The Commons: Who's laughing now?

A finding of contempt isn't something the government thinks should be taken seriously

The Scene. In case anyone on the government side had forgotten, the leader of the opposition stood to recall where proceedings had left off a week ago and what else had arisen in the interim.

“Mr. Speaker, the government faces two RCMP investigations at once, one of them about Bruce Carson’s influence peddling right in the Prime Minister’s Office, and four members of the Prime Minister’s inner circle face accusations of election fraud that could result in jail time,” Mr. Ignatieff reported. “As if that was not enough, a committee of this House has found the government in contempt of Parliament.”

The government side chuckled at this last bit.

Democracy is, of course, a funny thing. An unruly, chaotic, competitive thing, compelled by unwritten rules and collective will, as much theoretical as it is practical and inherent. Ours is formally practiced in ancient dignity: “Mr. Speaker” this and “honourable member” that. A quirk that renders the proceedings both hallowed and peculiar, grounded and remote.

And from that do we arrive now at a finding—or at least a formal recommendation to that effect—of contempt.

It seems to be the government side’s feeling that this is not anything to be taken seriously. That this is all only to do with the fact that a majority of seats in the House of Commons are presently occupied by MPs who have pledged themselves to parties other than the Conservative side.

That may well be true. But to argue as much is, it seems, to question the entire legitimacy of our parliamentary system, from the power and purpose of the elected MP to the function of the political party to the role and representation of the voter in our democracy. By week’s end, this government may be the first in this nation’s history—the Liberal side claims this extends to the history of all other commonwealth governments—to be found in contempt of Parliament.

“This is an unprecedented cascade of abuse. The issue here is one of trust,” Mr. Ignatieff continued. “How can Canadians remain trusting of a government guilty of such flagrant abuse of power?”

The government side sent up John Baird to reassure the home audience. “Mr. Speaker, it will not come as any surprise to the leader of the Liberal Party that I completely reject all of the misleading premises in his question,” Mr. Baird said, though it was unclear whether he meant here to dispute facts or meaning.

“There is no member of the government who is under investigation for a criminal offence,” he continued, previewing the Conservative side’s new election slogan.

Here, then, the government House leader moved to delight the crowd with a delicate three-step.

First, a lament for the previous Liberal administration: “Let me be very clear, this government is the government that acted very expeditiously to bring in the Federal Accountability Act, to clean up the ethical mess that we inherited from the previous Liberal government.”

Second, a gratuitous swipe at Mr. Ignatieff’s previous residency: “He was not in Canada to know exactly how bad the Liberal ethics policies were.”

And third, a salute to the man for whom the Government of Canada is now named: “Maybe he should look at the Federal Accountability Act and look at the great changes, especially, that this Prime Minister has ushered in.”

Unpersuaded, Mr. Ignatieff restated his thesis en français. Mr. Baird was now positively besmirched. “Mr. Speaker, I guess the Liberal leader believes we do not need to have police to conduct an investigation,” he sighed, apparently in reference to the questions surrounding Mr. Carson. “We do not need to have a court system. He will simply assign guilt as he sees it on the floor of the House of Commons.”

Not, of course, that the government wasn’t entirely committed to seeing the guilty held to account. “Let me be very clear, this is the government that brought in tough penalties for people who break the law,” Mr. Baird said. “Anyone convicted of breaking the law will face the full force of Canadian law.”

Up to and including, one assumes, those four Conservatives charged with violating election law.

Mr. Ignatieff was now compelled to go all figurative on his opponent. “Mr. Speaker, the Conservatives cannot deny the RCMP is crawling all over the government at the moment,” he said.

The Liberal leader switched then to a more fiduciary concern ahead of tomorrow’s budget. “Conservatives also expect us to vote tomorrow for a budget without telling Canadians what their waste is going to cost, waste on corporate tax giveaways, waste on prisons, waste on jets which they do not have accurate costing on for Canadians,” he declared. “Instead of telling Canadians the truth, they went out last week and spent millions of taxpayer dollars on government partisan advertising.”

Mr. Ignatieff had but a simple request. “When,” he begged, “is the government going to show some respect for taxpayers and a little respect for democracy?”

Some? A little? Here was an obvious attempt at compromise.

Mr. Baird was not ready to negotiate. “Mr. Speaker,” he demurred, “I do not agree with the leader of the opposition at all.”

Indeed, Mr. Baird was now apparently quite hurt. “The Liberal Party can try to attack the government with political smears,” he sighed. “It has become very good at it.”

Now it was the Liberal side’s turn to engage in theatric guffaws.

The Stats. Ethics, 19 questions. Infrastructure and taxation, four questions each. Libya, government contracts, employment and the economy, two questions each. Libya and Rights & Democracy, one question each.

John Baird, 12 answers. Rona Ambrose and Jim Flaherty, four answers each. Rob Merrifield, three answers. Christian Paradis, Peter MacKay, Stockwell Day, Diane Finley and Vic Toews, two answers each. Diane Ablonczy, John Duncan, Daniel Petit, Lawrence Cannon and Tony Clement, one answer each.

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