Right back where we started from: Liveblogging the Ethics Committee

3:29:16 PM
And I’m back where it all started—the Ethics committee, that is, my first regular liveblogging gig, during those heady days of the Mulroney/Schreiber hearings, which, as it happens, is at the heart of why we’re here today.

The NDP’s Pat Martin has a motion to recall the former Prime Minister to the stand, to give him the opportunity to respond to subsequent testimony, and to allow the committee to “flesh out” the story with a few pointed supplementary questions.

3:37:07 PM

Martin admits that he was the lone opposition hold-out when the rest of the parties—well, except for the government, of course—wanted to subpoena Mulroney back in January. At the time, he says, he believed that the current Prime Minister was prepared to establish the promised public inquiry, but since then, there has been no action, and as a result, his faith has been shaken.

3:39:21 PM
Pat Martin finishes his speech in support of the motion, and then the first government member speaks up. Mike Wallace seems almost regretful when he tells the committee that he won’t be voting in favour. He disputes the suggestion that the Prime Minister has shown “no action”—why, didn’t he come out and announce the inquiry himself, without any pressure from the committee, or the opposition?

He then takes a shot at Robert Thibault—”some members even had lunch or dinner with witnesses,” he notes, in an attempt to learn as much as possible, and he continues to recap the road to the Johnston report.

3:43:25 PM
I have to interrupt this to note that the entire room is now discreetly straining a collective ear to the door, outside: David Tilson, it seems, doesn’t actually have to be at the table to be cranky.

According to the pre-meeting gossip, it sounded as though the Conservatives were going to let the motion go forward. Not vote in favour, mind you, but not bring the business of the committee to a screeching halt, like at Justice or Procedure and House Affairs.

3:49:55 PM
Why can’t the committee focus on important things, Mike Wallace—who is still talking—wonders. Privacy reform, even Access to Information? Access to Information? What, like how to shut it down even more?

Why spend time on something that the committee has already studied, and reported on? Especially, he adds, when there is no evidence that anyone broke the law?

3:54:36 PM
Mike Wallace—who is still still talking—notes that the practice of recalling former prime ministers could be a “slippery slope,” although he points out that the Liberals actually have more former PMs than the Tories, which sends everyone mentally scrolling through the list to see if he’s right.

The idea of “harassing” former prime ministers could become a habit, Wallace warns. Really? Because I’m having trouble seeing that many scenarios where it would come up.

3:57:22 PM
Wallace thinks that prime ministers are fair game—blink—while they’re in office. Really? Really? Somewhere in the PMO, a short, sharp alarm begins to buzz.

Even David Tilson—who is back, by the way, whoever was on the other end of the conversation satisfactorily reduced to wordless terror—looks bored. Then again, he doesn’t get to make Points of Petulance when one of his colleagues is talking.

4:04:01 PM
After Wallace promises—more than once—that the committee will, indeed, be voting on the motion today, but then begins to deliver a suspiciously thorough recap of past testimony, the chair reminds him that he can’t just reread great swaths of Hansard. Move it along, in other words.

Not surprisingly, this doesn’t go over at all well with David Tilson, who has been ruled out of order, and his microphone turned off. Okay, now it’s an Ethics meeting.

4:08:51 PM
Szabo points out that, contrary to Wallace’s argument—that there are no lingering questions that need to be answered—there is, in fact, an actual list, approved by the committee, of supplementary requests for testimony and material that was requested from Mulroney but he declined to provide. This isn’t his opinion—”Whose opinion is it?” grumps Tilson—but simply a matter of fact.

As Szabo and Tilson glare white death at each other, Wallace rather plaintively wonders whether he can talk about anything at all, given the ruling of the chair. Hey, at least no one is suing you for defamation—count your parliamentary privileges.

To tell him he can’t go through the minutes, Wallace carries on, oblivious to the rolling of the eyebrows, is just, just—well, we’ll never know, because a frighteningly calm chair just gave him his final warning. Any further discussion, he says, constitutes a challenge to the chair. “But I have a right!” Wallace squeaks.

4:17:55 PM
Okay, so what’s going on here, I think, is a bit of a shell game sacrifice. The Conservatives are going to talk through the meeting, but eventually allow the motion through; that way, the second motion on the agenda, the proposed study of the Conservative Party’s alleged election irregularities, won’t be able to be debated.

4:20:16 PM
Okay, and it’s now officially anarchy. The chair tried to move on to the next speaker, and right on cue, the Conservatives went crazy. “You couldn’t chair the Breakfast Club,” bellows Tilson. “I still have the floor!” shrieks Wallace, who doesn’t, but never mind—he clearly doesn’t. Pierre Poilievre proposes a five-minute time out; Russ Hiebert asks for a point of clarification—it’s just like old times.

4:24:27 PM
There we go; Brian Murphy finally managed to get out his proposed amendment—a friendly amendment, unless you happen to work for Navigator Ltd, of course—which would recall him before June 12—not next Friday, but the one after that. He notes that if the inquiry is called between now and then—if a qualified judge suddenly presents him or herself—the order can be withdrawn.

4:29:46 PM

Russ Hiebert bemoans the threat this hearing may pose to the study of the Privacy Act—an Act that is clearly near and dear to his heart. When the chair points out that he’s said the same thing three times, he—Russ—accuses the chair of being “a little dictator,” which earns him a one way trip to Tilsonville.

The tech cuts his mic—”All the mics are off now,” grumbles Tilson—and the chair reads a little ditty from Marleau and Montpetit on relevance, and repetition, which can be invoked by the chair to prevent a member from filibustering, basically. Or at least, from filibustering without at least making the effort to find original content.

4:35:29 PM
Pierre Poilievre, however, would like to rebut that with a passage he’s plucked out of procedural lore on—oh, please—freedom of speech. The chair shuts him down. Challenge the chair, or drop it—that seems to be the verdict, although he then softens a little, and allows Poilievre to go on for a few more minutes. “You think freedom of speech is wonderful,” he notes. “So do I.” “Tell it to Thibault,” someone suggests. Hah.

4:40:56 PM
It turns out that Hiebert, really, is a sensitive soul; he just doesn’t like having the mic cut off. It’s so harsh. Can’t the chair use a hand signal, or a safe word—anything but that?

He also feels that adding a date is “bullying”—it’s telling the government that if it doesn’t do something by a certain point, “there will be consequences.”

What about Mulroney’s schedule, Hiebert wonders. By his own words, he has a thriving career as “an international consultant.” No one can keep a straight face at that—I think even Hiebert’s lips are twitching.

Besides, he’s a former prime minister, Hiebert reminds us. There aren’t many of them—they’re busy. Wait, I thought there were so many that committees would be hunting them for sport.

4:52:17 PM
After the longest tangent on the difficulties of setting a date ever spotted outside a wedding magazine, Hiebert passes the filibaton to Poilievre, who—perhaps not having read the papers today—thinks that we should consider how long it took to set up the Gomery inquiry.

Gomery, who recently criticized the PM for dragging his feet in appointing a commissioner; oddly, Poilievre doesn’t mention that part. He finally gets around to his subamendment—which would set the deadline for September. He tut tuts over the tendency of some members to want to turn these sorts of hearings into a circus. Like Myriam Bedard at Public Accounts, for instance.

5:04:01 PM
Pierre Poilievre seems to think this will be the worst job in the world. He pities the “poor soul” who eventually takes the job—the commissioner job, that is—which is hardly going to encourage qualified applicants to take the PM’s call. Presuming that he’s actually making calls.

5:12:33 PM
No, I haven’t fallen asleep, although I have to tell you that Mike Wallace does have a certain soporific quality. He’s talking about possible dates—June 12 vs. sometime in September.

He assures the committee that the government is working diligently away, searching for a commissioner, and, like Poilievre, notes that it isn’t the easiest job to staff. “I wouldn’t want it,” he says. Well, that’s probably for the best, since it seems deeply unlikely that you’ll be getting an offer.

And that, amazingly, seems to be all he has to say: the chair notes that amending the date would be a “significant” change—he asks if there is similarly significant support for the idea, and the opposition parties shake their respective heads. Well, okay then.

5:17:37 PM
I’ve never noticed it before, but Russ Hiebert is kind of passive aggressive; he once again accuses-but-not-really-accuses the opposition parties of “bullying.” Changing the date to September, he points out, would mean Brian Murphy could go home for the summer recess in good conscience, knowing that he wasn’t guilty of such a thing. This, from the government that just this afternoon threatened to dissolve the House if it can’t get the budget bill through by next week.

Then there’s the work involved—all the preparation, rereading testimony, waiting by the fax machine for the latest revision of the PMO talking points. It’s not the sort of thing you can do in two short weeks—this would be a national event, just like it was the last time Mulroney testified, according to Russ Hiebert, who was downplaying the whole thing just a few minutes ago.

Besides, what could happen between now and then? There could be a letter, a phone call—an op-ed piece in the paper? Really?—that would answer those outstanding questions. No one is even pretending to take this argument seriously, and Hiebert seems to be resigned to the snickers on the other side of the table. Actually, on his side of the room as well.

5:27:00 PM
And that’s it for the arguments. Now for the vote.

The first vote is on the subamendment, which would change the date to September 2008. Four of the Conservatives vote in favour; David Tilson votes no. Just on principle, I guess.

Second vote is on the amendment to set the date for June 12. Ppposition votes yea, government nay—motion passes.

And finally, the main motion, as amended—passes.

Pack your sunscreen, Mr. Mulroney—you’re coming back to Ottawa!