The Commons: John Baird, Pierre Poilievre and the hypocritical oath

The gleeful master of gotcha and the Minister of State for I-Know-You-Are-But-What-Am-I?

Charlie Angus wanted to talk about the possibility that individuals appointed to the Senate to represent specific provinces did not sufficiently reside in those provinces. But Pierre Poilievre wanted to talk about how Mr. Angus had been the subject of a complaint made by the Ontario election boundaries commission.

“The Member of Parliament for Timmins—James Bay submitted that the community of interest among farmers and people associated with agriculture in the farming area west and north of the City of Temiskaming Shores flowed north along Highway 11, and that there was no community of interest with people involved in agriculture in the electoral district of Nickel Belt,” the report reads, in reference to Mr. Angus. “The Member also expressed concern about the ability to serve constituents effectively if the communities along Highway 11 from the Town of Smooth Rock Falls to west of the Town of Hearst were included in the electoral district. This was the first hint of what the Commission considers to be inappropriate involvement by a Member of Parliament in the electoral redistribution process.”

Hadn’t the Conservatives, just two weeks ago, defended the involvement of parliamentarians in the boundary-drawing process? Well, yes. But they had also been responding, in part, to questions from Mr. Angus.

So… what exactly? Was Mr. Angus’ intervention somehow worse than the Conservative party’s mounting a public political campaign against the boundary commission? Was he merely guilty of the same offence he accused the Conservatives of committing? Were they both wrong? Did Mr. Angus’ wrong make the Conservatives’ actions somehow right? Did Mr. Angus’ actions somehow excuse whatever was going on in the Senate?

“He is the one who stands in the House and grandstands so regularly, putting himself on the highest moral level,” Mr. Poilievre explained a moment later.” He is the one who has been singled out for breaking the rules. He is the one who should stand and explain that.”

So perhaps Mr. Angus should stand and proclaim his offence a “big victory” and that would be that.

But ultimately Mr. Poilievre’s allegation is just that: hypocrisy. Whatever his actual title as the parliamentary secretary to the minister of transport or some such, Mr. Poilievre is something like the Minister of State for I-Know-You-Are-But-What-Am-I? And he is very good at his job. Whatever you can accuse his side of doing, he can think of something that your side did that was somewhat similar in nature. Or he can suggest that you—at least if you are the NDP’s Alexandre Boulerice—are a separatist. Presumably the aim is to ensure that everyone is regarded as equally unworthy of your trust. His fellow Conservatives adore his performances. For sure, as song and dance routines go, Mr. Poilievre’s is certainly more entertaining than, say, Julian Fantino’s lo-fi grumble or Rob Nicholson’s perpetual disappointment in the opposition.

But he is still no John Baird—the gleeful master of the glancing gotcha, the wizard of fleeting and tangential advantage.

On this day, the Foreign Affairs Minister, for whatever reason, was assigned the responsibility of handling all questions on employment insurance reform. This gave him opportunity to not only mock Stephane Dion’s carbon tax and Thomas Mulcair’s cap-and-trade proposal (which Mr. Baird and his new friend John Kerry have supported and which the President recently asked Congress to pursue), but also to mock the fact that the NDP’s Andrew Cash has been paid by the CBC.

Mr. Baird’s first duty this day though was to lead the Conservative effort and thus, in today’s case, respond to the Senate-related taunts of Thomas Mulcair.

“Mr. Speaker, there are 16 Conservative senators who have refused to come clean with Canadians about their residency and housing expenses. But now the Conservative senators charged with investigating corruption in the Senate have said that only three will face a forensic audit,” Mr. Mulcair explained.  “How can Conservatives be trusted to investigate Conservatives? Will the Conservative government finally agree to a full, independent investigation of all residence and travel expenses in the unelected, unaccountable and unapologetic Senate?”

Mr. Baird stood and offered the official reassurances of integrity and appropriateness.

Mr. Mulcair repeated his concerns en francais. Mr. Baird now ditched the reassurances.

“Mr. Speaker, yesterday the Prime Minister asked the leader of the NDP to help us pass legislation that would do two things: One, legislation that would allow for elected senators; and two, legislation that would allow for term limits for the Senate,” Mr. Baird reported. “What did the leader of the NDP do? No, he blocked it. He stopped this legislation from moving forward and that is a disgrace to taxpayers.”

A disgrace! Not reforming the Senate is a disgrace! Allowing the Senate to continue in its current state is a disgrace!

Was this Mr. Baird’s way of challenging his own government’s reluctance to move forward with legislation? If so, it was daring on his part.

“Mr. Speaker, what is a disgrace to taxpayers is to have Conservatives stonewalling Conservative senators to hide the truth from Canadian taxpayers, to let unelected people overturn the laws of Parliament,” Mr. Mulcair shot back, leaning forward and castigating Mr. Baird directly. “That is undemocratic. That is what is unacceptable.”

There was a question then about whether the government had misunderestimated the cost of its new ships by approximately $1.5 billion, but Mr. Baird still wanted to talk about the Senate.

“Mr. Speaker, the NDP leader wants to talk about unelected people making decisions. I could not make this up. The leader of the NDP claimed that he wanted to abolish the Senate, but just yesterday in the House he proposed a private member’s bill giving the Senate new and unprecedented power,” Mr. Baird declared, appearing quite giddy. “Look at what he has done. In his private member’s bill, he is now going to make the Parliamentary Budget Officer not just appointed by the elected House of Commons, but it is going to have to have the support of the unelected Senate.”

“Ohhh!” the Conservatives cried in mock shock.

Mr. Mulcair’s bill on the Parliamentary Budget Officer does indeed set out that “the Governor in Council shall, by commission under the Great Seal, appoint a Parliamentary Budget Officer after consultation with the leader of every recognized party in both Houses of Parliament and approval of the appointment by resolution of those Houses.”

“The NDP leader should make his choice,” Mr. Baird concluded. “Does he want the unelected Senate to have more power, or does he want to join this government in bringing real reforms?”

The Conservatives stood to cheer Mr. Baird’s effort.

And so Mr. Mulcair had apparently erred in acknowledging the Senate’s existence while otherwise advocating for the chamber’s abolishment. And so the Harper government, having spent the last several years appointing senators by the dozen while opposing for the existence of an appointed chamber and now seemingly refusing to move forward with a bill it has the votes to pass, is left to seek solace in accusing others of hypocrisy.