Question Period Live

How to get under a cabinet minister’s skin

Brent Rathgeber takes on the Conservative government’s penchant for spending on advertising

Independent minds don’t deserve all the attention in the world just because they’re independent. Elected mavericks are often crafty, unattached to conventional wisdom, and carefree about consequences. They make for enticing examples of politics as unpredictable (at least slightly), or at least less typecast, but a heap of coverage might overplay their overall value to a robust democracy.

That firm caveat up front, let’s look at today’s question period. Brent Rathgeber, the former Conservative who’s written a book about democracy’s decline in Canada, reminded everyone who watched that, sometimes, an independent mind is capable of getting under the skin of those who control the public purse—even from the back of the backbenches. Last year, Rathgeber gave Maclean’s a sense of his QP preparation.

The famously independent MP’s basic accomplishment this afternoon was to force Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq and Treasury Board President Tony Clement to their respective feet. His more subtle victory was all in the delivery: most opposition questions are laced with some measure of fury, or indignation, or mocking. They sound practiced, they look practiced, and it all comes off as theatre, not serious opposition. Rathgeber doesn’t try to fake that rehearsed delivery; he speeds through his questions, crams as much as possible into the 35 seconds in which he commands the attention of the House, stumbles on his own words, and occasionally brings humour to the show.

Rathgeber’s first question, to Aglukkaq, recalled Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s musings about carbon pricing last December in a year-end interview with the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge. We’ll jump in to the transcript where Mansbridge asked about government proposals on carbon pricing.

So why don’t we propose something then?

We have proposed something.

What have we proposed?

Well, the Province of Alberta, excuse me, the Province of Alberta itself already has a, it’s one of the few GHG regulatory environments in the country. It has one. I think it’s a model on which you could, on which you could go broader.

This is the carbon levy?

This is the tech fund price carbon levy and the, the, it’s not a levy, it’s a price, and there’s a tech fund in which, in which the private sector makes investments. So look, that’s what Alberta has done, that’s a model that’s available but you know as I say, we’re very open to see progress on this on a continental basis. I’ve said that repeatedly to our partners in North America and we look forward to working on that.

Rathgeber’s preamble noted job losses of late in that province, which is also home for him and his thousands of Edmonton constituents. He took Harper’s endorsement of Alberta’s model as a direct pledge for a pan-Canadian initiative. “When will Canadians hear more details about the Prime Minister’s proposed multi-billion dollar, job-killing carbon tax-levy-tech fund, or whatever else he decides to call it?”

At this, NDP MPs Dan Harris and Alexandrine Latendresse leapt from their seats nearby. Others from their party joined them on their feet, applauding their former foe for asking a hard-hitting question of the government side. On its merits, the question was something of a cheap shot: Rathgeber’s mocking referral to the tax-levy-tech fund pounced on the PM’s twisted tongue: a series of verbal trips that either evidenced confusion on a key file or came as the PM struggled to fight off a scratchy throat. Either way, the PM never suggested he would adopt the Alberta model, and he immediately qualified his endorsement of the provincial plan with a plea for continental cooperation that he’s repeatedly voiced in the House.

Still, the question offered justice to New Democrats who’ve been punished by Tories every day for ever proposing a price on carbon.

Aglukkaq was short. She denied the government would introduce a carbon tax, and promptly took her seat.

Carbon was only Rathgeber’s opening act. He then sought accountability from Clement for hundreds of millions of dollars in government advertising since 2006. “Some of it, admittedly, is quite helpful, such as informing Canadians of new programs—assuming those programs actually exist,” he started. (Conservatives have a habit of promoting programs before they’re implemented—when, buried at the end of the ads, fine print reveals the vaunted programs remain “subject to parliamentary approval.” Rathgeber’s line had the opposition benches in stitches.)

The Edmonton MP continued. “Other [ads] are pure shilling for the government’s agenda and partisan objectives. Does the government that brought in the Accountability Act not believe in protecting taxpayers from using public dollars advancing partisan ends?” Ouch. A former teammate throwing the Tories’ first piece of signature legislation back in their face. Again, Harris and Latendresse, and many others, jumped to their feet.

Clement appeared unamused. He didn’t appreciate the tone emanating from the other side. “Mr. Speaker, I’m sure his constituents appreciate his sarcasm,” he lectured. “The truth is we have an obligation to ensure that citizens are aware of government programs that may affect them in their everyday lives. We will continue to advertise these excellent government programs, which are, in fact, increasing job opportunities, increasing infrastructure, doing the right things for Canadians. We’re proud of that and we will advertise the details to the Canadian citizens.”

All of which sets up a fun, possible future, when Conservatives don’t hold power and someone decides to propose certain limits on government spending.

Just kidding. No self-respecting government would force itself to advertise less, right?

The recap

The context

Time to put something to rest, once and for all, right here, no looking back: the Communications Security Establishment, a Canadian e-spy agency, is no longer a little-known organization hiding among the rest of the myriad federal departments headquartered in Ottawa. Today, the CBC published its latest collaboration with Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept—a partnership that’s gradually revealed a whack of concerns about the CSE’s various efforts to protect government servers and, ostensibly, the broader Canadian public.

Today’s story details the CSE’s supposedly “vast arsenal of cyberwarfare tools” meant to “hack into computers and phones in many parts of the world, including in friendly trade countries like Mexico and hotspots like the Middle East.” Top-secret documents, analyzed by the CBC, The Intercept, and a few experts who know their way around spy jargon, reveal tactics straight out of a movie theatre: “destroying infrastructure, which could include electricity, transportation or banking systems,” for example, and “creating unrest by using false-flags — i.e. making a target think another country conducted the operation.” Wow, right?

A niggling imperfection in the CBC’s story, and it’s right up top, is that CSE is “little known.” Not only is the CSE a known spy agency, it’s thanks in large part to the public broadcaster that anyone knows what’s happening behind closed doors. Nobody makes movies about Canadian e-spies (cue an iconic shot of Will Smith running away from the National Security Agency), but they’re certainly no longer a secret. Colleague Adrian Lee wrote about the last big CBC scoop, and urged the country’s unassuming residents to care about their own privacy rights. The CSE’s watchdog wants stronger rules around how Canada shares surveillance data. Parliamentarians continue to debate Bill C-51, the anti-terror legislation with which every Canadian should become acquainted—and which could expand security agencies’ powers across the land. Later today, a parliamentary committee will hear from the Protect Our Privacy coalition, whose message you can expect won’t be friendly to the bill on the table.

Repeat it over and over: The CSE is not a secret, everyone should forget it ever was, and everyone should also tell two friends why that three-letter acronym should matter to them. Or, hey, maybe Hollywood could just give us a blockbuster that does the same job with a lot more explosions and running and probably a happy ending.

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