The Commons: ‘She could not be clearer’

The Commons: Bev Oda has certainly brought about a certain kind of transparency

The Scene. The Speaker called for oral questions and Michael Ignatieff stood, rubbing his hands together. This likely had something to with the temperature, it being frightfully cold in the capital today.

But if it was a gesture—albeit a rather cartoonish gesture—of glee, it would not be without warrant. Here the opposition was once more presented with a minister of exceeding clumsiness. The Liberal leader had not so much to formulate an interrogation than relay the official record of events and then throw his hands up in the air.

“Mr. Speaker, the Minister of International Cooperation cut funding to a reputable church organization, then doctored a document from her officials to make it look as if they agreed with her judgment when they did not and then she misled the House,” he recalled.

“This is conduct unworthy of a minister,” he ventured. “The question to the Prime Minister is, what consequence will the minister face for misleading the House and the Canadian people?”

Here the Prime Minister stood to impose his authority upon the situation. “On the contrary, Mr. Speaker,” he said.

Indeed. A senior government official with some insight into Mr. Harper’s soul told the evening news last night that Ms. Oda maintained the full confidence of the Prime Minister. And no doubt that is true. How could it not be? If making a spectacle of oneself were a fireable offence, Mr. Harper would be without much of his cabinet. Indeed, a quick review of the frontbench would seem to indicate that by doing so so spectacularly, Ms. Oda might be in line for a promotion. If she’d somehow worked a pirate metaphor into yesterday’s explanation, she might already be Finance Minister.

“The Minister of International Cooperation has been very clear that she took this decision,” Mr. Harper continued. “These kinds of decisions are the responsibility of ministers. When we spend money on foreign aid, we expect it to be used effectively for foreign aid and that is the decision the minister took.”

This was a fine explanation, though for what, exactly, it was unclear.

“Mr. Speaker, I didn’t get an answer,” Mr. Ignatieff astutely pointed out. “How can she continue in cabinet?”

Mr. Harper repeated himself.

Apparently tired of the foreplay, Mr. Ignatieff proceeded to question he’d been waiting to ask. “Mr. Speaker, the minister is tied up in ‘nots.’ She did not listen to her officials. She did not take responsibility. She did not tell the truth. She did not have the integrity to resign,” he reviewed. “How can the Prime Minister not demand her resignation?”

“Mr. Speaker, as I have said, the minister has been clear here and in committee repeatedly that this was her decision, as it is supposed to be,” Mr. Harper ventured in response. “It is a decision of the minister to make sure that taxpayers’ dollars are used effectively for foreign aid and that is what she has done.”

The government side is quite adept at this stuff: concede nothing, explain nothing, claim exactly the opposite of what you are accused of doing. It is never not remarkable to behold.

Here Ms. Oda is accused of not being clear, of not taking responsibility, of not explaining herself, indeed of contradicting herself and of misleading the House. And so here the government claims that she has been clear and she has taken responsibility. There is even the hint of an explanation, however snide and winking. The rejected expenditure in this case would have apparently helped educate 5.4-million poor people at a cost of $7.1-million. But here the Prime Minister seems to suggest that that’s not an effective use of government funds. Not that he’s necessarily saying that. But not that he’s not.

John McKay, the Liberal backbencher whose pursuit of this matter has gotten us to now, stood next with a question for Ms. Oda. But here stood John Baird instead. Mr. McKay tried again. Here again came Mr. Baird. “Mr. Speaker, the minister could not have been clearer,” he enthused on Ms. Oda’s behalf.

Indeed. But whatever her enduring clarity, Ms. Oda would not be allowed to stand a single time this afternoon. Whatever her decisiveness, whatever her responsibility, whatever her unimpeachable efforts in respect of public money, Ms. Oda could apparently not be counted upon to speak today for herself.

Similarly quiet, in fact appearing quite disinterested by the whole matter as he fiddled with his Blackberry and flipped through the newspaper, was Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. To date he is perhaps the only cabinet minister to have offered an explanation, however briefly, for the decision to reject funding for KAIROS. Some months ago he linked the decision to KAIROS’ position on Israel. A few weeks later, he disavowed any suggestion that the group’s position on Israel, or himself for that matter, had anything to do with it.

As the questions persisted, Ms. Oda’s spokesman grew obstinate.

Liberal Raymonde Folco suggested the Prime Minister was responsible for the decision. “Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Baird demurred, “it will not come as a surprise to the member or anyone in the House that I completely reject the premise of the honourable member’s question.”

Bob Rae begged Ms. Oda to explain her “subterfuge.” “Mr. Speaker, that was certainly a lot of bluster,” Mr. Baird sighed before launching into a tribute to the still-silent minister. “She has done a fantastic job. Canada is awfully lucky to have her.”

Mr. Rae would have none of it. “Mr. Speaker, the minister takes so much responsibility for her decisions that she is apparently incapable today of standing in her place and telling us why the story that is being told on her behalf, not by her, is a completely different story than the one she was perpetrating around the House of Commons for a full year,” he charged. “The minister did not have the courage to tell the committee when she met with us in December that in fact she is the one who authorized the ‘not.’ She is telling us now. Why did the minister not tell the truth to the committee in December when she appeared before it?”

Mr. Baird ignored this entirely. “The minister is the one who made the decision,” he reaffirmed. “She has always been incredibly clear on that.”

Some time later, the NDP’s Paul Dewar attempted to clarify matters.

“Mr. Speaker, we are talking about when one is telling the truth or not,” he explained.

“Yesterday the minister said she directed someone to insert that word to kill a grant for KAIROS,” he continued. This is what she said on December 9. When asked, ‘Did you put that word in there?,’ she said ‘No.’ ‘Do you know who did it?’ She said: ‘I do not know.'”

In case anyone hadn’t followed that, Mr. Dewar ventured a conclusion. “Where I come from, that is misleading. That is not telling the truth. That is a premise for this Prime Minister to ask this minister to leave cabinet,” he testified. “Is he going to do it, yes or no?”

Here Mr. Baird stood to ignore the question on Mr. Harper’s behalf.

“Mr. Speaker, the minister clearly made the decision not to provide financial support to this organization,” he said. “She could not be clearer.”

Indeed. However unclarified and contested the various details, Ms. Oda has certainly brought about a certain kind of transparency.

The Stats. KAIROS, 13 questions. Tunisia and immigration, four questions each. Foreign investment and crime, three questions each. Quebec City arena, the courts, securities regulation, public services and infrastructure, two questions each. Mexico, taxation and nuclear waste, one question each.

John Baird, nine answers. Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney, five answers each. Lawrence Cannon, four answers. Tony Clement and Vic Toews, three answers each. Ted Menzies, Diane Finley and Rob Merrifield, two answers each. Josee Verner, Rob Nicholson, Lisa Raitt, Peter Van Loan and Christian Paradis, one answer each.

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