The Commons: The anachronistic idea of accountability

How John Baird came to be called upon to explain Tony Clement

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The Scene. “I think we always answer the questions to the best of everybody’s ability at the time,” Government House leader Peter Van Loan explained to reporters one day last week, “with the information they have on hand and I think that hopefully if the tone continues we’ll see more and more clarity.”

It is on this basis, one assumes, that it was decided it would be to the best of everybody’s abilities at this time for Tony Clement to remain seated and say nothing more to the House about this business of the G8 Legacy Fund. Presumably this decision was finalized soon after Mr. Clement peaked out from behind John Baird at a news conference last Thursday to suggest that the process by which the government of the day receives the consent of the people’s representatives to spend public funds is “anachronistic” and that this somehow explains why he and a half-dozen small town mayors were compelled to divvy up money authorized for the Border Infrastructure Fund to build gazebos and public toilets in Muskoka.

A year ago Mr. Clement was only too proud to tout his government’s capacity for publicly funded trinkets and landscaping, but so as to avoid any more incidents of polysyllabic rumination, the government has delegated all House comment to John Baird. Officially, because it was he who ultimately had to sign off on Mr. Clement’s gazebo selection. Unofficially, one presumes, because no one can dance a rhetorical jig quite like the current Foreign Affairs Minister.

First to invite Mr. Baird to the dance floor was Jack Layton with the suggestion that the Prime Minister, absent this day, existed in some sort of “parallel universe”—this finding of the NDP leader’s based on Mr. Harper’s comment that the border fund was often used for events unrelated to the nation’s borders.

Here, Mr. Baird stood to claim righteousness and plead guilt. Here, he rose to accept blame and deflect responsibility. All in the space of five sentences.

“Mr. Speaker, we had to move expeditiously, as we did at the height of the economic downturn, to get infrastructure projects moving. These infrastructure projects had to move especially quickly,” he explained. “At the end of the day, as Minister of Infrastructure, I signed off on the estimates. One of the things contained in there was a proposal recommended to me by the Public Service, a proposal that I accepted, to use that gateway fund to get the projects moving especially quickly to meet the tight timeframes. The Auditor General has made some important recommendations on transparency and accountability to Parliament, and this government completely agrees.”

“Bravissimo!” exclaimed various members of the gallery as they rose to throw roses and bouquets at the star of this operetta.

Ignoring this response entirely, Mr. Layton moved to enumerate his concerns more specifically. “The $1.2 million for benches, bike racks and flagpoles 62 kilometres from the summit; the $1.3 million on sidewalks 85 kilometres from the summit; and the $2 million on a walkway, docking facilities, landscaping and lighting 131 kilometres away from the summit, nowhere near the border,” he exclaimed. “How can the government justify these kinds of expenditures?”

Mr. Baird begged the House to consider those delegates stranded great distances from the summit site—those delegates who would’ve suffered from heat stroke or liver damage had those gazebos and public washrooms not been readily available. “Mr. Speaker, there were three objectives of the legacy fund. The second was sprucing up an already beautiful part of our country,” he explained. “There were literally 2,000 journalists from around the world in addition to thousands and thousands of delegates, some staying well in excess of 100 kilometres away from the summit site itself.”

“Mr. Speaker, he is forgetting the fourth one,” Bob Rae quickly quipped of these objectives, “to re-elect the member from Parry Sound—Muskoka.”

Said member was not entirely unaware of what was being said about him. He did, for instance, look up to grace Charlie Angus with his attention as the NDP critic harangued him directly. “This member has abused the public trust and he must come clean,” Angus posited. “Will he explain to the House how he managed to divert $50 million from border infrastructure payments and put it into a private slush fund? Can he explain why the Auditor General was unable to find any evidence of oversight or documentation to explain this outrageous spending spree?”

It was Mr. Clement who announced the money for tree replacement in Parry Sound. And new signage in Muskoka. And the visitor centre in Gravenhurst. And street furniture in Bracebridge. And a picnic shelter in Sundridge. Indeed, when the time arrived, it was Mr. Clement who declared both the region and the nation well and truly ready to host the world.

But it was Mr. Baird who took this. “Mr. Speaker, I do not know where to begin with that question,” he sighed. “Just about everything the member opposite said is not the case.”

Mr. Angus was displeased. “Mr. Speaker, it is not good enough that the member is hiding behind the verbosity of the member for Ottawa West—Nepean,” he snapped. “If he cannot stand up and explain this $50-million spending spree, then he has no business being at Treasury Board.”

This persuaded Mr. Clement neither to stand, nor to resign.

The Stats. The G8 summit, seven questions. Libya and the Canada Revenue Agency, three questions each. Air India, employment, trade, foreign investment, Canada Post, pay equity, food safety, border security and foreign affairs, two questions each. The Department of Fisheries, forestry, the budget, government spending, the auto industry, veterans, the public service and immigration, one question each.

John Baird, 12 answers. Tony Clement, four answers. Christian Paradis and Gail Shea, three answers. Vic Toews, Ed Fast, Ted Menzies, Kellie Leitch, Pierre Lemieux and Diane Ablonczy, two answers each. Keith Ashfield, Diane Finley, Denis Lebel, Steven Blaney and Jason Kenney, one answer each.