The Commons: Another 48 hours

Government is not closing the door on contraception: Bev Oda

The Scene. On Monday, a minister of state in Stephen Harper’s government addressed the House of Commons and stated for the record that a member of Parliament’s ability to send paper flyers into another member of Parliament’s riding was a matter of free speech. This, he said, was about the “rights of Canadians for a public discourse.” The Liberal party, he suggested, in wanting to ban these mailouts, was threatening to “censor” what Canadians were allowed to see. These mailouts, he asserted, did no less than “improve our democracy.” “The Conservative Party,” he concluded, “is the party that will ensure that Canada remains glorious and free.”

Two days later, Stephen Harper’s spokesman stated that the government would support a ban on these out-of-riding flyers. And so it was this afternoon that the Prime Minister stood in the House, pronounced his government “delighted” to do away with these mailings and then challenged the leader of the NDP, a party that had voted in favour of the Liberal-proposed ban, to follow the Conservative side and do likewise.

So much for our glorious freedom.

As for our public discourse, it remains, but with a new amendment: whatever is stated as fact, whatever is asserted as principle, it is subject to a 48-hour “recalibration period.” If, at the end of that recalibrationary period, the individual or party who stated or asserted as much feels differently, for whatever reason, the fact or principle may be retracted in its entirety, never to be referenced again.

Only with these grounds rules, this understanding of our facts and principles as being subject to immediate and complete recalibration, can we make sense of what is occurring here of late.

Two weeks ago, for instance, Mr. Harper’s government vaguely suggested it might be interested in editing the words of our national anthem. Two days later—49 hours to be exact, but let’s not quibble over details—the government, for whatever reason, felt differently and so the suggestion was officially retracted, everyone agreeing never to speak of this again.

Earlier this week, for another example, it was reported that the government had ended funding for a program that helps libraries and community groups buy computers and Internet access. Two days later—several days to be exact after libraries and community groups had been informed of the change, but let’s not quibble over details—the Industry Minister declared it a “misunderstanding,” funding was confirmed and everyone agreed never to mention it again.

This would seem fairly straightforward. And yet there was still, hilariously enough, a great deal of consternation expressed this week when the Foreign Affairs Minister indicated that birth control would not be included in the government’s plan to address maternal health in the developing world. Aid groups were befuddled, the opposition parties were perplexed.

Neither were minding the 48-hour rule.

So it was that Bob Rae rose, with the fourth question this afternoon—just about two days after Lawrence Cannon’s assertion—and asked the government to account for itself. “Mr. Speaker, last year, in July of 2009, the G8 Summit communiqué contained words committing the member states to ‘voluntary family planning’ and ‘sexual and reproductive health care,'” he reported. “I would like to ask the Minister of Foreign Affairs this. How is it possible that Canadian foreign policy has been hijacked by the tea partiers on the other side—”

The Conservatives howled.

“—taking us away from great traditions,” Mr. Rae continued, “and taking us away from the principle that our policies should be consistent with what the government agreed to last year?”

Bev Oda stood to respond. And where yesterday she had sidestepped, here she merely pretended that whatever Mr. Cannon had said was no longer relevant.

“Mr. Speaker, as the member opposite knows, the G8 leaders will discuss and chart the way forward to tackle child and maternal health at the upcoming summit,” she told the House. “As we have been saying all along, we are not closing the door on any options that will save the lives of mothers and children, including contraception. And as we have been saying all along, we are not opening the abortion debate.”

The meaning of what the Minister had just said was apparently not immediately clear to the opposition parties. Jack Layton stood and pressed the same point, the Prime Minister stood and repeated Ms. Oda’s phrasing. Layton asked the Prime Minister to confirm that, in the Prime Minister’s opinion, contraception “saves lives.”

“Mr. Speaker, I think I have pretty clearly answered the question,” Mr. Harper assured. “I do not think I could be clearer.”

Alexandra Mendes stood for the Liberals and once more asked the government for its apparently previous position on contraception. Ms. Oda stood and restated herself. Ms. Mendes asked again. Ms. Oda was, by then, losing patience.

“Mr. Speaker, again, I do not know how to be much more clear,” she pleaded.

Indeed. Now, let us be fair and never speak of this again.

The Stats. Foreign aid, six questions. Crime and bilingualism, three questions each. First Nations University, taxation, securities regulation, Afghanistan, agriculture, Helena Guergis, food safety, fisheries and air safety, two questions each. Ten percenters, prorogation, water safety, the Quebec armoury, the Arctic, Aboriginal affairs and finance, one question each.

Stephen Harper, nine answers. Bev Oda, Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Rob Nicholson and John Baird, four answers each. Chuck Strahl, James Moore, Gerry Ritz and Gail Shea, two answers each. Vic Toews, Peter MacKay, Josee Verner, Lawrence Cannon and Stockwell Day, one answer each.