The Commons: Confusion clarified and epitomized

Bev Oda addresses “the confusion” over the KAIROS document

By her own reckoning, Bev Oda was here to address “the confusion.” “At the outset,” she said, “let me state that I take full responsibility for the confusion my initial answers created—and I apologize for that.”

Of course, this was not quite the “outset.” Depending on when one starts the clock on this matter, Ms. Oda’s present predicament could be said to date back months, perhaps more than a year. Indeed, were this really the “outset,” she would not have had to show up here this morning to read from a prepared statement that, when distributed to the reporters present, included 12 footnotes and three appendices.

“I’m here today,” she continued, “to explain to this committee, and to the public, why, initially, I did not understand how my answers were creating confusion.”

Here was a tribute to the qualified statement—a four-page monologue that could plausibly qualify as an experiment in post-modern poetry or at least a brilliant satire. “There was no intention to mislead the committee members,” she said of  her appearance before the foreign affairs committee in December. “I now realize that from someone else’s perspective it was confusing … People listening to my answers might have thought that I signed the document and then after that someone added the word “not.” That didn’t occur to me because I knew that wasn’t what happened. At the time I did not see the confusion that my answer would cause, and I apologize for creating confusion.”

By way of conclusion, she offered a sentence so beautifully crafted that it should be immediately hammered onto a plaque and hung above the entrance to the House of Commons.

“My original answers were truthful, accurate and precise, but they were not clear.”

It is to weep. Call it an ode to the immaculate confusion.

When she appeared before the foreign affairs committee in December she had been asked who had inserted the ungrammatical “not” into the now-infamous document. This was true, she said, because at the time she did not know specifically who had taken pen to paper. That much she had apparently not figured out until the day after testifying. Apparently it was her chief of staff who did so. Apparently the same chief of staff who she had instructed to convey the decision not to fund the project put forward by KAIROS.

The inclusion of the word “not,” though entirely ungrammatical and inserted to change the context of the memo after it had been signed by two other officials, was “normal practice,” she explained, because the antiquated memos used in the department provided no other way for the minister to indicate her official desires. Apparently the department has since looked into improving the formatting of its paperwork.

At no time, she said, had she discussed the decision with Immigration Minister Jason Kenney or the Prime Minister. This was perhaps meant to absolve both of any complicity. Or perhaps to suggest that when Mr. Kenney commented previously on the reasons for Ms. Oda’s decision, he did so from a position of complete and total ignorance.

As for that decision, it was based, she said on the fact that $880,000 of the grant requested by KAIROS would have been used for work in Canada. Given her mandate to focus on international development, this was cause, she said, to reject the entire $7.1-million proposal.

When she had finished with all this, the chair turned the floor over to Liberal John McKay and here Mr. McKay asked the most-obvious question: Why had it taken Ms. Oda this long to say this much?

Indeed, by Ms. Oda’s own version, she has known since December 10 of last year that it was her chief of staff who inserted the “not.” She has had three months to say so. Mr. McKay gave her an opportunity just two weeks ago to explain as much for the benefit of the House. At that time, Ms. Oda actually stood to respond, something she had not bothered to do dozen of other times she was asked to explain herself. But she was apparently not yet willing to actually answer the question. Perhaps she was trying to build drama for today’s big reveal.

She was here, she said repeatedly, to provide “truth” and “facts.” Alas, “the confusion” persisted.

“I have to say,” said the Bloc’s Pierre Paquette at one point, “that the confusion you’re talking about is not relevant confusion.” Conservative Tom Lukiwski lamented for the “misconceptions” held by the opposition parties and untold members of the general public. The NDP’s Pat Martin, taking every opportunity to sermonize for the cameras, invoked O.J. Simpson. Conservative Terrence Young accused the “opposition coalition” of trying to hide information.

A parliamentary committee is, of course, no place for clarity. Or coherence. Or the stating of straightforward questions for the purposes of soliciting information.

Ms. Oda’s plea ultimately depended on one contention: that she had never intended to mislead Parliament. Alas, until science makes it possible to see into a person’s soul, this much will remain unverifiable.

Nearer the end of her two hours of testimony, she restated her intention to “clarify” the confusion. And as confusing a stated intention as that may be, she seems to have made good on that promise. Indeed, if the confusion was not already obvious and clear, it surely is now.

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