men and women in business attire to stand and allow themselves to be used to read scripted banalities and invective into the official record.

It is not all bad, of course.

Today there was very nearly an interesting exchange about the merits of market-based versus government-managed pension funds. Afforded the day to move a motion of their choosing, the Liberals spent their time pursuing a discussion about the accessibility of safe drinking water in Aboriginal communities. And all parties seemed mostly agreed on the general sentiment, even if they apparently couldn’t help but blame each other for the trouble.

The House went quiet when Linda Duncan stood to question the government about reports that is has been spying on an advocate for Native children. And members on all sides took note when Bob Rae called attention to the deaths of Tom Kent and Dr. Fraser Mustard, two accomplished contributors to their country. “Let us all resolve,” Mr. Rae beckoned, “to take up the torch of these two great men and resolve to strive to make Canada an even more equitable, more just, and more progressive nation.”

Everyone stood and clapped and then quickly moved on. The next person up, a Conservative MP, duly attacked a New Democrat MP. And then the NDP’s Eve Peclet stood to rail with great fury and fire against the Conservatives. And then Rob Clarke, the Conservative MP, stood to feign indignation at the official opposition.

Only then did Question Period start. This day’s theatrics were largely in keeping with yesterday’s allegation of treachery, only this afternoon’s show was somehow even more tawdry than that, complete with actual cries of “shame” and much talk of “killing” jobs.

“Out of compassion for my fellow parliamentarians,” Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver grumbled at the New Democrats, “I recommend the book called ‘Economics for Dummies.’ ”

This soon became a thing.

“Mr. Speaker, since we are trading literary recommendations today, I hear there is a new publication called ‘Buying Jets for Dummies,’ ” the NDP Matthew Kellaway smirked on the subject of the F-35 purchase. “Let me recommend that to the Associate Minister of National Defence.”

“Mr. Speaker, maybe the honourable member could lend me his book,” Julian Fantino shot back.

Then to the NDP’s Francoise Boivin, who had one for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews. “Mr. Speaker, since we are talking about books, I also have a book to recommend,” she said. “It is called ‘Democracy for Dummies.’ ”

Then finally to the Liberal side’s John McCallum, who was concerned about the use of government jets. “Does he want to borrow a book that I just acquired called ‘Flying Challenger Jets for Dummies?’ ” he asked of government House leader Peter Van Loan.

The House turned shortly thereafter to the matter of Dean Del Mastro. Where the NDP—buoyed by an opinion of the Commons law clerk—sees the Conservative MP’s attempt to compel certain documents from the CBC as both unconstitutional and unlawful, the government views Mr. Del Mastro’s actions as, to quote Heritage Minister James Moore, “standing up for taxpayers.”

After some toing and froing between Mr. Moore and the NDP’s Charlie Angus, Alexandre Boulerice attempted to bridge this yawning chasm. Noting the government’s interest in documentation and accountability in regards to the CBC, Mr. Boulerice wondered if Tony Clement would be turning over, as apparently promised, various forms related to the G8 Legacy Fund.

Up came Mr. Moore, seeming to think he had the official opposition caught in a contradiction. “Mr. Speaker, what an astonishing double standard by the NDP,” he gasped. “The President of the Treasury Board and the former minister of infrastructure appeared before a parliamentary committee and testified with regard to this matter. All the member for Peterborough is doing is saying that the CBC should be accountable before committee.”

Had he stopped himself there he might’ve been able to claim a kind of victory, but then came his next sentence.

“All we are saying,” he said, “is that the CBC should be elevated to the same level of accountability and responsibility as the President of the Treasury Board has already demonstrated.”

Just like that, Mr. Moore’s double standard had become quite possibly the lowest standard imaginable.

There was some degree of laughter at this. And it is good, especially on days like this, especially when it is cold and dark and all hope seems lost, to laugh. Even if the giggles come at the expense of the very notion of parliamentary accountability for which we are all presumably drawn here.

The Stats. Aboriginal affairs, seven questions. Pensions, five questions. Military procurement, four questions. Energy, the Canadian Wheat Board and firearms, three questions each. Small business, ethics, the G8 Legacy Fund and taxation, two questions each. The economy, government spending, the CBC, science and transportation, one question each.

Stephen Harper, six answers. James Moore, five answers. Julian Fantino, Shelly Glover, Maxime Bernier, John Duncan and Gerry Ritz, four answers each. Joe Oliver, three answers. Vic Toews, Peter Van Loan, Gary Goodyear and Denis Lebel, one answer each.