The Commons: Over and over again

Each and every day, someone asks Tony Clement a question he has no intention of answering

The Scene. At some point some months ago, it was decided—by whoever makes such decisions in whatever underground lair the important decisions are rendered—that Tony Clement would not be standing in the House any more to account for his actions in regards to the G8 Legacy Fund. Presumably, this seemed like a good idea at the time. Conceivably, this was thought to be fine communications strategy, at least insofar as “communications” now mostly involves figuring out how best to steer conversations away from any kind of reflection.

This decision was likely based on the premise that the questions would eventually cease to be asked if Mr. Clement refused to respond. That the opposition parties would get bored or distracted or frustrated, and the questions about gazebos and such would subside and everyone would move on to something less consequential.

Alas, the solution has become a communications problem of its own. For here we are, months later, and the questions have not ceased. Each and every day (or nearly so), at least one MP from the NDP side is sent up to ask at least one more question of or related to Mr. Clement. And each and every day (or nearly so), Mr. Clement sits and does nothing on his own behalf, except maybe to mutter at the question asked of him or applaud the answer offered for him.

We arrive at this daily spectacle as a result of what must only be termed an epiphany on the opposition side.

That Question Period does not necessarily involve much in the way of direct and substantive answers is both a boring old joke (“They don’t call it Answer Period, har, har, har!”) and a point of fact. This much has bedevilled opposition parties for at least as long as Question Period has existed. But lo the new official opposition—and now even the old official opposition—have come to realize that however few the answers, there is nothing to stop them from simply repeating the questions, again and again and again. Indeed, the lack of answers only becomes more glaring when the matter is pursued repeatedly and unendingly for days or weeks at a time.

Yesterday and again today, the NDP persisted in asking the Defence Minister about the possible closure of military bases. That he has so far refused to offer anything like a direct answer has thus become a question in and of itself. Lately, the Liberals have taken to rising and offering up some proposal or another that would seem to fit within the government’s stated goals of encouraging economic growth and reducing the tax burden on the average, ordinary, hard-working, hockey fan. That the Prime Minister has so far refused to acknowledge their suggestions has apparently only encouraged them to come up with another to ask him about.

So it goes. And so it may go for awhile yet. Freed of having to worry about whether or not to bring about an election, the opposition seems to have plenty of time on its hands. And if they must be here every afternoon (or nearly so) from now until 2015, they seem intent on taking it out on the likes of Tony Clement.

All the more on days such as this, when there is some new curiosity to dwell upon. “Mr. Speaker, more ministers were involved in the G8 gazebo fiasco,” Nycole Turmel declared today, struggling a bit in her second language with the syllables of “gazebo.” “The Minister of the Environment also has a friend in the area. Can the Prime Minister explain the environment minister’s involvement in the G8 slush fund?”

The Prime Minister could not. Or would not. Or both. Instead, and no doubt in keeping with the communications strategy, he offered a recitation of the script. “Mr. Speaker, the facts on this are well known,” he said, as if this were of some solace. “They have been completely reviewed by the Auditor General. The former Minister of Transport, now Minister of Foreign Affairs, made the decisions. There have been recommendations made by the Auditor General on how we can improve the process in the future and we will do so.”

That the government won’t do again whatever it did here apparently did little to sway Ms. Turmel, who wondered aloud when Parliament—as recommended by the interim Auditor General—might proceed with an inquiry. Mr. Harper repeated his script en français. Ms. Turmel wondered aloud when the Prime Minister might account for his own involvement in the G8 Legacy Fund and Mr. Harper read into the record various sentences that had been offered by various Conservatives before him and then it was Charlie Angus’s turn. Mr. Angus, who takes particular pleasure in his contributions to the daily shaming of Mr. Clement, duly launched into his routine.

“Mr. Speaker, new documents now show that the maverick member from Muskoka was not alone in subverting accountability. We find out that the cabinet ministers were dividing up the cash and projects without any bureaucratic oversight whatsoever. They turned the cabinet table into a one-stop shop for pork,” he exclaimed. “What better way to get his hands on the money than to get one of his friends hired at $187 an hour to lobby other ministers. Will the minister come clean and tell us how many ministers did he and his buddy lobby in order for him to get his hands on the G8 slush fund?”

Across the way, Mr. Clement pretended not to notice. Typically it would be John Baird’s duty to stand here and respond, but he was once again away from the House. Yesterday, in his place, it had been Deepak Obrahi, Mr. Baird’s parliamentary secretary, who spoke on Mr. Clement’s behalf, but today, for whatever reason, it was Pierre Poilievre, parliamentary secretary to Industry Minister Christian Paradis, who rose to respond.

After repeating the government’s points, Mr. Poilievre turned and chided Mr. Angus for not voting to abolish the long-gun registry. Mr. Angus stood and ventured of Mr. Clement that “after 130 days, the fig leaf that the member is hiding behind is looking a little frayed over there.” As he proceeded with his question, Mr. Clement turned to look at Mr. Angus and for a few precious seconds the two appeared to be looking directly into each other’s eyes. Whatever the connection thus made, it was Mr. Poilievre who stood to respond in roughly the same fashion as he had a moment before.

And that was more or less that. At least until tomorrow. And for perhaps at least another four years to come after that.

The Stats. The Canadian Wheat Board, seven questions. The G8 Legacy Fund, six questions. The U.S. travel surcharge, four questions. The economy, the military and military procurement, three questions each. The CBC, copyright, the long-gun registry and the oil industry, two questions each. Trade, crime, students, ACOA and bilingualism, one question each.

Gerry Ritz, seven answers. Peter MacKay, six answers. Stephen Harper and Ed Fast, five answers each. James Moore, four answers. Peter Van Loan and Pierre Poilievre, three answers each. Joe Oliver, two answers. Jim Flaherty, Diane Finley, Bernard Valcourt and Christian Paradis, one answer each.