Thomas Mulcair explains himself

Holding the leader of the opposition to account

Fred Chartrand/CP

Fred Chartrand/CP

About 40 minutes into the interrogation of Thomas Mulcair, the government’s lead investigator, Stephen Woodworth, wanted to at least make one thing clear.

“I must say that in five years of sitting on a committee,” Mr. Woodworth lamented, “I have never seen a witness as evasive as this witness.”

Indeed. What did Mr. Mulcair think this was, Question Period? And who did he think he was, the Prime Minister?

A moment later, after some further back-and-forth between the NDP leader and the Conservative backbencher, Mr. Mulcair leaned in low on one elbow and looked directly at Mr. Woodworth. “In my 36 years in government, Mr. Woodworth, I’ve never seen the governing party get together with its handmaiden in the third party to convene the leader of the opposition,” the leader of the opposition observed. “But you know what? I’m here and I’m going to answer all your questions.”

There was something a bit odd about this. In Britain this week, it was the Prime Minister appearing before a parliamentary committee (a bi-annual tradition in recent years there.) In Ottawa, it was the leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition, hauled before a committee by virtue of an order moved in the House of Commons by a government minister. At least if you understand Parliament’s primary role to be holding the government to account, this would seem to have things backwards.

But if the use of public funds are in question in this case of the suspect satellite offices, we should at least be satisfied that the House of Commons is exercising its power of the purse. And we should be heartened that the government would seem so eager to embrace the notion of parliamentary accountability. May this study be the new standard for parliamentary inquisitiveness—too late, perhaps, for the Prime Minister to appear before a parliamentary committee on the Wright-Duffy affair or for a comprehensive exploration of the government’s budget cuts or a committee study of the temporary foreign worker program, but a new standard all the same.

What brought Mr. Mulcair to this committee were, primarily, questions about the NDP’s decision to pool money from the parliamentary budgets of several MPs to hire staff to work out of an office in Montreal that was paid for by the party (and included party staff). It is the insistence of the Conservatives and Liberals that this—the employing of parliamentary staff within a party office—is against the rules and that possibly the administrative staff of the House of Commons were misled in the process of this office being staffed. It is the contention of the New Democrats that what they were doing was obvious and within the rules, or at least that it was not against the rules—that whatever the office they were in, parliamentary staff did parliamentary work. (There is also, as well, some question over the precise lawfulness of language used in a partisan flyer mailed by NDP MPs, although perhaps we could just take away everyone’s mailing privileges and be done with such nonsense entirely.)

Seated here for two hours, Mr. Mulcair argued and defended his position to some, though perhaps not total, avail. He does not lack for self-confidence, seemingly quite sure of both his position and his ability to argue that position, and he perhaps even relishes the prospect of a good fight. Here he smiled and was sarcastic and he mocked and he condescended and he got in his shots and at times he talked past and through.

“Oh darn,” he sighed when informed that the time had run out on Mr. Woodworth’s first round of questions.

“Well, that’s an interesting question, because it’s so comically loaded it’s worthy of nothing but contempt,” he dismissed Liberal MP Sean Casey at one point.

“Sorry to destroy your Perry Mason moment, Mr. Casey,” he chided Mr. Casey awhile later.

Mr. Woodworth engaged Mr. Mulcair with the sort of yes or no questions that Mr. Mulcair had employed to harass the Prime Minister last fall. At first the Conservative seemed overwhelmed by Mr. Mulcair’s willingness for a debate, but about an hour in, the government’s man seemed to settle in as he attempted to hem in Mr. Mulcair.

The two proceeded to haggle over by-laws, Mr. Mulcair pointing to a by-law that suggest parliamentary duties could be performed wherever, Mr. Woodworth pointing to a rule that “A member may hire employees for the member’s parliamentary office or constituency office.” But if Mr. Woodworth seemed at on his point to be backing Mr. Mulcair into something of a corner, Mr. Mulcair ultimately seemed to think he had Mr. Woodworth out-maneuvered all the same.

The key to Mr. Mulcair’s case: an April 8 memo from the Speaker of the House, which explains that in order to “end the performance of parliamentary work and political party work from the same location,” the Board of Internal Economy had passed an “amendment” to the rules that reads “No employee of a Member or House Officer may have as their regular place of work any space in premises owned, leased or under the effective control of a political party.”

This, in Mr. Mulcair’s estimation, demonstrates that a difference between what was and what is.

And so the signature exchange of the day would involve Latin.

Mr. Woodworth would begin by citing another rule, this one dictating that “Members may share office space with another Member, a member of a provincial legislature or an elected municipal representative.”

“Now you’re a lawyer,” Mr. Woodworth posited. “You know that rules of interpretation say that when a rule has a list that it’s exhaustive and there’s no indication of anything else being allowed. Don’t you agree with that?”

“Well,” Mr. Mulcair explained to Mr. Woodworth, “the rule that you are trying to refer to is usually called ejusdem generis but in fact the rule you should be trying to use is exclusio unius est exclusio alterius.”

“That, as a matter of fact, is exactly the rule that I’m referring to,” Mr. Woodworth clarified.

“That rule would have you understand that when you include something you’re excluding others,” Mr. Mulcair continued.

“Exactly,” Mr. Woodworth concurred.

“When you come up with a new rule on April 8, 2014 that says as of April 8, 2014 you can no longer do this,” Mr. Mulcair explained, “that means that prior to April 8, 2014 you could do this.”

“Not at all, Mr. Mulcair,” Mr. Woodworth attempted to interject.

But here Mr. Mulcair decided to punctuate his point with a taunt. “By the way there’s an excellent work entitled Bibliographie sur la redaction et l’interpretation des textes legislatifs, 375 pages, published in 1979 by the Éditeur officiel du Québec. I am the author of it and I’ll be glad to give you a signed copy.”

There was laughter here from the spectators.

Mr. Woodworth would insist on the applicability of expressio unius and Mr. Mulcair would insist that Mr. Woodworth did not understand “statutory interpretation”

Afterwards, the two Liberal members of the committee would be asked by a reporter to define the word “amendment,” which would seem to suggest some small victory today for Mr. Mulcair.

The committee is vowing to continue this study, with a warning that Mr. Mulcair might be recalled. And if it can somehow be demonstrated that the parliamentary staff in that Montreal office were performing expressly partisan work or that the House of Commons administration was expressly duped, the NDP leader might have a problem too large for legalese.

But between yesterday’s 30-minute scrum and today’s two-hour testimony, we’ve at least gotten a good look at what Thomas Mulcair looks like when he’s being asked to explain himself. (Indeed, for all of this controversy, the New Democrats might at least be happy that their guy got some attention.) He is not quite humble, nor particularly gentle, with a certain rhetorical aggressiveness. And in figuring out what the rules would allow and then dismissing one’s critics, he and his side have perhaps not quite ingratiated themselves (in the NDP’s creative design and legalistic defence, there is the faintest echo here of the Conservative party’s in-and-out scandal).

Is this how Mr. Mulcair would govern, with this sass toward his rivals and critics? If so, we might at least hope that he’d remain so willing to participate in 30-minute scrums and two-hour committee appearances. Perhaps that should even be a requirement.

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