The Commons: Weirder still

Iggy: "The government has made a total mess of a great institution, Rights & Democracy"

The Scene. Five days ahead of another of those moments that may determine the ultimate success or failure of Michael Ignatieff’s political career, and on his first appearance in the House after a week spent touring the country to participate in town hall discussions, the Liberal leader stood and asked the government to account for its handling of an organization mandated by Parliament to pursue rather unimpeachable, if perhaps somewhat abstract, goals. An organization, for that matter, that was, up until recently, going about pursuing its rather unimpeachable, if perhaps somewhat abstract, goals with neither fame nor infamy.

The government, he said, had made a scandal of this organization, Rights & Democracy. It had moved last week, he recounted, to block the widow of the former president of Rights & Democracy from testifying at a Parliamentary committee. Would it now, he wondered, allow Mr. Beauregard’s widow, as well as several other interested individuals, from testifying.

That he stood and did all this with his first opportunity speaks to perhaps a number of things, but perhaps none more so than the particular weirdness that continues to define this particular controversy—a weirdness that perhaps demands attention, no matter how innocuous, unimpeachable or abstract whatever else is going on here.

Conservatives had cried out their mock delight when Mr. Ignatieff stood (“Mr. Speaker, I did not miss a thing,” he smiled in response) and when he had finished, the government side turned to its most gracious voice of reason and post-partisan civility.

“Mr. Speaker, let me join members of the Liberal caucus in welcoming back to Ottawa the leader of the opposition. He said he did not miss anything, but we certainly missed him,” John Baird joked in response. “Let me say what I said on Friday. We said that we hoped that the committee could put aside partisan politics. We hoped they could put aside divisive bickering and come to an agenda to allow Madame Trepanier, who has obviously suffered a great loss, to be able to share her views with the committee and with Canadians.”

A dozen seats to Mr. Baird’s right sat Jim Abbott, the Conservative who was, at last report, filibustering the committee so as to prevent Madame Trepanier from appearing.

“Mr. Speaker, it is nice to be welcomed back but I did not miss a thing,” Mr. Ignatieff came back. “I heard about the government’s flip-flops in every town all week.”

Across the way, Mr. Baird smiled and laughed. Mr. Ignatieff then went a bit further.

“The government has made a total mess of a great institution, Rights & Democracy,” he said. “It has intervened. It has undermined its political independence. It has appointed a hyper-partisan president. Now it goes on to blame the staff. Will the Prime Minister work with us in good faith to repair the damage done? Will he guarantee that he will not use this crisis which is of his own making in order to eliminate Rights & Democracy altogether?”

Mr. Baird stood and assured him the government intended no such thing. Mr. Ignatieff reviewed his concerns in French and then Mr. Baird rose for his third and final time on this subject. “Mr. Speaker, from time to time politics did arise at committee,” he lamented. “It is our hope that partisan politics can be put aside and that all members of the committee will work together on setting hearings and allowing key people who could contribute to their discussion to make their views known, not just to the committee but through them to the people of Canada.”

That Mr. Baird might be able to stand and say any of the above without descending into giggles or passing out from the strain, is proof surely, as if there remained any doubt, that he is a performer nonpareil. Verily, those of us who have had the honour to watch him in person each day, may say forevermore that we were witnesses to true greatness.

But that someone of Mr. Baird’s reputation and fondness for combat would be sent up to say such things, out loud and in public, would seem only to edge this whole matter closer to the bizarre. Surely if Mr. Baird is now presenting himself as a champion of civility we are in a strange place.

Some time later, the NDP’s Paul Dewar stood, all urgency and exasperation, placed his left hand on his hip and began wagging his right index finger at the government side. News had apparently arrived that Aurel Braun, the current chairman of Rights & Democracy—a man appointed to that position by this government, whose name had appeared atop an op-ed just this morning that was headlined “We welcome public hearings on Rights & Democracy”—would not, for whatever reason, be able to attend a committee hearing on the matter tomorrow as previously scheduled. Mr. Dewar was displeased.

It fell to Deepak Obhrai, parliamentary secretary to the Foreign Affairs Minister, to stand and read an answer that seemed to have almost nothing to do with this latest development.

Afterwards, meeting with reporters, Mr. Dewar seemed still quite exasperated. In truth, Mr. Dewar often seems so. In fairness, it is perhaps only because he is paying attention.

The Stats. Rights & Democracy and taxation, five questions each. Afghanistan and foreign aid, three questions each. Air travel, natural resources, forestry, firearms, government advertising, environment, affordable housing and Aboriginal affairs, two questions each. Health care, foreign investment, the military, the Olympics, water safety and Gilles Duceppe, one question each.

John Baird, five answers. Christian Paradis and Rob Nicholson, four answers each. Denis Lebel, Jim Prentice and Jim Flaherty, three answers each. Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Bev Oda, Dave MacKenzie, Tony Clement, Stockwell Day, Deepak Obhrai, Ed Komarnicki, Chuck Strahl, two answers each. James Moore, one answer.

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