The Commons: 'We will continue to insist'

The Scene. To everyone’s infinite credit, Question Period passed today without a single reference to a bathroom, toilet, loo or water closet. There were two snide references to the Prime Minister’s ability to keep his photo op appointments, but given the bad puns that might have been employed, our Parliamentarians are otherwise probably to be congratulated for their restraint.

This afternoon, the last regular Question Period before a two-week Easter break, was instead dominated by far less giggle-worthy subjects like the economy and far more cringe-worthy matters like our continued engagement in Afghanistan.

On the former, the story remains much the same as it’s been for weeks. The opposition finds the Prime Minister confusing at best, hapless at worst. The government continues to struggle with their democratic responsibility to answer such charges. With the Prime Minister and Finance Minister in London, it was Ted Menzies’ duty to take most of the questions today and, though normally a good-natured sort and dressed today in a dashing pink tie and pink shirt ensemble, he seemed in a terrible mood, snapping and glaring and moaning about the bothersome nature of his inquisitors. Questions were asked, responses were offered, little if anything was achieved.

On the latter, there was a half-hearted attempt at once more trying to understand the Afghan legislature’s recent attempt to undermine everything we say we ‘re over there fighting for.

The first of four questions on the controversial new law was asked by Bob Rae. “Mr. Speaker, the head of women’s affairs at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said that western silence had been ‘disastrous’ for women’s rights in Afghanistan. She went on to say something which is very pertinent, ‘If they had got more involved in the process when it was discussed in Parliament, we could have stopped it,'” he reported. “I would like to ask the government, when was it aware of the legislation being proposed with respect to women in Afghanistan and what did it do about it when it heard about it?”

Stockwell Day rose to response. “Mr. Speaker, I was in Afghanistan only about two or three weeks ago and the officials in Afghanistan,” he said, “the people of Afghanistan were not even aware of this legislation coming at them.”

In fairness to the Afghans, one wonders how often the same could be said about Canadians and the laws that pass through Ottawa.

“We are very much aware of it,” Day continued, without responding directly to the when portion of Rae’s question. “That is why the Prime Minister has taken a lead on the world stage, making it very clear Afghanistan must live up to its responsibility to protect human rights, especially the human rights of women. We have made this very clear. We know it is in that process now and we are holding it to that.”

A few minutes later, the NDP’s Jack Layton gave it a go. “Mr. Speaker, the laws that President Karzai is bringing forward are devastating steps backward for women in Afghanistan,” he said. “The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that these laws are a ‘clear indication that the human rights situation in Afghanistan is getting worse, not better.’ This latest assault on rights is not new. The House passed a unanimous motion to support Afghan journalist Sayed Pervez Kambaksh who received a life sentence because he wrote about women’s rights. That is not what we are fighting for. What concrete consequences will there be?”

Day tried again to make his government’s response sound aggressive and meaningful. “Mr. Speaker, we are very concerned about this situation and that is why upon learning of it the Minister of Foreign Affairs immediately called upon his counterpart to ask what they were intending to do,” he said. “We are saying to the government in Afghanistan that it has certain obligations that are very clear under international treaties. It must live up to those and especially it must live up to protecting the human rights including human rights of women. We are holding it to that.”

Day and his fellow ministers on this file certainly find themselves in a bit of a rhetorical bind. If the latest report from Kabul is accurate, the situation there is a mess. And, by this government’s own assertion, it’s options are limited.

“Let us not forget that this is an individual appointed by the sovereign elected government of Afghanistan,” Defence Minister Peter MacKay said a year ago when the governor of Kandahar was accused of beating and electric-shocking a prisoner.

Two months later, Maxime Bernier, then the foreign affairs minister and visiting Afghanistan, was accused of improperly suggesting that governor might be replaced. A quick clarification from the minister was unequivocal. “Afghanistan is a sovereign state that makes its own decisions about government appointments,” he said. “I can assure you that Canada fully respects this and is not calling for any changes to the Afghan government.”

(Four months after that, the governor was dismissed.)

After Rae and Layton had taken their turns, the Bloc’s Nicole Demers stood and asked to know what consequences the government had in mind now. Day said that Canada would “insist” the Afghans upheld their obligations to women’s rights.

The Bloc’s Johanne Deschamps stood next and suggested the government redirect aid away from the Karzai government and toward NGOs that are much more committed to protecting the women of Afghanistan. Day referred back to his previous answers. “We will continue to insist,” he said.

After Question Period, Rae was persuaded to take a few questions from reporters and he lingered for awhile in front of the microphone.

Someone asked if he suspected wrongdoing or failure on the part of officials in Kabul.

“I have no evidence of that,” Rae said. “I think it’s more a matter of we need to get to the bottom of who knew what when and who reported what when to which.”

Someone asked what the government might do now.

“I’m not one to make threats in public,” he said, sounding positively Stockwellesque.

Someone asked about consequences.

“Well, I think, I mean, I think everybody understands that this is something which we all take very seriously and which we do not take lightly,” he assured. “We also understand that it’s important to give the Afghan government and the Afghan Parliament a chance to reaction to the reactions of other countries and to—for us to all assess what is the final product. We haven’t even seen the final law. We don’t know exactly what the wording of the final drafting of the law is. Some people say it’s not completed yet. Some people say it has not been finally approved.  There are a lot of different accounts as to what’s gone on. So instead of drawing a bunch of lines in the sand today, I think the important thing is for everyone to understand, which is what I think is clearly understood, and that is that this is not acceptable in the way it’s been proposed.”

This much is certain, even if nothing else is clear.

The assembled reporters eventually ran out of questions and Bob Rae wandered away. Tomorrow, the other 307 MPs will disperse. It will be to Parliament’s infinite credit if anyone remembers to come back to this when business resumes in two weeks.

The Stats. The economy, seven questions. Employment, six questions. Afghanistan, four questions. Forestry, three questions. Taxation, technology, the auto industry, health care and gun control, two questions each. The environment, fisheries, food safety, the Arctic, tobacco, immigration and autism, one question each.

Ted Menzies, seven answers. Jean-Pierre Blackburn, five answers. Stockwell Day and Tony Clement, four answers each. Colin Carrie, three answers. Denis Lebel, Christian Paradis, Peter Van Loan and Ed Komarnicki, two answers each. Jim Prentice, Gail Shea, Gerry Ritz, Peter MacKay, Jason Kenney and David Anderson, one answer each.

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