The sketch: Stephen Harper, simple questions and simple answers

The bad senators are gone, the questions remain

Justin Trudeau stood to ask a question and so the Prime Minister could now enjoy his turn to heap scorn on someone else.

“Mr. Speaker, the Liberal Party had its chance in the Senate last night to demonstrate some kind of accountability. Of course what the Liberal senators did is exactly what we would expect as they have all through this defended the rights of senators to do whatever they want to do, whether they are within the rules or not,” Mr. Harper reported. “Once again the Liberal Party exhibited the culture we have come to know from that party, which is the culture of one being entitled to his or her entitlements, on that side. On this side, we expect people to follow the rules.”

He jabbed his finger and the Conservatives stood and cheered.

That a half dozen Conservative senators could not bring themselves to vote with the government side and that two Conservative MPs objected to the suspensions and that a former Conservative MP has likened the process to a “farce,” might complicate Mr. Harper’s narrative, but he might at least be given the basic fact of what happened last night. Even if the suspensions were highly dubious, or at the very least premature, the Conservatives at least managed to succeed in suspending three of the Prime Minister’s political appointments. Huzzah. It is a wonder the government side didn’t hang a “Mission Accomplished” banner from the visitor’s gallery this afternoon or have Claude Carignan parade around in a sheriff’s outfit.

Simple answers to complicated issues are surely appreciated. But on the subject of culture, there seems to be some lingering concern on the opposition side of the House.

“Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister likes to pretend that Nigel Wright acted alone, but the $90,000 cheque to Mike Duffy was just the tip of the iceberg. Others knew about the plan to have the party pay, and even more knew about the offers to whitewash the Senate report and keep Mike Duffy in the Senate,” Thomas Mulcair charged at the outset this afternoon. “There is a culture of cover-up and corruption in the Prime Minster’s Office. When is the Prime Minister finally going to come clean?”

The New Democrats stood and cheered.

The Prime Minister stood here and deferred to his departed subordinate.

“Mr. Speaker, Mr. Wright has been very clear: he undertook these particular actions using his own resources, his own authority and his own initiative,” Mr. Harper explained. “He has taken responsibility for that and is being held accountable.”

Alas, there seems to persist in the House some sense that there might be more worth knowing. And here now Mr. Mulcair returned to simple questions.

“Did the Prime Minister know about the plan to use Conservative Party funds to reimburse the illegal expenses of Mike Duffy,” the NDP leader wondered, “no weasel words, yes or no?”

Mr. Mulcair drew out his pronunciation of the word “illegal” and he was jeered and mocked by the government side.

The Prime Minister stood then and here, in its entirety, is how Mr. Harper’s response was recorded.

“Once again, my clear view on this was that Mr. Duffy’s expenses could not be justified. He had claimed expenses he had not incurred and that I had told him, including telling him directly, that he should repay those funds. I was later told that he had, which, of course, was not true. That is, of course, one of the reasons why the Senate has acted as it has, and we congratulate it for that action.”

You might note that there is no direct response here to the question asked. But if you were unsure of whether a response had been offered, Mr. Mulcair now sought to clarify.

“Mr. Speaker,” the NDP leader said, staring down the Prime Minister, “I do not know what it is that makes the Prime Minister so afraid to answer such a straightforward clear question.”

In his seat, Mr. Harper raised his eyebrows and shook his head, apparently confused by Mr. Mulcair’s displeasure.

The trick of the simple and direct question is that it leaves no doubt about what has been asked. And that clarity then bestows upon the other party a certain obligation to be equally clear in response. Beyond these walls, human society would struggle to function without this basic construct of communication.

In Mr. Harper’s case, it is not that he is incapable of speaking directly to a question asked. Just yesterday, for instance, he offered a clear “no” when Mr. Mulcair asked him about something the Prime Minister was alleged to have said.

This afternoon, Mr. Mulcair asked if Jenni Byrne, now a deputy chief of staff and previously the director of the Conservative party, had been aware of plans to reimburse Mr. Duffy with party funds—”Oui ou non?” he demanded, the New Democrats chanting the options along with him. Mr. Harper lamented that “without proof, the NDP leader makes allegations against other people,” but otherwise declined to answer.

Mr. Mulcair later turned to the matter of the Conservative party’s decision to cover Mr. Duffy’s legal expenses. “Of the legal expenses the party did cover for Mike Duffy, the Prime Minister ‘s office said, ‘The party was assured the invoice was for valid legal fees related to the audit process,’ ” Mr. Mulcair recounted. “What legal work was done relating to the audit process?”

Mr. Harper stood and claimed that “the facts have been made very clear on that. Political parties do provide legal support to their members of Parliament of both Houses from time to time.”

When Mr. Harper protested that questions about who in the Prime Minister’s Office was responsible for preparing senators before they spoke with the media, Mr. Harper shrugged and then protested that he did not think this was a matter of government business. The Conservatives applauded. Now Mr. Mulcair adopted a silly voice and mocked the Prime Minister. “Mr. Speaker, taxpayers pay for it. It is in the Prime Minister’s Office. But what does that have to do with the government?” The New Democrats stood and cheered.

Hanging over all this was a Liberal suggestion, naive as it might have been, that the Prime Minister might appear before a parliamentary committee for a few hours to take questions about the matter of Mike Duffy’s housing allowance. It is not entirely clear why the Prime Minister wouldn’t or couldn’t. Is he too busy? Would it set some sort of unfortunate precedent? Might those three hours provide just the sort of distraction for both him and the country that might imperil our fragile economy? Or is the government simply of the opinion that the public now knows everything it needs to know?

Possibly whatever damage this matter is to visit on Mr. Harper has already been done. But it is at least still a bother to have to be standing up each afternoon and having to pretend to have not heard questions that have been clearly asked. His government has been caught out in the manufacturing of an untruth and now it is down to how much or how little the government need explain about that.

Maybe committee hearings could be convened to determine what, in the abstract, we should expect to know when a situation such as this arises. Perhaps, as the Speaker lamented this afternoon, some of this is party business and thus not within the mandate of Question Period.

And perhaps it is simply that it would set a bad precedent to be seen too eagerly and fully answering questions. That being the sort of thing that could lead to a culture and an expectation of total forthcomingness.

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