The Commons: Marching off to war with an army of strawmen

"Time has run out. Enough is enough."

The Scene. For sure, this saga may arrive at a happy ending, perhaps as early as tomorrow. Our democracy may yet survive this test. We may yet get through the week with the basic foundation of our society more or less in tact. But will that necessarily atone for this spectacle? Will the end result redeem the process?

Up first at Question Period this afternoon to begin the latest turn in what will either be remembered as a testament to the enduring reasonableness of our system or the most tawdry of charades, was Michael Ignatieff. The leader of the opposition reviewed the facts—that the Speaker had ruled that Parliament could well demand to review documents related to the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan, but that the government had so far failed to agree to a process whereby that could occur. Would the Prime Minister, Mr. Ignatieff wondered, instruct the government’s representatives to agree to a suitable arrangement and abide by the Speaker’s ruling?

The Prime Minister was not present, so over then to the Justice Minister, who rose with a pair of strawmen by his side.

“We have been very clear,” Rob Nicholson said in his passive aggressive way. “We will do nothing to compromise national security and will certainly do nothing that would jeopardize the men and women who serve us in uniform.”

If the insinuation here is that someone present does wish to compromise national security and jeopardize the men and women in uniform, then surely the Attorney General is bound to pursue such traitors and bring them to justice. If, on the other hand, the insinuation is that national security trumps all, and it is the government that determines what can be defined as such, it is perhaps necessary to question the Justice Minister’s understanding of the applicable law (no less than the Speaker having already identified Mr. Nicholson’s reading comprehension as a cause of some concern).

But then, on this point, one need not even get into matters of Westminster precedent, one need only refer back to the agreement-in-principle that Mr. Nicholson happily tabled in the House one month ago. Indeed, with his next breath, the leader of the opposition did just that.

“Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Ignatieff reported, “the tentative accord safeguards national security and the minister knows full well that it is fully possible to reach an accord this afternoon.”

The Liberal leader repeated his question and then Mr. Nicholson rose again to patronize, this time in a new way.

“Mr. Speaker, again, I am not quite sure how much research the honourable member has done on this,” he huffed, “but, again, what he will find out if he has a look into this is that we have been prepared to sign an agreement at every single meeting, and we have had at least 10 of them at this point.”

Right. Well, except mind you, that by one telling the government’s proposal would restrict the very power any agreement was meant to enforce.

Round and round we went once more, Mr. Ignatieff making his demand, Mr. Nicholson making his claim and John Baird yelling out something to do with the Taliban and then Jack Layton standing to talk quite tough. “Mr. Speaker, it seems to us that the Conservatives are trying to run out the clock to prevent members of Parliament from getting access to documents that would tell the truth about torture in Afghanistan,” Mr. Layton testified. “Time has run out. Enough is enough.”

Indeed. When the Speaker ruled on this question in April—after a process extended by the prorogation of Parliament—he allowed the House two weeks to arrive at a suitable arrangement. Two and a half weeks later, after asking for and receiving an extension on their homework, the parties arrived at that aforementioned agreement in principle and gave themselves until the end of May to finalize the details. When a meeting on May 31 failed to produce a deal, the parties gave themselves another few days. When those few days passed without sufficient progress, the NDP and Bloc announced that the following week would have to produce a result. And when that week passed without resolution, bringing us to this past Friday, the opposition parties announced that today would be the last and final chance before whatever consequence could come would come.

Six months after the House demanded to see documents relevant to this country’s handling of Afghan detainees and three months after members of the House rose to complain that the government had failed to comply, time had thus run out. The House was now due to rise for the summer in a matter of days. Enough, as Mr. Layton said, was apparently enough.

So threatened, Mr. Nicholson stood to reintroduce his strawmen and to invite Mr. Layton to concede to the government’s demands. Mr. Layton declined to demure and in fact upped the rhetorical ante. “Mr. Speaker, we need the Prime Minister to be crystal clear as to what we are saying. We are done with the foot dragging. We are done with the cancelled meetings. We are done with the lame excuses that there are no meeting rooms available. We are done with the countless efforts to circumvent your ruling, Mr. Speaker,” he declared.

“Woaahhh!” mocked the government side.

“The fact is that Canadians must be told the truth about torture in Afghanistan. If his ministers fail to conclude an agreement this afternoon, is the Prime Minister ready to take it to the next level, leader to leader, tonight?”

“Woaahhh!” mocked the government side again.

With that invitation tabled, Mr. Nicholson stood to do what he could, namely repeat himself and offhandedly employ the word “coalition.”

That, at least for this afternoon, was that.

Sometime later, representatives from all sides commenced their last and final meeting and sometime after that representatives from all sides emerged to announce that no deal had been reached, but that they would meet again tomorrow and that that meeting would definitely and absolutely and unequivocally be the last and final meeting. For sure, this time. Promise.

It is possible we are witnessing merely the messy, meandering, adversarial and precarious process that is this system. That the strawmen and the invective, the distraction and delay, are unavoidable, or at least time-honoured. Perhaps we see here the inevitable result of a government bent on testing the limits of our governance and an opposition too divided and troubled to properly oppose. Maybe we must accept that democracy itself is subject to constant negotiation. And maybe, again, this will all come to a fine and acceptable conclusion and the rest will be rendered moot.

But surely it is harrowing to see something so vital rendered as farce. And indisputably each wasted day makes the next all that much more pivotal.

The Stats. The G20, 13 questions. Afghanistan, six questions. Tourism, three questions. Securities regulation, copyright, the military, the oil industry, pensions, agriculture and Parliament, two questions each. Firearms, Aboriginal affairs, the RCMP and Canada Post, one question each.

Lawrence Cannon, seven answers. Rob Nicholson, six answers. Bev Oda, Tony Clement, James Moore and John Baird, three answers each. Ted Menzies, James Moore, Peter MacKay, Christian Paradis, Gery Ritz, Pierre Poilievre and Dave MacKenzie, two answers each. Stockwell Day, Jay Hill and Colin Carrie, one answer each.