The Commons: Questions endure

"Why, precisely, was it necessary to go without this daily exercise in accountability for the last month?"

The Scene. The Prime Minister did his best to recline, or at least slouch, in his place. Michael Ignatieff sat upright, leaning forward at the edge of his seat. The Prime Minister wore various shades of blue. Michael Ignatieff had chosen a grey suit and white shirt with a black-and-pink-striped tie.

Perhaps only one of these men was excited to be here.

The Liberal leader rose first with an attempt at humour. “Mr. Speaker, as we were saying before we were so rudely interrupted,” he began. A few Liberals chuckled—various Conservatives groaned.

“The Prime Minister shut down Parliament,” Mr. Ignatieff continued. “Canadians were rightly angered. Canadians want the House to reassert its just authority. They want democracy strengthened, not weakened. Will the Prime Minister support creating a special committee of the House to study prorogation, to limit it and to prevent its future abuse?”

The Prime Minister rose, buttoned his jacket and casually invoked the spectre of a Liberal-NDP-Bloc Quebecois coalition. His dutiful caucus rose to applaud his effort.

The Liberal leader moved on. “Mr. Speaker, everyone in the House and everyone in the country knows why the Prime Minister shut down Parliament. He shut it down to avoid legitimate questions about the Afghan detainee scandal and Parliament spoke clearly on this question,” he posited, bringing his fingers together and pumping his fist. “Parliament passed a motion in December which said: stop the cover-up, stop the excuses, deliver the documents. Will the Prime Minister now respect the will of Parliament and deliver the documents to the Afghan committee so that Canadians can get the truth that they deserve?”

Mr. Harper stood. He shrugged. He invoked the good name of the Canadian Forces.

Ujjal Dosanjh picked up this line of questioning. The Prime Minister, deigning to answer a Liberal backbencher’s query, attempted to suggest there was something ironic about the Liberal opposition asking about a detainee transfer agreement that was signed when a Liberal government was in power. His dutiful caucus seemed delighted with this. “Whoops!” they giggled. “Whoops!”

Gilles Duceppe heaped scorn upon the government’s environmental policy and dared suggest the Prime Minister did not speak for most Quebeckers. This greatly angered Mr. Harper, who rose to yell and point and invoke Canada’s success at the Olympics.

This neither assuaged nor sufficiently frightened the opposition benches into silence. Indeed, the government’s rather dramatic attempt to avoid questions two months ago seems only to have provoked questions, and the time invested in silencing this place only allowing more questions to arise and linger.

Bob Rae wanted to know how precisely the government had made such a mess of Rights & Democracy. John McKay demanded the government account for its various and contradictory positions on the funding of KAIROS. Marlene Jennings and Olivia Chow asked the Immigration Minister to explain why references to gay rights had been deleted from the government’s citizenship guide. Nicole Demers beseeched the government to explain why access to safe abortions will be excluded from the government’s commitment to improving maternal health worldwide. Siobhan Coady raised the matter of an investigation into the government’s handling of the access to information system.

On and on the opposition members listed their concerns. All before the government had tabled a budget that will surely only lead back to the most operative question of the last two months: why, precisely, was it necessary to go without this daily exercise in accountability for the last month?

Nearer the end of this first session in so long, the Conservatives sent up one of their own to ask a question of the Justice Minister.

“Mr. Speaker, in the last session of Parliament, the Liberal leader’s senators delayed and gutted our tough on crime legislation at every turn,” reported Garry Breitkreuz. “Now we hear that the Liberals are again preparing to block important justice legislation, this time in the House of Commons and the Senate.”

The Liberal side howled. Perhaps they now saw irony themselves, in a government that would prorogue the House, then lament the blocking of legislation. Perhaps they objected only on the grounds of objective reality. For whatever reason, they mocked loudly—so loud that Mr. Breitkreuz was compelled to return to his seat.

Conservatives threw their hands in the air and appealed for mercy. The Speaker called for order and then called on Mr. Breitkreuz to finish. He kept on, but the noise kept up, his words entirely inaudible in the cacophony. Once more the Conservatives threw their hands in the air and scowled and objected and pleaded for respect.

It is, no doubt, quite frustrating to be denied, in the most boorish of manners, your rightful opportunity to hold the government to account.

The Stats. Rights & Democracy, five questions. Afghanistan, prorogation and citizenship, four questions each. Crime, three questions. Nuclear energy, KAIROS, AIDS research, foreign ownership and maternal health, two questions each. Securities regulation, the environment, the gun registry, infrastructure, access to information, bilingualism, Helena Guergis and employment, one question each.

Stephen Harper, 10 answers. Lawrence Cannon, five answers. Jason Kenney and Bev Oda, four answers each. Dave Anderson, Rob Nicholson, Leona Aglukkaq and Tony Clement, two answers each. John Baird, Stockwell Day, James Moore, Helena Guergis, Christian Paradis and Denis Lebel, one answer each.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.