The Commons: Thinking about preparing to get ready to plan to study the F-35

Scenes from an emergency meeting of the standing committee on public accounts
New Democratic Party’s Electoral Reform critic David Christopherson holds a press conference at the National Press Theatre on giving Elections Canada more tools to combat election fraud in Ottawa on Thursday, March 8, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Shortly after 2 p.m., David Christopherson, the fussiest New Democrat, called to order this emergency meeting of the standing committee on public accounts. Around the table sat seven Conservatives, four New Democrats (only three of whom were officially participating in the proceedings) and one Liberal.

Mr. Christopherson proceeded to read aloud the specific standing order of Parliament—106(4) for those of you scoring at home—that allows for four members of any committee to request an emergency meeting of that committee, as had occurred in this case. He asked to make sure that everyone in attendance was in agreement that this is what had happened. There was unanimous agreement—or at least no one audibly objected—and so Mr. Christopherson moved on to explain that there were two motions before the committee.

Here is approximately where the trouble started. Or rather where this place’s latest testament to the vitality of our democracy began.

Mr. Christopherson explained that normally it would be up to the chair of the committee—in this case, him—to decide which member of the committee to recognize first and, thus, which of the two motions the committee would hear first. This would involve something like seeing which of these MPs could raise their hand quickest. This was “patently unfair,” Mr. Christopherson explained, in part because “anyone with arthritis loses.” As a result, Mr. Christopherson had convened an informal meeting involving himself and one committee member from each party to decide who would go first. Some kind of agreement had been arrived at, but first Mr. Christopherson wanted to invite any of the MPs present to make a two-minute statement should they have anything they wished to say. Except that they would not be allowed to use this time to move a motion of any kind.

Conservative MP Andrew Saxton, the author of one of the motions that would both respectively commit this committee to a study of the auditor general’s findings on the F-35 procurement, went first. But he was confused. As a participant in the informal meeting, he did not think Mr. Christopherson had said that motions could not now be moved. Mr. Christopherson assured Mr. Saxton that he had. “Please do not violate the agreement,” Mr. Christopherson begged. Mr. Saxton acquiesced. He assured the committee that the government side welcomed the opportunity to study the F-35 procurement and conduct an “indepth” investigation. He then invited Liberal MP Gerry Byrne, author of the second motion in question, to retract his own and accept the motion authored by Mr. Saxton.

Going next, the NDP’s Malcolm Allen likened this to a question of balls. Specifically, two new soccer balls brought to the playground at recess, the owners of each insisting that the game be played with his. “I’m hoping we can actually play soccer,” he mused.

Mr. Bryrne then spoke in defence of his motion, which, unlike Mr. Saxton’s motion, included a list of witnesses for the committee to call. At one point, Mr. Byrne referred to himself in the third person.

Mr. Christopherson asked if anyone else wished to speak. Conservative MP Daryl Kramp interjected here to lament that Mr. Byrne’s unilateral imposition of witnesses was not in line with the cooperative history of this committee.

Mr. Saxton said he was now ready to introduce his motion, which, he clarified, he had actually introduced two weeks earlier. Under his motion, the public accounts committee would meet next Tuesday to discuss who it would call as witnesses. Here, Mr. Christopherson interjected. Because this was an emergency meeting and thus without an agenda, Mr. Saxton needed to first move that the committee consider his motion. A motion to consider the motion was thus tabled.

Mr. Allen noted that the committee was already scheduled to discuss something else next Tuesday. Mr. Christopherson said those plans could be delayed. Mr. Byrne objected to Mr. Kramp’s characterization of his motion. “I hope people came here to get to work,” he pleaded. He proceeded then to wonder aloud why the government was not interested in hearing from the individuals on his witness list.

Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant rose a point of order to suggest that Mr. Byrne was out of order. Mr. Christopherson ruled Mr. Byrne to be “within the gambit” of the committee’s discussion and thus Ms. Gallant’s point of order was out of order. Mr. Byrne continued to read each of the names on his list. “I just think we should get on with this,” he finally declared.

Conservative MP Bev Shipley interjected to lament that this was being described as a “planning meeting.” No notice of such had apparently been provided. Mr. Shipley then proposed an amendment to Mr. Saxton’s motion that would commit the committee to hearing from witnesses next Thursday.

First though the committee had to adopt the motion to consider the motion. Mr. Christopherson thought there was agreement to do so. “Let’s pass the motion to consider the motion,” the NDP’s Matthew Dube advised. Conservative MP Jay Aspin spoke up. “Let’s just move on,” he begged. Mr. Saxton took the floor to say that he would accept Mr. Shipley’s amendment, but that he hoped Mr. Byrne would support the motion. “Let’s move ahead in the spirit of cooperation,” he sighed.

On then to a vote? No. First because Mr. Christopherson wanted to note that it might be difficult to call witnesses for Thursday if the committee was going to prepare a witness list on Tuesday. And then Mr. Byrne wanted to explain his objections to what Mr. Saxton had said. Mr. Allen then wanted to clarify exactly what it was the committee would be voting on.

Finally, here, about an hour after calling the meeting to order, Mr. Christopherson called for a vote on the motion to consider the motion. It passed by a vote of 10-1 with Mr. Byrne objecting.

Mr. Saxton reread his motion with Mr. Shipley’s amendment, reassuring Mr. Christopherson that he thought witnesses could indeed be wrangled for next Thursday. Alas, Mr. Byrne asserted on a point of order that that amendment, at least when read by Mr. Saxton, was out of order. This seemed to be the case and so Mr. Byrne then proposed two amendments of his own. Mr. Byrne proposed that the “planning meeting” of the committee take place here and now and that witnesses appear as panels of two with each panel appearing for one hour. On a point of order, Ms. Gallant suggested that Mr. Byrne was out of order. Mr. Christopherson ruled that Ms. Gallant’s point of order was not in order.

It was around this point—approximately 3:10pm—that Mr. Allen’s patience was apparently exhausted. He was mad as heck and though he was compelled, as a member of this committee, to continue taking it, he would at least make his displeasure publicly known. “It’s like listening to duelling banjos that are both out of tune, to be quite frank,” he said. He then likened these banjos to hamsters on a wheel. It was time to stop butting heads (presumably like some other animal?), he added. “For once, let the grown-ups rule here,” he demanded. “And let’s get down to the business of doing business.” He was now lecturing the MPs as if they were his children. “Let’s find a way to start this study next Thursday,” he begged. “We need to move forward. We have 45 minutes. I would hope that at the very least we actually pass something today. This is what Canadians have actually asked us to do. Let’s get it done.”

A chastened shame fell over the room. Mr. Shipley spoke up to agree with Mr. Allen. The committee should have been able to do this two weeks ago, Mr. Shipley complained. Then he was complaining about Mr. Byrne and Mr. Byrne was declaring his willingness to stay here as long as it took to get something done and lamenting that all might very well be doomed if the committee did not proceed properly.

At 3:31pm, the committee voted on Mr. Byrne’s first amendment. It was defeated by a count of 7 to 4 with all the Conservatives voting against. Mr. Byrne’s second amendment was defeated six minutes later by the same score.

At 3:49pm, Mr. Shipley’s amendment, now in order, was adopted by a vote of 10 to 1 with Mr. Byrne voting against. Mr. Allen then moved an amendment to the amended motion that would ensure the meeting next Tuesday could not be conducted in camera. At 3:56pm, Mr. Allen’s amendment was defeated 7 to 4.

Finally, at 3:57pm, Mr. Saxton’s motion, with Mr. Shipley’s amendment, was called to a vote. It passed by a count of 7 to 4.

Mr. Saxton then tabled a motion to adjourn the meeting. Mr. Byrne then said he had a motion. Alas, we shall never know what it was, for Mr. Christopherson ruled that Mr. Saxton’s motion took precedence and sio at one minute past four o’clock, by a vote of 7 to 4, the public accounts committee adjourned. It will reconvene on Tuesday to officially plan the study it took two hours to agree to pursue.