The Commons: Wait and see

The opposition persists in its questions and the government insists on dismissing those queries

The Scene. Bob Rae stood, with a number of papers in his right hand, and attempted to square what the Prime Minister seemed to say last week about the mandate of Justice Frank Iacobucci with what the government actually announced about Mr. Iacobucci’s mandate this weekend. Suffice it to say, Mr. Rae found the latter quite lacking.

John Baird was sent up to read from the script. “Mr. Speaker, here is what the Prime Minister did say in this place last week. He said that he had requested Justice Frank Iacobucci to undertake an independent, comprehensive and proper review of all the redacted documents related to Taliban prisoners. Justice Iacobucci will look at all the relevant documents going back not just to this government but even to the previous government,” Mr. Baird reported. “He will report on the proposed redactions, how they genuinely relate to information that would be injurious to Canada’s national security, national defence or international interests. We should have confidence in a man of this gentleman’s esteem.”

For all intents and purposes, this line of inquiry was thus concluded. Still, the opposition kept on.

Up for his supplementary, Mr. Rae reiterated his party’s suggestion that the government empower Mr. Iacobucci to conduct a full inquiry into this country’s handling of Afghan detainees. Mr. Baird stood here, again, and did as he does, saying not much of anything with great certainty and conviction.

“Let me be very clear, Mr. Speaker. Justice Iacobucci will have access to all relevant documents. He will be able to review them. He will be able to undertake his activities in an independent fashion,” he said, speaking louder and faster and chopping his hand in the air.  “He will be able to do it comprehensively. He will have the ability to review all of the documents and report back not just to Canadians but this House. We should trust Justice Iacobucci and let him do his work.”

Mr. Rae was permitted one more try. “Mr. Speaker, we trust Mr. Iacobucci. We do not trust the government,” he said, a Conservative backbencher howling in mock pain. “That is the difference, and there is a big difference. Mr. Iacobucci does not have the power to subpoena the documents. The test of relevance is a test that the government itself will apply. It is not Mr. Iacobucci who determines what relevance is.”

Once more to Mr. Baird, now pumping his fist. “Mr. Speaker, we have said Justice Iacobucci will be able to look at all relevant documents. How does one find relevant documents? Exactly from the motion the Liberal leader put forward. He can also look at all documents related to this issue,” he assured. “He also will not need to subpoena documents because the government has been incredibly clear that we will provide him with all of the relevant documents.”

The Liberal leader put forward that motion on December 10, 2009. It demanded that “all documents referred to in the affidavit of Richard Colvin, dated October 5, 2009; all documents within the Department of Foreign Affairs written in response to the documents referred to in the affidavit of Richard Colvin, dated October 5, 2009; all memoranda for information or memoranda for decision sent to the Minister of Foreign Affairs concerning detainees from December 18, 2005 to the present; all documents produced pursuant to all orders of the Federal Court in Amnesty International Canada and British Columbia Civil Liberties Association v. Chief of the Defence Staff for the Canadian Forces, Minister of National Defence and Attorney General of Canada; all documents produced to the Military Police Complaints Commission in the Afghanistan Public Interest Hearings” and “all annual human rights reports by the Department of Foreign Affairs on Afghanistan” be turned over, uncensored and unredacted, to the House of Commons forthwith.

That motion passed the House by a vote of 145-143. The government side offered no indication it was willing to comply.

Eighty-five days later, it announced that a former Supreme Court justice would be asked to review the documents in question and advise the government as to what Parliament is and is not permitted to see. It was noted that this did not address Parliament’s demand and privilege. Eight days after that, this past Saturday, the government formally clarified precisely what Mr. Iacobucci would be charged with doing. The opposition is unmoved.

So what now? Well, the opposition persists in its questions and the government insists on dismissing those queries.

“As we have indicated and was indicated in the terms of reference, Mr. Justice Iacobucci will have access to all relevant documents,” Justice Minister Rob Nicholson informed Liberal Ujjal Dosanjh. “He will complete a proper review and he will report those general findings to the public.”

“Mr. Speaker, in fact, the government is responding to the House order of December,” Nicholson told the Bloc’s Claude Bachand.

“Again I point out that he can and should have complete confidence in Mr. Iacobucci,” Nicholson lectured the NDP’s Jack Harris, “who will have the unfettered ability to have a look at all the relevant documents and make recommendations on those.”

So what next? Well, the NDP says the Justice Minister has until the end of this week to clarify whether he intends to comply with the House order—the NDP’s Paul Dewar having apparently sent the Minister a letter in this regard a mere 40 days ago. Liberal Derek Lee, who announced two weeks ago his willingness to pursue the government on charges of contempt, is considering his options.

It is surely still the government with the most questions to answer. But now, for perhaps the first time since Richard Colvin strolled into a committee room last November and began to speak, it is the opposition upon whom the onus of response rests.

The Stats. Afghanistan, eight questions. The environment and food safety, five questions each. Employment and financial regulation, four questions each. Aboriginal affairs, three questions. Helena Guergis, taxation and Internet access, two questions each. Crime, the Inuit, air travel, foreign aid and lobster, one question each.

John Baird, nine answers. Rob Nicholson, six answers. Jim Prentice, five answers. Gerry Ritz and Chuck Strahl, four answers each. Gary Goodyear, three answers. Lawrence Cannon and Ted Menzies, two answers each. Bev Oda, Gail Shea, Leona Agulkkaq and Jean-Pierre Blackburn, one answer each.