Deconstructing Paradis

To get what’s happening on Parliament Hill, you need to think like a literary theorist

Back in the day, when my friends were preoccupied with their LSAT prep courses and I was buried in the writings of Jacques Derrida, they would mock me, saying, “What’s the point of that pseudo-intellectual crap?”

Well, who’s laughing now?

Sure, my old classmates all made partner years ago, and have long since been salting it away in offshore tax shelters. But which of them can make sense of the situation Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis finds himself in?

Finally, my immersion in advanced literary theory is giving me the upper hand.

For without that grounding, I wouldn’t be able to decipher what the government means these days by “ministerial accountability and responsibility.”

You’ll recall that last spring the Tories made a big show of invoking this principle. No longer would mere political staffers appear when called to explain themselves before parliamentary committees. Only the responsible ministers would be accountable for whatever happened in their offices and departments.

But what does that mean? Some contend that it boils down to the obligation of a minister to resign if his underlings make serious enough mistakes. Others say that, at the very least, the minister must fully answer questions about what happens in his shop.

In the case of Paradis, however, whose political staffers evidently meddled in access to information requests, it’s a lowly aide who has lost his job, not the boss. And as for answering hard questions, it was House Leader John Baird who rose repeatedly in the House to face yesterday’s the Question Period onslaught, not Paradis.

The untutored might conclude that the government must have meant nothing at all by “responsibility” and “accountability.” To which I say, read the key postmodernist texts. I’d recommend starting with that indispensible decontructionist manifesto, Clarifying the Doctrine of Ministerial Responsibility as it Applies to the Government and Parliament of Canada, written by David E. Smith for the Gomery Commission.

“For much of Canadian history,” Smith explains, “the traditional concept of ministerial responsibility—which said ministers were responsible for what happened in their department—may have accurately reflected the prevailing realities of parliamentary government.

“Today, absolutism in politics, as in almost every other area of human life, is out of fashion. Deconstructive and postmodern assumptions about authority prevail, which is to say it is diffuse and dispersed.”

And they don’t teach that at executive MBA school.

So to get what’s happening on Parliament Hill, you need to think like a literary theorist. You need to shed the naive “absolutism” that leads you to imagine that “responsible” must mean “responsible” or “accountable” can only be read as “accountable.” The key words here are “diffuse” and “dispersed.” Baird’s job is to diffuse an explosive political scandal; the access-request-blocking staffers will be dispersed.

It’s very postmodern. I know for sure because I remember this exact queasy feeling.

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