The Commons: Why they don't call it Answer Period

As is often the case, there were few answers during QP today


The Scene. It is periodically instructive to note precisely how far removed our politics are allowed to stray from the basic expectations of our civilization. Take, for instance, the basic concept of oral communication. The clear, typically well-mannered, verbal exchange of information between individuals that separates us from the animals.

Michael Ignatieff opened Question Period this afternoon with another of his straightforward appeals for information. Since taking over the Liberal side, he has tried each day to make this his trademark—these precise, civil, generally unimpeachable queries. This was, perhaps, his most humble so far.

“Mr. Speaker, saving Canada’s auto sector could cost upward of $10 billion. Canadians want to know all the facts. They want to ask the companies, the unions, and government, some tough questions. They want the same transparency that Americans are getting from their government,” he said by way of prelude. “Would the Prime Minister support the creation of a special parliamentary committee to lay the facts about the auto sector and the rescue package before the public?”

It will probably surprise you not in the least to learn the Prime Minister answered Mr. Ignatieff with neither a yes nor a no.

“Mr. Speaker, as the leader of the opposition knows, we have been in discussions with the automobile companies for some time. We are doing this in collaboration with our American partners and with our partners in the Government of Ontario. These are obviously extremely complex matters. They involve commercially sensitive information at the same time,” Mr. Harper began. “I understand the concerns behind the honourable member’s question and we will look at any reasonable mechanism by which we can inform Canadians about the decisions.”

Now, by at least the standards of this place, this was very nearly refined. But by most any other measure, this was not technically an answer.

“Say yes!” begged a member of the Liberal side.

Mr. Ignatieff tried again. “Mr. Speaker, I am not quite sure how to take that answer. Do I have a yes or do I have a no?” he wondered. “Is the Prime Minister saying that the information in the rescue package is too sensitive to share before Parliament? Does he have a problem with parliamentary government? I would like to know.”

Mr. Harper restated himself. “Mr. Speaker, these are extremely complex matters. Discussions with the companies on due diligence do involve information of a private nature. At the same time, when companies are looking for the insertion of public funds there will obviously be a public process,” he said. “We are certainly willing to sit down with the opposition and discuss ways we can make these deliberations as transparent as possible.”

This being a bilingual country, the two then repeated themselves in French. “Mr Speaker, there is already a committee of the House responsible for this, the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology,” Mr. Harper offered in his second language. “However, this committee is master of its own affairs.”

Now, again, this was progress of sorts. Three questions and three replies without a single aspersion cast on one or the other’s patriotism, intelligence, fortitude or family name. And yet, it was difficult to identify anything that had been accomplished or clarified or communicated. The Liberal leader had asked the government to form a committee. The Prime Minister had sort of said he might be willing to possibly consider something of the sort, with the vaguely implied caveat that perhaps the matter was best directed elsewhere. Or not.

This would pass in few other forums. Suffice it to say, were we all to start communicating with each other in this way, our species would be doomed to chaos or extinction or both. Without the basic expectation that a clear, plainspoken question should result in a clear, plainspoken answer, everything would unravel into ambiguous nothingness.

The Liberals eventually sent up Andrew Kania to request clarification.

“Mr. Speaker, the residents of Brampton, where there is a major Chrysler plant, are tired of the Conservatives doing nothing to protect their jobs,” he said. “The Prime Minister, just moments ago, failed yet again to show leadership by refusing to create a parliamentary committee on the auto crisis. Given that vacuum of leadership, the official opposition will today call for an industry subcommittee of Parliament to immediately tackle the auto sector crisis. The Prime Minister mentioned the industry committee. Will he at least direct his committee members to support our proposed subcommittee, yes or no?”

Presented with those options, Industry Minister Tony Clement chose neither.

“Mr. Speaker, this is quite interesting,” he said. “The honourable member for Brampton West and the honourable member for Brampton—Springdale may have known from their colleagues, including the member for Nipissing—Timiskaming, that I actually appeared before the industry committee two weeks ago to answer questions for two hours. The honourable member was not there and the honourable member for Brampton—Springdale was not there. Why were they not standing up for the people of Brampton then?”

And so the matter ended on another futile question.

The Stats. The auto industry, 10 questions. Crime, five questions. Foreign aid, four questions. The environment, Omar Khadr, Chalk River, high-speed rail, employment and arts funding, two questions each. Manufacturing, forestry, Afghanistan, cultural funding, Helena Guergis, mining, infrastructure and the coast guard, one question each.

Stephen Harper and Tony Clement, eight answers each. Rob Nicholson, five answers. Bev Oda, four answers. John Baird, three answers. Lisa Raitt and James Moore, two answers each. Denis Lebel, Jim Flaherty, Diane Finley, Jason Kenney, Helena Guergis, Jacques Gourde and Christian Paradis, one answer each.

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