The Commons: 'Where is the minister?'

In spite of her courage and her principles, Bev Oda would not stand and explain herself

The Scene. The moment apparently called for an accusatorily extended index finger. But first, a flashback—subjective as it may be—for the sake of those just tuning in to this tale of Bev Oda’s woe.

“Mr. Speaker, yesterday in this House the Prime Minister basically said: ‘I don’t care whether my minister doctored documents. I don’t care whether she misled the House. I don’t care whether she told the truth. I just don’t care,'” Michael Ignatieff reviewed off the top.

“This kind of disrespect for democracy just has to stop,” he continued, now turning to today. “When will the Prime Minister start showing respect for this House, respect for the people who put us here and fire that minister?”

Here is where he wagged that finger, a dramatic gesture rarely employed by the Liberal leader. Alas, it would him get no further.

“Mr. Speaker, I do not accept the premise of that question,” the Prime Minister pleaded. “The minister took a decision. The minister made clear that the decision was contrary to recommendations which she received from unelected officials, but in a democracy it is the elected officials who make decisions on how to spend taxpayers’ money.”

Apparently here the Prime Minister meant to present us with a choice. We could have a democracy in which elected officials make decisions. Or we could have a democracy in which elected officials were expected to tell the truth and refrain from doctoring documents. But we could not have it both ways.

Mr. Ignatieff tried again, this time en français. Mr. Harper restated his thesis for the benefit of francophone observers. The Liberal leader was made all the more displeased. And in his displeasure he was moved to metaphor. “Mr. Speaker, they say a fish rots from the head,” he ventured, “and the rot has stopped at the top.”

There were groans from the government side.

“We have a Prime Minister who lets a minister deceive the House of Commons, falsify a document, and instead of reprimanding or dismissing her, gets up in this House and actually applauds her,” Mr. Ignatieff continued. “This is bad for Canadian democracy. When will he stand up, take his responsibilities and fire that minister?”

Once again he wagged.

The Prime Minister—a man who over the last five years has strived endlessly to elevate the tone and tenor of public discourse—was quite distressed at this. “Mr. Speaker,” he sighed, “so much for raising the tone of debate around here.”

The Liberals pressed on with Denis Coderre pronouncing shame on the government side. Up came John Baird.

“The minister,” he said, “has been very clear that she alone had made the decision not to fund the grant to this organization.”

“No!” called the Liberal side, who would later take to crying “not” at such statements.

“The minister made a courageous decision,” Mr. Baird posited, casually showing no regard for the meaning of the adjective.

Then to Gilles Duceppe and then to Jack Layton. “Yesterday in the House the Prime Minister condoned forging documents and condoned misleading the House,” the latter testified. “How can Canadians trust a Prime Minister who would have such contempt for this place? He claims that the minister has the right to make decisions but there is no right to forge documents. There is no right to mislead the House. What kind of leadership is that?”

Here the Prime Minister, with some papers provided to him by Mr. Baird, stood and read aloud from Ms. Oda’s testimony to a parliamentary committee in December, minus of course the bit where the minister claimed no knowledge of the action she now claims to have directed.

Indeed, to the allegations of forgery and misleading the House, the government side would seem to have no response, no explanation, no defence. What they have, instead, are claims to authority and vague allusions.

“Mr. Speaker, what is wrong is when governments slavishly follow advice that results in taxpayer money used, not for the purpose it was supposed to be used for, which is to help the people in the developing world, help the poorest and the most vulnerable, but instead for other purposes,” Mr. Harper said to another of Mr. Layton’s questions. “The government has been very clear that it expects taxpayer money to be used not to reward Canadian organizations, but to promote the foreign policy and the humanitarian objectives of the government. That is exactly what the minister has done.”

How precisely this was applicable to the matter at hand, the Prime Minister was apparently not willing to say.

For all of this, Ms. Oda was decidedly present—right there over the Prime Miniser’s right shoulder. And eventually the opposition side was moved to wonder whether she might have something to say on her own behalf. “Why is the minister allowing herself to be manipulated by the Prime Minister?” begged Liberal Judy Foote. “Is it because he will not let her resign? Is that why she will not defend herself? Certainly she would prefer to defend her own integrity and answer for her own actions.”

Apparently she would not. Or could not. For here, again, came Mr. Baird.

“This is a minister who made a difficult and brave decision when it came to not awarding a grant in this regard,” he claimed.

“If she really believes Canadians, and her own constituents, think she is in the right, why can she not just say so?” Foote asked. “Where is the minister?”

Once more to Mr. Baird, this time to describe the minister’s public pronouncements as both “incredibly clear” and “very clear.”

But however clear, however brave, however courageous, however principled, Ms. Oda would not stand once this afternoon to explain herself.

John McKay asked for an explanation of government policy on foreign aid. Mr. Baird stood, Ms. Oda remained seated.

Bonnie Crombie wondered what other proposals might’ve been rejected by the minister. Mr. Baird stood, Ms. Oda remained seated.

Bob Rae turned to the comments of Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and asked what conversations Ms. Oda had had with him, the Minister of Foreign Affairs or the Prime Minister’s Office before rendering her decision. Mr. Baird stood, Ms. Oda remained seated. (Mr. Kenney waved his hand dismissively in Mr. Rae’s direction and then turned his attention to his Blackberry.)

Mr. Rae moved to Ms. Oda’s own remarks on that decision and asked her to explain an apparent discrepancy. Mr. Baird stood, Ms. Oda remained seated.

Fully 18 questions were asked today of this matter, a half dozen directed specifically at Ms. Oda. Thirteen questions were posed yesterday, four of those addressed directly to the Minister of International Cooperation. Not a one has received a response from her.

That a minister so apparently exemplary would not be allowed to speak for herself is at least passingly odd. Indeed, it is actually getting to be a bit glaring.

The Stats. KAIROS, 18 questions. The budget, four questions. The border, three questions. Tunisia, Internet usage, national security, shipbuilding and crime, two questions each. Prince William, the Bloc Quebecois and pensions, one question each.

John Baird, ten answers. Stephen Harper, nine answers. Vic Toews, five answers. Pierre Poilievre, three answers. Rob Nicholson, Stockwell Day, Mike Lake and Rona Ambrose, two answers each. Diane Finley, Jim Flaherty and Daniel Petit, one answer each.

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