The Commons: Mission accomplished

When in doubt, accuse your opponent of not supporting the troops

The Scene. It is perhaps more relevant that the Prime Minister seemingly chose this weekend to climb inside a motor-propelled dingy without a life jacket. It is likely more interesting to wonder whether it was courage or recklessness—or merely the suggestion of his stylist—that led him to make such a choice. It is probably more meaningful to question whether Stephen Harper abandoned here his responsibility as a role model. And it is almost definitely more entertaining to imagine the Prime Minister having to tape a public service announcement about nautical safety to repair whatever damage has been done to impressionable young minds by his cavalier display.

But then there is, of course, what the Prime Minister had to say once he was safely aboard the HMCS Quebec and the fact that his words were obviously meant to be heard. If only out of deference to our leader, it behooves us to repeat them here.

“Let me just say this,” he said, an early warning that what was to come would almost certainly be interesting, or at least inflammatory. “Living as we do, in a time when some in the political arena do not hesitate before throwing the most serious of allegations at our men and women in uniform, based on the most flimsy of evidence, remember that Canadians from coast to coast to coast are proud of you and stand behind you, and I am proud of you, and I stand beside you.”

It is tempting to point out that the military does not act independently. That it acts, effectively, at the command of the government. That that government is presently led by Mr. Harper. And that whatever the Canadian Forces are presently accused of doing, they are said to have done so only at the direction of their superiors.

But, of course, the Prime Minister was not attempting to posit an alternative understanding of government authority and the military. The Prime Minister was most likely doing here what the Prime Minister does when the questions prove too persistent or the accusations too uncomfortable.

A year and a half ago, when last this discussion of torture in Afghanistan flared, Mr. Harper loudly suggested that the Liberal leader of the time possessed a greater “passion” for the Taliban than he did for the Canadian Forces. A year ago, when a coalition threatened to topple his government, Mr. Harper loudly suggested his opponents had betrayed both the country and the very principles of our democracy. Now, here, he has decided to suggest that any who would allege wrongdoing in Afghanistan do not sufficiently support the troops—and let there be no mistake that in these times there is no greater sin than not supporting the troops.

When in doubt, lash out.

So it was that in the moments before Question Period, two dutiful backbenchers—including Scott Armstrong, who arrived just last week but has apparently quite quickly grasped his purpose here—were sent up to repeat the Prime Minister’s remarks. And after Michael Ignatieff had asked when the government could be expected to produce all relevant documents and deal transparently with the accusations of Richard Colvin, it was John Baird—not the Defence Minister or the Foreign Affairs Minister, both of whom were present—who was sent up to contort his face and project outrage.

“Mr. Speaker, if there is any disinformation campaign going on here, it is the disinformation, innuendo, second-hand information being spread by the Liberal party,” he opined. “The members are only too happy to spread half-truths and this type of innuendo about our troops. Last week, we heard from well-respected public servant, David Mulroney, who said there was no evidence of abuse. When will the Liberal party stop attacking the actions of our men and women in uniform?”

Mr. Ignatieff, a man of some pride, could not let this go unchallenged. “Mr. Speaker, at no time has this party attacked our troops or our men in the field,” he declared.

The Conservatives howled.

“It is the government we are attacking. It is the government’s conduct,” he continued. “For 18 months the Conservatives knew about allegations of torture and did nothing. Then they sought to smear a distinguished public servant. Even now they are not telling the truth and they are hiding behind our soldiers. When will they start telling Canadians the truth?”

Back came Mr. Baird, this time alleging that a member of the Liberal side had dared question the testimony of a military general. At the other end of the government frontbench, Vic Toews shouted something about Mr. Ignatieff not having been in the country at some point. A Liberal loudly suggested he “shut up.”

Mr. Ignatieff came to his feet yelling and pointing. “Mr. Speaker, when will the government apologize for using a Canadian destroyer as a backdrop for party political propaganda?” he wondered. “At no time have we ever attacked the integrity of the Canadian armed forces. The issue is the conduct of the government. The issue is whether Conservatives are telling Canadians the truth. The issue is whether they have covered up allegations of torture for 18 months. It is time to hear the truth from that side of the House instead of these baseless attacks.”

Mr. Baird took the opportunity to again yell about why the Liberals should be ashamed of themselves.

Bob Rae went next, speaking slowly and quietly, attempting to quell the House with careful inflection. “Mr. Speaker, in trying to understand the process under way with respect to dealing with allegations of harsh treatment, Kerry Buck, who is a senior spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs, said under cross-examination in 2008, ‘…it is not our role to determine credibility of the allegations, to determine the veracity of the allegations. We don’t investigate those allegations. We simply record those allegations.’ I wonder if the Minister of Foreign Affairs could tell us if that is his understanding of the way in which these allegations are supposed to be dealt with.”

Apparently feeling shy, Lawrence Cannon let Peter MacKay take this one. Mr. MacKay attempted to accuse the Liberals of some kind of hypocrisy. Mr. Rae tried again. Mr. MacKay returned to his feet to once more ignore the question.

“Mr. Speaker, two and a half years ago, when we improved the failed transfer arrangement,” he informed the House, “we started to invest in their justice system, in their prison system.”

The government side has stressed these points repeatedly. It remains a puzzling line of argument—the fact that it only acted two and a half years ago, a year and a half after taking office, and the suggestion that the previous transfer agreement was insufficient seeming to be the crux of the opposition’s concerns.

Whatever Mr. Rae’s efforts, the tone of the day was by then set. Ujjal Dosanjh asked the government to call a public inquiry. Mr. MacKay read aloud from the testimony of a general. Mr. Dosanjh suggested it would be wise to call a public inquiry before the Prime Minister goes to China. Mr. MacKay accused Mr. Dosanjh of trying to “politicize” the situation. Anita Neville lamented the lack of transparency. Mr. MacKay lamented for the previous Liberal government. The NDP’s Jack Harris accused the Defence Minister of contradiction and repeated the call for an inquiry. Mr. MacKay managed to accuse the opposition of inconsistency, cynicism and hypocrisy. Harris tried again. Mr. MacKay bemoaned that the Liberal critics for defence and foreign affairs were former NDP premiers.

The day was almost entirely a loss. Which seemed exactly the point.

The Stats. Afghanistan, 15 questions. The environment, five questions. Affordable housing, four questions. Employment, three questions. The Olympics and Public Works, two questions each. Taxation, education, immigration, pensions, the military, CN Rail and agriculture, one question each.

Peter MacKay, 11 answers. John Baird, eight answers. Ed Komarnicki, five answers. Jean-Pierre Blackburn, four answers. Jim Prentice, Gary Lunn and Christian Paradis, two answers each. Jim Flaherty, Jason Kenney, Tony Clement and Rona Ambrose, one answer each.

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