The Commons: Explaining is losing

The Scene. Of the Petronas decision, Thomas Mulcair stood and suggested Christian Paradis had behaved like a “thief in the night.”

This was most certainly unfair. For one thing, most thieves, even in this age of social media, do not advertise their actions with late night news releases.

Mr. Mulcair wondered if Mr. Paradis might explain himself, but Mr. Paradis’ first attempt in this regard did not satisfy the NDP leader.

“Is this the kind of transparency we are going to get?” Mr. Mulcair wondered aloud. “The criteria for evaluating foreign takeovers are not clear or transparent. Conservative ministers make multi-billion-dollar decisions in the dead of the night. No wonder investors are left in the dark.”

Whoever came up with that turn of phrase no doubt feels immensely proud of themselves this evening.

“It is not good for business and it is not good for the economy,” Mr. Mulcair continued. “Without clear criteria, we do not know whether these decisions are influenced by cronyism or by partisan political purposes. The Conservatives promised reform of the Investment Canada Act but have not delivered. Why can they not make the net benefit desk clear for investors, Canadians and for all to see?”

Mr. Paradis stood up straight and recounted the events as he understood them.

“Mr. Speaker, on Friday night I announced as the Minister of Industry that I was not satisfied with the fact that the proposed transaction was going to be a net benefit for the country,” he explained. “So starting from that point the company has 30 days to make additional representations. We all know we welcome foreign investment that is in the best interests of Canadians.”

The best interests of Canada seems something like the least we could expect. Would any politician say they ever knowingly did something that they did not believe to be in the best interests of the country? (Wouldn’t even members of the Bloc Quebecois, a party that proudly seeks the destruction of the country as we know it, say that they do so in the belief that it is everyone’s best interests?)

A few moments later, Bob Rae picked up on Mr. Mulcair’s metaphor. But first, a philosophical riddle.

“Mr. Speaker, I wonder if the Minister of Industry would explain to us how Petronas is going to tell the government what is of net benefit if the government has not told it what is not of net benefit,” he asked, “and if the government has had those conversations with Petronas, would it please tell the Canadian people?”

Here then, he wagged his index finger in the minister’s general direction. “This whole process is in the dark,” he ventured. “It should be transparent.”

Mr. Paradis was unfazed. “Mr. Speaker, as the leader of the Liberal Party mentioned, the investor has the opportunity to make additional representations in the next 27 days,” he said. “I announced that I was not satisfied that the proposed investment was going to bring a net benefit to Canada. As the member knows, we have the law. It is clear. There are factors under article 20, plus guidelines. As we all know, we welcome an investment that is in the best interests of this country.”

Of course, if the law is clear, one might wonder why the Prime Minister thinks it necessary to provide further clarity.

Still unsatisfied, the NDP eventually sent Peter Julian and his gangly arms after the Industry Minister. “Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Julian cried at one point, “no answers, no clarity, this is no way to run an economy!”

Since when, one might’ve asked.

It is not in this government’s habit to explain itself. Mr. Harper does not regularly convene audiences to listen to him expound at length on his plans and vision. His ministers do not obviously feel bad when the opposition suggests they have not fully accounted for themselves and their work. His government is more interested in doing stuff than talking about stuff (two things, granted, that should not be considered mutually exclusive).

The problem here seems to be that the explanation is apparently as important as the action. And without such information there is much fretting among fans of the free market.

If it is any solace, potential investors should at least be assured that it is nothing personal. Or at least that they have company in the dark.

“Mr. Speaker, Canadians want to know how budget cuts will affect the services they rely on,” the NDP’s Guy Caron boldly declared this afternoon. “It is a sad day when the Parliamentary Budget Officer has to go to court because Conservatives are hiding information. The Parliamentary Budget Officer has a mandate to provide analysis to Parliament on planned spending of the government and the state of the nation’s finances. Why are Conservatives refusing to give the Parliamentary Budget Officer this information?”

Tony Clement stood with brow furrowed, apparently puzzled by the query.

“Mr. Speaker,” he offered, “we continue to give the budget officer information that falls within his mandate.”

Or at least the information within the budget officer’s mandate as Mr. Clement determines that mandate to be.

“We have done so in the past,” he continued. “We are doing so in the present. We will undoubtedly do so in the future and we continue to report to parliamentarians and to Canadians using the normal means which include quarterly reports, the estimates and the public accounts. We will continue to do so in the future as well.”

Amid such forthcomingness and reportage, it is a wonder that Kevin Page still finds himself bereft of clarity.

The Stats. Foreign investment, six questions. Mortgages, five questions. Ethics, four questions. Espionage, three questions. Waterways, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the estimates, the budget, aboriginal affairs, veterans, culture and border security, two questions each.

Tony Clement and Ted Menzies, six responses each. Christian Paradis, five responses. Pierre Poilievre, Peter MacKay and John Duncan, three responses each. Steven Fletcher, Vic Toews, Steven Blaney and Paul Calandra, two responses each. Joe Oliver, Peter Van Loan, Gerry Ritz and Gerald Keddy, one response each.