The Commons: To stand and say something

'These are the Prime Minister's own words. Does he not understand that these words apply to him?'

The Scene. The public undermining of the Honourable Beverley J. Oda’s professional standing continues at a methodical pace.

The opposition side is now engaged in unabashed mockery for the still-seated minister. “How can she remain in her position as minister when, by her silence, she refuses to be accountable to Parliament?” asked Liberal Hedy Fry after quoting from the Prime Minister’s own guidelines on ministerial accountability.

John Baird stood to take this one and so Ms. Fry upped the rhetorical ante. “The Minister of International Cooperation sits behind the Prime Minister, dutifully, day after day and is not allowed to answer,” she observed. “Is it this Prime Minister’s position that women in his cabinet should only be seen and not heard?”

This was enough to receive an admonishment from Mr. Baird, but not enough to get Ms. Oda on her feet. The Liberals pursued her twice more, but Mr. Baird stood for those as well. The Liberals jeered and yelled. They chanted “Let her speak” and thumped their desks. Ms. Oda sat quietly. Mr. Baird turned at one point to acknowledge her presence directly as he commended her “great leadership.” This earned her an ovation from the Conservative side and a pat on the back from Sylvie Boucher seated behind her.

On some antiquated principle of parliamentary democracy and representative government, the Liberals are probably correct to wonder why the minister does not stand in her place to respond to opposition queries and condemnations during the time allotted each day for the House to hear such things. But implicit in that is the assumption that her standing will serve some purpose beyond confirming her ability to perform the physical act itself.

This afternoon’s exchanging of pleasantries began with Michael Ignatieff standing to review and readdress the matter now known as in-and-out. “Mr. Speaker, the public prosecutor has charged four members of the Prime Minister’s inner circle of serious violation of Canada’s election law. The public prosecutor says that evidence of illegal activity is voluminous. So this is not just some accounting dispute. We are talking about election fraud,” he said. “Given that the Prime Minister’s party is facing a public prosecution for illegal activity, will he commit to this House today that at the next election there will not be another in-and-out scam?”

Here the Prime Minister stood to speak various sentiments, several of which had already been committed to the record the day before by his parliamentary secretary. “Mr. Speaker, this is an administrative dispute with Elections Canada that has been going on for five years,” he said.

The Liberal side laughed theatrically.

“Let us be clear, the dispute is whether certain expenses should be counted as local or national. We have a difference of opinion on this. We maintain that our people acted under the law as they understood it at the time,” Mr. Harper continued. “When it was clear that Elections Canada had changed its interpretation of the law, this party had already adjusted its practices in the 2008 election campaign.”

Mr. Ignatieff stood to repeat himself en français. Mr. Harper stood to do likewise.

As he stood with his third try, Mr. Ignatieff furrowed his brow. “Let me read something that the Prime Minister said when he created the office of the public prosecutor,” he said. “‘Bend the rules, you will be punished. Break the law, you will be charged. Abuse the public trust, you will go to prison.’ These are the Prime Minister’s own words. Does he not understand that these words apply to him? Does he think he is above the law? Who does he think he is?”

This was a decidedly existential query, the likes of which Mr. Harper could not possibly have responded sufficiently in the time allotted, but the Prime Minister stood to speak nonetheless. “Mr. Speaker, these are disputes over the interpretation of the rules,” he ventured. “That is why we have courts. They will render their decisions as appropriate.”

Mr. Ignatieff was now indignant and stood for a fourth time to scold the Prime Minister, noting a formal demand from the House that the government turn over various documents relevant to the federal budget. Mr. Harper was unmoved.

With a fifth and final opportunity, Mr. Ignatieff stood with an omnibus complaint. “The Prime Minister withholds documents. He defends friends charged with illegal activity. He shuts down Parliament when it gets in his way. He keeps a minister in cabinet who does not tell the House the truth, and will not even let her get up and defend herself in the House of Commons,” he complained. “All of this is an abuse of power. It is an abuse of democracy.”

Various Conservatives complained that the Liberal leader was going on a bit long. “Time!” they yelled at the Speaker. “Time!”

“The Prime Minister goes around the world preaching democracy overseas,” Mr. Ignatieff continued. “When will he defend and practice democracy—”

Here he had apparently exceeded his limit.

Somewhere there Mr. Harper found something to which he could vaguely claim to respond. “Mr. Speaker, in all of that, the leader of the Liberal Party raised the question of budget,” he noted. “It is the responsibility of all members of Parliament to read a budget before deciding on it. I know the Liberal Party leader seems to have made up his mind on the March budget back some time in September or August. I would encourage him to take his responsibilities seriously, to look at the budget documents when they are tabled, read them and obviously do what is best for the Canadian economy, which is to continue to focus on that economy and not on an unnecessary and opportunistic election.”

“Take your responsibilities!” cried a voice from the Liberal side.

But of course, on the basic principle with which Ms. Oda is now taunted, the Prime Minister had indeed taken his responsibilities. He did stand and he did speak and by a certain standard this is sufficient.

The Stats. In and out, nine questions. Accountability, five questions. KAIROS and energy, four questions each. Tunisia, crime, health care, food prices, Agent Orange and the CBC, two questions each. Libya, the budget, the Quebec City arena, aboriginal affairs, the economy and transportation, one question each.

Stephen Harper, 11 answers. John Baird, five answers. Pierre Poilievre, four answers. Jim Flaherty, Christian Paradis, Leona Aglukkaq and Vic Toews, three answers each. James Moore and Chuck Strahl, two answers each. Stockwell Day and Josee Verner, one answer each.

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