The Commons: Whatever he meant, Tony Clement stands by what he said

Irrelevance and sloppiness are his best explanations for the contested G8 spending

The Scene. Tony Clement would not stand for this. Or rather, he would stand. Indeed, here is where he would take his stand.

For months he has been the subject of indignation and accusation. He is said by his opponents to have frivolously and flagrantly spent public funds, drawn from an account approved by Parliament for entirely unrelated reasons, on various trinkets And he is said to have subsequently avoided taking responsibility for himself, remaining in his seat while others were sent up to explain his actions away.

But now he stands accused of intervening to have the word “sure” removed from the official record of his testimony before a parliamentary committee. And so he stood, rising immediately after Question Period to solemnly proclaim his innocence on this count and to call on the Speaker to investigate.

“These baseless and outrageous allegations form a serious breach of my privilege,” he declared, “which is impeding my work as a member of this House and as a minister of the Crown.”

Mr. Clement stopped just short of demanding a full public inquiry with subpoena powers, but a police raid of the Hansard office seems in order.

Of course, even if the Speaker’s investigation explains by whose hand the word came to be excluded from the official record, it will still be for Mr. Clement to explain what he meant when he said so. That he said “sure” is not in dispute: a recording of the hearings makes that clear. But whether he intended to convey affirmative answers to the questions asked—or whether he simply has an odd habit of trying to seem agreeable when confronted—is almost certainly the crux of this particular matter, by whoever and however the four-letter word came to disappear. In both cases, he was asked to produce documentation for the benefit of the committee. In both cases, he began his answers with the disputed suggestion of agreement.

So to all else, you can add “Mr. Clement’s ability to clearly convey sentiment using the English language” to the list of matters now in dispute. And rest assured, everything here remains very disputed.

“Mr. Speaker, the President of the Treasury Board claimed he was not involved in picking projects for the legacy slush fund. Documents the NDP has now obtained show this is simply not true. According to his own office, he was personally involved in selecting projects,” the NDP’s Alexandre Boulerice charged this afternoon, the bearded boy wonder of the opposition’s frontbench projecting his voice to the gold-trimmed ceiling of the chamber. “We asked the minister at committee if he would table the documents that were sent to his office. At committee, the minister said ‘sure.’ He said it. Will he table the documents now?”

Here Mr. Clement, not any of his various stands-in, rose to respond. The opposition jeered with the sort of “wooo!” noise usually reserved for high school boys when one of their peers indicates some degree of affection for a member of the opposite sex. In response, precisely three Conservative backbenchers stood to enthusiastically applaud the minister’s willingness.

“Mr. Speaker, indeed, I answered a total of 75 questions at both the government operations committee and the public accounts committee of the chamber,” Mr. Clement said, his hands folded neatly in front of him. “I answered all of those questions fully and completely and to the best of my ability. The record is very clear that I had no determinative role. I had a recommendation role as a local member of Parliament, but the decisions were made by the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities.”

One can drive themselves to distraction, but for the sake of keepings things “very clear,” even the phrase “recommendation role” requires explanation. At the outset of that committee hearing three weeks ago, Mr. Clement said that he had played a “coordination role” between the communities in his riding and the federal government. He later said that he “recommended” a list of projects to the government, but he also explained that he had nothing to do with identifying those projects for which funds would be requested. “Recommendation” then, at least as it was explained three weeks ago, is not meant to imply any kind of judgment on Mr. Clement’s part. As the deputy minister of Transport explained at committee, Mr. Clement’s involvement, despite being the “recommending minister” was, from her perspective, “symbolic.”

A combination of irrelevance and sloppiness is probably Mr. Clement’s best explanation. But even the former is complicated by the latest round of emails, one of which uses the phrase “on the advice of Mr. Clement” to describe the removal of one project from the fund, another of which has his office notifying a community of a project’s rejection. (Mr. Clement has said that such notices were sent out only for the sake of being “polite.”)

On those counts, Mr. Boulerice stood and once more claimed outrage. A parliamentary inquiry, he thus declared, was in order. Mr. Clement was unmoved.

“Mr. Speaker, as I indicated at committee, and as was backed up by various government officials at Transportation and Infrastructure and at Industry Canada, the documentation that was in my purview was forwarded to the Auditor General, who had access to all documentation,” he explained. “The officials indicated where there was documentation and where there was not. All of those questions have been answered at committee and I stand by my responses.”

So whatever he meant, Mr. Clement stands behind what he said. If nothing else, it is good that he managed to stand to say so.

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