Why do we have an Intergovernmental Affairs Minister?

The Commons: Time for Peter Penashue to justify the existence of his portfolio

The Scene. It is not necessarily Peter Penashue’s fault that he is the Intergovernmental Affairs Minister. And it is not necessarily Mr. Penashue’s fault that the existence of the Intergovernmental Affairs Minister is something of a mystery. But so long as Mr. Penashue is the Intergovernmental Affairs Minister it is for him to justify that existence.

Indeed, to accept the job is to take on something of an existential crisis. To be the Intergovernmental Affairs Minister is to consider why we have an Intergovernmental Affairs Minister. It has been this way for some years. And it is something Stephane Dion—a former Intergovernmental Affairs Minister, but one who had an identifiable job description—began to ponder a year ago.

“Mr. Speaker, is there a Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs in this Conservative government?” he asked last December.

“Mr. Speaker, I have a question for the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, if this government even has such a minister,” he sighed last March.

Mr. Penashue might’ve had only to contend with Mr. Dion’s fussiness were it not for the questions about the accounting practices of his election campaign. Such questions have now led to those larger questions.

“Mr. Speaker, on matters of justice in the provincial government, maybe the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs could work with the provinces to try and help solve some of these problems, because the Prime Minister has been alienating the provinces, even refusing to attend an upcoming first ministers meeting in Halifax. In fact, he will not even sit down with the premiers to discuss our shaky economy,” the NDP’s Robert Chisholm mused this morning. “Will the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs be attending the first ministers meeting in Halifax? Will he give us some idea about his plan to correct the problems in the relationship between the provinces and the federal government?”

It was the Justice Minister who stood to respond to this, boasting that he and the Public Safety Minister had met with their provincial counterparts just last week.

Charlie Angus took his turn. “Mr. Speaker, we are really trying to help the minister from Labrador, but he is not really doing much,” he declared. “He gets a limo, a driver and lots of staff.”

“You sound envious!” chirped a Conservative.

“He gets a very generous pay from the taxpayer and for that he is supposed to be able to stand and explain himself,” Mr. Angus continued. “But we will go with something simpler. Why was 79% of the travel expenses as minister spent in his own province? That is on top of the $18,000 in free flights he used in the campaign. We have a simple question, is he using his ministerial dollars and taxpayers’ dollars to perpetually campaign around his riding?”

Mr. Penashue stood to take this one. “Ohh!” mocked the opposition in faux delight.

“Mr. Speaker, our government is committed to strong relations with the provinces and territories based on true respect for their jurisdictions,” the minister dutifully read from a card in his hand. “I work with my counterparts to ensure that a strong relationship continues to grow. I also make it a priority to ensure that our government is doing its part in fostering jobs and growth in Newfoundland and Labrador and across Canada. That is what we do and that is what we will continue to do.”

Mr. Angus segued from this into a general query about the ethics of Conservative practices, which gave Government House leader Peter Van Loan opportunity to proclaim shame on the opposition side. Alexandre Boulerice followed with a denunciation en francais and then Pierre Poilievre stood to invoke Mr. Angus’ vote on the long-gun registry.

Mr. Penashue might’ve thus been done for the day, but a few moments later Liberal MP Scott Andrews stood with a metaphor. “Mr. Speaker, we all know that the member for Labrador is drowning in his election irregularities,” he ventured. “The management of the relationship between the federal government and the provinces is a major job and the minister is simply not doing his job. His own website shows only three meetings with provincial counterparts, and that was all in 2011. God only knows what he has been doing in 2012. He has been ripping off taxpayers by not doing his job.”

There was much outcry on the Conservative side at the uncouth nature of the charge.

“Will the minister admit to not doing his job and resign immediately?” Mr. Andrew asked, ridiculously.

Amid some confusion on the government side and some heckling from the opposition side (Mr. Angus seemed to suggest that Mr. Poilievre, whom he referred to by the nickname “Skippy,” might help the minister), Mr. Penashue stood to take this, pausing a moment before expressing some disappointment.

“Mr. Speaker,” he said, “sometimes I just cannot believe how rude and how bullish those people can be.”

Mr. Poilievre made a good show of displaying consternation as he and various Conservatives applauded.

“Mr. Speaker, our government has a strong relationship with provincial and territorial governments. I meet with counterparts regularly and focus on the strength of the province and growing Canada’s economy. New exploration and investment are occurring across Canada, especially in Labrador,” Mr. Penashue explained. “In my role as Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs I get to share these success stories with people from coast to coast to coast. I am working hard to ensure that all Canadians benefit.”

Spreading the good news and pronouncing shame on the opposition. It’s as good a job description for a cabinet minister as any.

The Stats. Government services and prisons, six questions each. Intergovernmental affairs, ethics, crime and the Navigable Waters Protection Act, three questions each. Foreign investment, the budget and veterans, two questions each. Government spending, emergency preparedness, employment insurance, pensions, trade, multiple sclerosis, trade, public-private partnerships, the seal hunt and immigration, one question each.

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