The Commons: ‘I have the feeling that nothing will satisfy the honourable gentleman’

Liberals cry out for "nothing but the truth" in detainee scandal

The Scene. Barely a week back and the government side is already tired of these incessant questions.

“Mr. Speaker,” Michael Ignatieff said, opening the fourth session of Question Period since Parliament’s extended Christmas break, “every day brings new information about the Afghan detainee scandal.”

“Sit down!” pleaded a Conservative voice.

The Liberal leader proceeded to review the latest story, this one having to do with a contingency plan the government prepared in the spring of 2007 to prepare for the possibility of untoward allegations. The Prime Minister shrugged this away as old news.

“Mr. Speaker, the issue here is getting to the bottom of this matter,” Mr. Ignatieff clarified, proceeding to invoke both the proverbial kit and the proverbial kaboodle. “Justice Iacobucci has no mandate, no subpoena powers, no tools to do the job. Allegation follows allegation, including the allegation that this government allowed rendition to occur. This is a serious matter. We have now learned that the government was more concerned with preventing political fallout, with the media management of this, than preventing torture. Justice Iacobucci is ready to serve. Why will the Prime Minister not give him the powers to hold a full public inquiry?”

The Prime Minister stood and did his best to suggest there wasn’t much to see here. “Mr. Speaker, from the opposition, unsubstantiated allegation follows unsubstantiated allegation,” he said, “including the fact which, on this particular story, the leader of the opposition was not aware of, that this had already been discussed months ago.”

That substantiality is lacking here is perhaps a point which neither side would dispute. Indeed, even the very concept of substantiation is disputed: the government side asserting, in various linguistic forms, a lack of proof and credibility, only to conclude, once credible proof was provided, that what they’d been saying all along was now credibly proven.

You—and perhaps even a learned man like Mr. Ignatieff, himself quite familiar with pretzel-tying questions of philosophy—are excused if you are left wanting by all that.

The Liberals sent up their prosecutor, Dominic LeBlanc, to attempt a clarification. “We are asking serious questions that merit serious answers,” he ventured. In their defence, the government turned to Rob Nicholson, the Justice Minister rising to remind everyone that Justice Frank Iacobucci is a fine fellow and he will surely do a fine job sorting out which documents related to this matter can be safely released.

Mr. LeBlanc tried again, laying out in relatively plain English a relatively monstrous question. “Given recent revelations,” he said, “did any minister ever receive information which indicated that Canadian officials were handing over Afghans for the specific purpose of extracting information, information that Canadian interrogators could not obtain?”

If Mr. Nicholson wanted to deny this question, he didn’t, retreating instead behind friendly lines. “Mr. Speaker, the priority of the government has never changed, and that is the safety and the security of the men and women serving in the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan. That has never changed,” he contended to cheers from the government side. “In an effort to make sure that parliamentarians have all the documents they need, the public servants are working very hard on this, and they will be getting the able assistance of Mr. Iacobucci. Again, this should have the support of the honourable member.”

Jack Layton gave it a few tries. Mr. Harper offered his current dismissal. “Mr. Speaker, without any evidence, of course the allegations, the accusations just keep going further into the stratosphere,” he said, waving his hand in the air. “The truth of the matter is, of course, that Canadian diplomats, Canadian military personnel have at all times respected Canada’s international obligations, work in a very difficult situation to affect prisoner transfer, affect the military and other developmental operations, and they deserve our support and our praise.”

Liberal backbencher Judy Foote piled up half a dozen questions on the matter of Justice Iacobucci: what would he be doing, what would he be looking for, when would he start, to whom will he report and so on. Mr. Nicholson stuck to his script.

Ujjal Dosanjh finally rose with a helpful, if somewhat accusatory, suggestion. “The Prime Minister should try a new strategy,” he said, “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

“Mr. Speaker,” lamented Mr. Nicholson, “I have the feeling that nothing will satisfy the honourable gentleman.”

“The truth!” cried various voices from the Liberal side.

Woe is the Conservative backbencher already bored of this, for he will no doubt have to endure a few more sessions like this before the spring is through.

The Stats. Afghanistan and the budget, 14 questions each. The environment, four questions. Crime and foreign investment, two questions each. Rights & Democracy, women’s shelters and the seal hunt, one question each.

Rob Nicholson, 10 answers. Stephen Harper, nine answers. Jim Flaherty and Jim Prentice, four answers each. Tony Clement, three answers. Stockwell Day, two answers. Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Gary Goodyear, Lawrence Cannon, John Baird, Diane Finley, Gail Shea and Keith Ashfield, one answer each.