The Commons: ‘If it has been doing such a good job, what does it have to hide?’

More mesmerizing footwork in the government’s torture dance

The Scene. From his seat, John Baird adjusted his tie and buttoned his jacket before Michael Ignatieff had even begun to speak. Though in Toronto hours earlier for an announcement, the Transport Minister had apparently rushed back to the capital so that he might pronounce on the government’s behalf on a file for which he has no authority.

Mr. Ignatieff finished asking when the government would release all documents relevant to the handling of detainees in Afghanistan and it was then Mr. Baird’s place to stand, his jacket conveniently prebuttoned, to explain how this was really a question about Supporting The Troops.

“Mr. Speaker, the government has been entirely clear. We will continue to provide all legally available information,” he said, employing a phrase that continues to escape all definition. “There are longstanding practices not just of this government but of other governments and even mandatory legal requirements that we will continue to follow. It is a responsibility that those of us on this side of the House take seriously because the number one priority must be the safety and the security of men and women in uniform.”

Having apparently learned a thing or two from the government’s display yesterday, Mr. Ignatieff stood here and leaned forward to demonstrate that he too could refer favourably to a general. “Mr. Speaker, last week in his testimony General Gauthier said that he hoped Parliament would have access to the documents on this question. It still has not happened,” he reported. “After weeks of withholding evidence, how are Canadians supposed to believe now that the government will provide full and uncensored documents to the parliamentary committee so that it can get at the truth of this matter?”

Mr. Baird took the opportunity to pronounce shame on Ujjal Dosanjh, the Liberal defence critic. Mr. Dosanjh’s crime? Apparently repeating a newspaper columnist’s negative assessment of the testimony provided last week by various Canadian generals. It is unclear under which article of the Geneva Conventions this particular sin would fall.

Mr. Ignatieff attempted to correct the record. “Mr. Speaker, our side of the House did no such thing,” he asserted, vaguely. “We hold General Gauthier in the highest respect.”

The Conservatives howled.

“The issue here is that all of the evidence in this affair, including [what was] handed over to the military police commission, was so heavily redacted so as to be useless,” he continued, half-closing his fist to punctuate his points. “The versions of Richard Colvin’s memos that were leaked to journalists were so redacted as to be useless. We need to get to the bottom of this.”

Mr. Ignatieff then listed his demands. “Why will the government not accept that we need a judge,” he finished, “an independent inquiry, and full access to the documents so that we can finally get to the bottom of this affair?”

Standing to justify his existence, Mr. Baird pronounced more shame on the Liberal side.

Bob Rae stood next to deliberately restate his question of the day previous. Peter MacKay stood then to carefully read a series of assurances from a sheet of paper in his hand. Mr. Rae expressed some frustration. Mr. MacKay ditched his script to swipe his right hand and dismiss his critic’s “sanctimonious lectures.”

A short while later, Jack Layton tried his luck. “Mr. Speaker, the Conservative stonewalling of the Military Police Complaints Commission is continuing,” he testified. “It was not enough that for 21 months, they would not support the handing over of documents and records. It was not enough that they intimidated witnesses with the possibility of jail time. Now they are refusing to release and make available to the commission legally subpoenaed documents.”

Then a series of increasingly rhetorical questions. “What is going on here?” Layton wondered. “Does the Conservative government believe that somehow the commission is working in league with the Taliban? Is that what we are going to hear next?”

“Mr. Speaker, absolutely not,” Mr. Baird responded, proceeding to reassert his government’s intention to Support The Troops.

Mr. Layton attempted to put the debate on terms the government could not possibly quibble with. “Why will the government not just simply support a public inquiry?,” he asked. “There is a vote today on this. Is the government going to vote against making the truth public?”

Mr. Baird proceeded with the two-step, first asserting that “there has never been a confirmed case of the torture of a transferred Taliban captive,” then, after another question from Mr. Layton, announcing that “when this government gets credible, substantiated evidence with respect to this issue, we have acted.” This remains a mesmerizing dance to behold, the space between those two statements so difficult to navigate.

Mr. Dosanjh and Mr. MacKay then traded expressions of bewilderment, the afternoon perhaps climaxing with Mr. Dosanjh’s backhanded benefit of the doubt.

“Will the government stop the stonewalling, produce the documents, stop the spin and call a public inquiry?” he begged. “If it has been doing such a good job, what does it have to hide?”

In his response, Mr. MacKay did not appear to directly address this last query.

The Stats. Afghanistan, 15 questions. Environment, six questions. Infrastructure, three questions. Employment, cheese, Ukraine, copyright and labour, two questions each. Taxation, air safety, economy, Aboriginals, China and forestry, one question each.

John Baird, 12 answers. Peter MacKay, nine answers. Jim Prentice, four answers. Pierre Lemieux, three answers. Diane Finley, Deepak Obhrai, Tony Clement and Rona Amrbose, two answers each. Christian Paradis, Jim Flaherty, Chuck Strahl and Lisa Raitt, one answer each.

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