The Commons: And so we arrive at satire

This government won’t stand for attacks against civil servants

The Scene. Bob Rae stood first, with what sounded like a reference to a particularly demented game of Clue.

“We were told yesterday at the Afghanistan committee that a braided electric cable, which is undoubtedly an instrument of torture, was found in the office of the director of investigations at the National Directorate of Security,” he reviewed. “I would like to ask the Minister of National Defence, would he not agree with us that a discovery like that points to a systemic problem rather than simply a single instance with respect to a discovery of that kind?”

As Mr. Rae spoke, there was some discussion on the Conservative side as to who should answer. Since the Liberal critic had requested the Minister of Defence, it was apparently decided that the Transport Minister would rise. Mr. Baird duly rose to list all the times Canadian officials have searched Afghan prisons without finding anything like a braided electric cable.

“In other words, in 2007 alone, we visited the prison on 33 occasions, the National Directorate of Security on 12, and the Afghan National Police Detention Centre on two, for a total of 47 visits,” Mr. Baird explained. “These were usually unannounced and there was nothing discovered.”

Au contraire,” Mr. Rae said, reminding the Transport Minister of the braided electric cable to which he had referred just seconds earlier.

The Transport Minister rebuffed this too. Over then to Ujjal Dosanjh, the increasingly frustrated Liberal defence critic.

“Mr. Speaker, in the spring of 2006, the Red Cross was sufficiently alarmed about Canada’s transfer of detainees to meet with our officials at least four times to warn us of the danger of detainee torture in Afghan jails,” he reported. “The government took no action for at least one year after these warnings. The Red Cross, of course, must not have been credible enough in the eyes of this government. The government is covering up the fact that it continued to transfer detainees to a real risk of torture for at least one year after those warnings. Why the cover-up?”

Here Peter MacKay was permitted to stand and speak on his file and so he did, first claiming to have answered the question, then suggesting the real culprit is Paul Martin’s government.

“It is important to note that the case with respect to notifications to the Red Cross was not about prisoner abuse,” he continued. “It was about prisoner transfers and the Red Cross has now clarified that, not to warn them about prison conditions, but the routine matter of discussing Canada’s responsibilities.”

It has been a long two weeks. And the daily riddles have proved quite tiring. So you can, for yourself, attempt to square this explanation with what Mr. Colvin reported in June 2006.

For his part, Mr. Dosanjh was not having it and so he repeated his questions. From across the aisle, Vic Toews loudly suggested Mr. Dosanjh had not heard Mr. MacKay’s answer. Mr. MacKay took the opportunity to dismiss a question Mr. Rae had asked. Various Liberals chirped and heckled.

Gilles Duceppe next attempted to ask a question of the former defence minister, Gordon O’Connor, about what he knew about the Red Cross reports. Mr. Baird intervened. Mr. Duceppe then tried to sort though the logic.  “If the government thought it good to review the detainee transfer protocol in May 2007, it is because there were problems with the treatment of prisoners before 2007,” he posited. “Otherwise, quite obviously, he would not have changed the protocol. If there were problems, there was therefore a risk of torture, and he nonetheless continued to transfer the prisoners. Given this, will the government admit that, from 2006 to May 2007, it violated the Geneva Convention?”

Mr. Baird stood to suggest that Mr. Duceppe apologize to the troops. Mr. Duceppe wagged his hand dismissively.

The Bloc’s Claude Bachand rose to complain that many of the documents provided to the Afghanistan committee have been blacked out. How, he wondered rhetorically, could the government promote democratic ideals in Afghanistan if it could not live up to them here?

Mr. MacKay stood to express his boredom. “Mr. Speaker, on the process of redaction, I know Canadians are rivetted by this,” he sighed.

Indeed. This business of accountability and transparency in governance is quite tedious. There may be some rarefied place for such stuff, but surely this is not it.

After a brief interlude from Jack Layton, Liberal Dominic LeBlanc, in prosecutorial tones, picked up the questioning. After lamenting for how little the Afghanistan committee was apparently allowed to see of Mr. Colvin’s memos, he wondered when the government might get around to calling for the sort of inquiry that might allow for fulsome consideration of the situation.

It was here that Mr. MacKay tried his hand at satire. “It is interesting with the benefit of four years’ hindsight and it is interesting from the comfort and the security of this Chamber how members opposite can continue to cast aspersions over our professional civil servants, our military,” he moaned, “bringing down the mission, bringing down the important efforts that continue to this day to improve the rights and democracy of a place like Afghanistan.”

So it was that the Peter MacKay of today came to seemingly denounce the Peter MacKay of two weeks ago.

The Liberals finally sent up Judy Foote to pick up wherever Ujjal Dosanjh had left off, with whatever it was the Red Cross reported and whatever was going on in those Afghan prisons. And it was here that the Defence Minister capped the week quite perfectly.

“Here is a news flash for the member opposite,” he snarked. “It is not just in Afghan prisoners where human rights abuses were taking place, it is not just in those prisons where violence was occurring. We have stories of Afghans being thrown down wells, beheaded in soccer stadiums. It was one of the worst places in the world. Let us not lose sight of that. That is why we are there. That is why we are trying to help and improve the people’s rights in that country. News flash to the honourable member.”

Ms. Foote attempted a reading of this. “Mr. Speaker,” she mused, “it would appear that the minister thinks that this is justified because it is happening everywhere else in the world.”

Or, well, something like that.

The Stats. Afghanistan, 12 questions. The environment, four questions. The economy, taxation and foreign affairs, three questions each. Firearms, Aboriginals, violence against women and infrastructure, two questions each. Tourism, China and heritage buildings, one question each.

John Baird, 10 answers. Peter MacKay, nine answers. Jim Prentice and Helena Guergis, four answers each. Jim Flaherty, three answers. Diane Ablonczy, two answers. Peter Van Loan, Rob Nicholson, Bev Oda and Jason Kenney, one answer each.