The Commons: 'A five-year-old accounting dispute'

Those accusations of election fraud? A mere administrative matter.

The Scene. Imagine, if you will, that it was 2003 and several Liberal party officials, two of them sitting senators, were accused of violating the election laws of this country. Imagine that a department of government created by the prime minister had decided to pursue charges in this regard. And imagine that, in responses to questions about this matter in the House of Commons, the prime minister sent up his parliamentary secretary with something like the following.

“Mr. Speaker, this is, of course, a five-year-old accounting dispute.”

Imagine how incensed Stephen Harper, seated across the way in the opposition leader’s chair, would have been to hear such a response, how angrily he would have condemned this as galling and outrageous and unacceptable. Indeed, imagine how he might have waxed philosophic about democracy and the moral authority to govern.

Good thing then that Mr. Harper was absent this day, away from the House of Commons as his parliamentary secretary, Pierre Poilievre, stood to say this much on the Conservative party’s behalf.

On Mr. Harper’s behalf, Michael Ignatieff stood to heap scorn.

“Mr. Speaker, the government is playing fast and loose with the facts. This is not a debate. The party opposite is facing criminal charges and jail time if it is convicted,” he declared.

“No!” protested various Conservatives. And indeed, on this last bit about criminality, Mr. Ignatieff would seem to be mistaken.

“It forms part of a pattern,” he continued, undaunted. “When the government faces tough questions, it shuts Parliament down. When a minister misleads the House, the Prime Minister actually gets up and applauds her. When Conservative Party operatives are faced with serious criminal charges, it turns it into an argument with Elections Canada.”

He was quite indignant now, shaking his left fist at the government side. “It is not an argument,” he ventured. “This is an accusation of fraud. Why does the government not understand that this is undermining Canadian democracy?”

Mr. Poilievre was unpersuaded. “Mr. Speaker, allow me to correct my honourable friend,” he offered. “In fact this is an administrative dispute that dates back five years.” Indeed, in successive answers, whispering as he strained to seem as non-threatening as possible, Mr. Poilievre would deem this an “administrative matter” and an “administrative issue.”

To the linguists who script this stuff each day, this no doubt seems a masterstroke. Use the word “administrative” and suddenly the accusations that you cheated during a federal election seem so dreadfully boring. As if the Conservative party merely neglected to fill out the proper form in triplicate and now some pencil pusher in HR is nagging them to do it over again. Just some silly paperwork that needs to be attended to. Nothing to worry yourself about. Just relax and listen to the cool sounds these airplanes make.

As for Bev Oda, the aforementioned minister involved in the aforementioned allegation of misleading Parliament, what is actually a matter of paperwork (or at least how one accounts for that paperwork) is conversely treated with the sort of reverence and exaltation reserved for hockey players who’ve managed to play despite a torn ligament or bruised organ.

“She made a difficult decision,” proclaimed John Baird this day when the Liberals got round to dealing with this matter directly. “It was the right decision. She has made a great contribution to international development right around the world and she has a record all Canadians can be proud of.”

As he did last week, Mr. Baird would later upgrade this decision to “courageous.”

But however courageous and right and pure Ms. Oda’s decision-making, she remains unable, unwilling or simply unallowed to stand and explain herself.

“Mr. Speaker, around the world people are craving democracy, they are craving transparency, they are craving accountability. Canadians are no different. They have the same expectations and demands of their government,” Bob Rae posited. “I would like to ask the minister if she will simply answer a simple question. What happened in that two-month period between the decision by the two officials at CIDA to make the decision and her decision to put the ‘not’ in? What happened in that two-month period?”

Mr. Rae looked directly at Ms. Oda. Ms. Oda, seated in her assigned spot along the second row of the government side, looked directly back at Mr. Rae. And yet, when Mr. Rae finished, it was Mr. Baird who stood, again, to respond.

“Let her speak!” barked Ralph Goodale from the Liberal side.

Mr. Rae tried again. Once more, Mr. Baird stood to answer.

“Let her speak!” came a voice from the Liberal side. “Let her speak!”

The Bloc’s Johanne Deschamps stood next with two direct questions for Ms. Oda, each time it was Mr. Baird who stood to respond.

One wonders what Mr. Harper—or at least that Mr. Harper who once sat here as leader of the opposition—would have said had he been here to see this.

The Stats. In and out, 12 questions. KAIROS, six questions. The budget, four questions. Tunisia, Libya, ethics, gas prices, the G20, Open Government and crime, two questions each. The economy, innovation, fisheries and the Quebec City arena, one question each.

Pierre Poilievre, 11 answers. John Baird, seven answers. Stockwell Day, six answers. Tony Clement and Ted Menzies, three answers each. Christian Paradis, Peter MacKay and Dave MacKenzie, two answers each. Randy Kamp, Rona Ambrose, Daniel Petit and Josee Verner, one answer each.

Looking for more?

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