The Commons: The Conservatives run out of answers

And Pat Martin wonders where it all went wrong

The afternoon was not without new clarification. Or at least an attempt at such.

Picking up where yesterday had left off, Thomas Mulcair endeavoured to sort out the precise value of John Baird’s assurance that the matter of Nigel Wright and Mike Duffy had been referred to two independent authorities.

“Mr. Speaker, yesterday afternoon, 11 times the Minister of Foreign Affairs said that the Duffy affair was going to be investigated by independent authorities, independent bodies, independent officers. When my colleague, the House Leader of the Official Opposition asked him what those were, he could not give an answer,” Mr. Mulcair recounted. “Twice during the afternoon the Prime Minister’s Office said that they were referring to the Senate’s Ethics Officer. Later it corrected that to say that it is the Senate committee, the same one that whitewashed Mike Duffy the first time, that is carrying out the investigation.”

“Ahh!” sighed the New Democrats.

Along the government’s front row, Vic Toews grumbled in Mr. Mulcair’s direction about a “bribe” (seemingly a reference to the matter of Mr. Mulcair and the mayor of Laval).

“Does the minister not realize,” Mr. Mulcair asked, “that is about as credible as Paul Martin asking Jean Chrétien to investigate the sponsorship scandal?”

The New Democrats enjoyed this reference and stood to applaud their man.

Mr. Baird now stood to quote himself. “What I did say yesterday was, and I quote: ‘Furthermore, this matter has been referred to two independent bodies for review,’ which is nothing like what he just said,” Mr. Baird explained, seeming to stress the word referred.

So… there?

It is not actually clear what this should clarify, although, as it turns out, it now seems the Senate Ethics Officer is indeed reviewing the matter. So there’s that. Unfortunately, there is not much else on offer. Or, rather, not much else that the government seems either willing or able to offer.

“Mr. Speaker, yesterday afternoon the Minister of Foreign Affairs said that we were referring to some form of legal document that he was not aware of and that his understanding is that no such document exists,” Mr. Mulcair pressed with his third opportunity, speaking slowly and deliberately. “There is a trust document. There is a cheque. Will the Conservatives let the public see the trust document and the cheque?”

Mr. Baird apparently did not see any reason to acknowledge any such kind of possible distinction. “Mr. Speaker, again, what I said was that there was no legal document with which had been referred to in this House by members of the opposition on a number of occasions,” he said. “I said that our understanding was that there was no such legal document. No one in the government is aware of such a legal document.”

Nathan Cullen, the NDP House leader, now broadened the matter. “Can the Conservatives say definitively that there were no documents in the Prime Minister’s Office that related to the Mike Duffy and Nigel Wright scandal?” he wondered. “To be clear: no emails, no memos, no notes. Yes or no?”

In response to that simple query, Mr. Baird offered praise for the ethics commissioner. “This matter has been referred to her and the government is prepared to fully co-operate as she looks into this issue,” the Foreign Affairs Minister assured before repeating his understanding that a “legal agreement” does not exist.

Mr. Cullen seemed unimpressed. “Mr. Speaker,” he shot back, “somehow the Conservatives think that parsing words is going to satisfy Canadians.”

In fact, the problem for the government here is that there is very little to parse. There are only questions here that need be answered and allegations that need be addressed.

If this has hit the government harder than anything in its seven years in office, it is possibly for similar reasons. This matter of Nigel Wright and Mike Duffy is not a matter of simple pork (the G8 Legacy Fund), nor complicated accounting and procurement (the F-35), nor electioneering (In-and-Out), nor the conditions of third-world prisons in a war zone (the Afghan detainee controversy). It is neither arcane (prorogation), nor legislative (omnibus budget bills), nor parliamentary (the 2011 finding of contempt), nor merely a matter of expensive orange juice (Bev Oda). It is, instead, the stuff of primetime television drama: the allegations are the stuff of entitlement, privilege, corruption and the evasion of justice. It is an episode of The Good Wife, if perhaps not a particularly good episode of The Good Wife. Less entertaining, but allegedly real.

It is, indeed, a matter that has moved no less than the Prime Minister to express frustration, sorrow and anger.

Unfortunately for Mr. Harper, there seem few answers on the government side.

“We know now that the Conservatives on the Senate Committee on Internal Economy used their majority to doctor the final report on Senator Duffy’s expenses,” Justin Trudeau charged with his first opportunity. “Can anybody on that side of the House tell us who gave the order to whitewash the report on Senator Duffy?”

Mr. Baird apparently could not.

“If Wright is solely responsible,” Mr. Trudeau wondered, “when will the government call him to testify under oath to his malfeasance?”

Mr. Baird could only offer assurances that Mr. Harper was unaware of what Mr. Wright was up to and that Mr. Wright had done the right thing in resigning.

“Who on that committee was part of the $90,000 whitewash,” Charlie Angus asked of the Senate’s internal economy committee and the promise of a new review of Mike Duffy’s expenses, “and will they be allowed to partake in this new review or will the government do the right thing and call in the police?”

Mr. Baird deferred to the House ethics commissioner.

Later, Mr. Trudeau returned to his feet to continue posing questions. “Will the government produce the cheque?” he asked.

Mr. Baird reviewed the government’s version of events and deferred to the ethics commissioner.

Mr. Trudeau raised the possible existence of an email he seemed to think the Prime Minister’s Office was in possession of. “Will the government commit to releasing this and any other email or document, electronic or otherwise, that relates to the secret deal between the PMO and Senator Duffy?”

Mr. Baird deferred to the ethics commissioner.

Twenty-three times Mr. Baird stood this afternoon, mostly bereft of the sort of answers that might begin to settle any of this. Even his assurances were problematic. “I understand that Mr. Wright has taken sole responsibility for the decision he made on the repayment and his actions. He immediately submitted his resignation and it was immediately accepted,” Mr. Baird explained at one point, a version of the timing that seems to clash with the public record and anonymous supposition.

In the middle of the day, at the end of its line of questioning, the New Democrats sent up Pat Martin, who proceeded to do as Pat Martin does.

“Mr. Speaker, the minister is going for cocky when he should be going for contrition,” he chided Mr. Baird. “A little less swagger and a little more Jimmy Swaggart would be in order.”

This was possibly one of the finer lines in the history of this place, even if the Foreign Affairs Minister did not seem too swaggering this day.

Mr. Martin furrowed his brow and gestured with both hands to act out his sermon.

“They rode into Ottawa on their high horse of accountability, and all we have to show for it is the mess that horse left,” he quipped. “They should take their Federal Accountability Act and run it through that horse and throw it on their roses for all the good it has ever done us.”

He might’ve stopped there, but he did offer a pair of rhetorical question for the sake of the record.

“My question for the minister is simple: When did it all go so terribly wrong?” he wondered. “When did they jettison integrity and honesty and accountability for the sake of political expediency?”

The New Democrats stood to cheer this and even Liberals applauded, Mr. Trudeau thumping the top of his desk in appreciation.