The Commons: What this is about

"Having indirectly congratulated himself, Harper basked in whatever kind of victory this amounted to"

The Scene. “Mr. Speaker, the detainee issue—”

The leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition had barely completed the words before members opposite were groaning and moaning and muttering. They had apparently arrived this afternoon hoping to be entertained. Alas, Michael Ignatieff, in the face of futility and unpopularity, continues to insist on using this time to ask questions.

“—is about fundamental issues about Canadian democracy,” Mr. Ignatieff continued. “It is about the respect for human rights, our international obligations under the Geneva Convention and ministerial responsibility to fulfill those obligations. We on this side of the House have called for months for a full public inquiry about the Afghan mission, going right back to the beginning in 2001, and no new information will change this party’s position on that issue.

“I ask the Prime Minister once again: Will he do the right thing and allow Justice Iacobucci to lead a full public inquiry?”

The Prime Minister stood here to shrug and dismiss and repeat himself. “We have asked Justice Iacobucci, who is a very respected Canadian, to review that work and ensure that all information is indeed available,” he concluded. “I think that information continues to show that all personnel of the Canadian government have acted with regard to their obligations at all times.”

Perhaps it is the Prime Minister’s hope that this can be matter can be bored to death. And, indeed, there may be something to that. Patience is not exactly prized in Ottawa. It is remarkable, to a certain extent, that this issue has persisted as it has, enduring despite the constant allure of shiny things like Helena Guergis.

But even if there is a sense that there is something here to be investigated and considered, it is true that with each non-answer, we seem to wander further from what it is we’re supposedly talking about. And so, as hard as it may be in this place, it is worth casting the mind back further than this morning’s headlines.

So what is this all about?

This is about what members of this government and ministers of the crown told the House of Commons—from 2006, through the late winter and spring of 2007, and the final months of 2009. This is about what was known, what should have been known, what was done and what should have been before Canada revised its detainee transfer agreement with Afghanistan in 2007. This is about the events of June 14, 2006, the accounting of those events and what that accounting implies about what was occurring on a wider scale. This is about what the handling of a report of that day might tell us about the very questions of national security and public interest which loom over all this.

There is, of course, so much to consider and so many ramifications and possibilities to debate, but the central and ultimate questions remain. Almost everything about this is hard, but that should perhaps only make it that much more difficult to dismiss.

“Mr. Speaker, the core of this issue is, and always has been, the conduct of the government and the Prime Minister,” Mr. Ignatieff ventured with his second opportunity. “The Prime Minister has done everything to prevent Canadians from getting to the bottom of this matter. The government boycotted the Afghanistan committee, censored documents, intimidated public servants, smeared Richard Colvin, shut down Parliament, and now is using Justice Iacobucci to buy some time. None of it has worked.”

Here, a slightly different tact. “The question,” Mr. Ignatieff finished, “that Canadians want to know is: What are the Prime Minister’s specific grounds for refusing a public inquiry?”

Mr. Harper stood and greeted this new wording with a new response, if not an answer.

“Mr. Speaker, the government’s position has been clear,” he assured. “Canadian officials have at all times conducted themselves in a most exemplary manner. The record is clear on that. Whenever problems have arisen, they have acted to address those problems. Not only did we conclude a new transfer agreement some three years ago.”

He turned then to a piece of yellow paper in his hand.

“But let me read what a former Liberal chief of staff had to say about this government’s work,” Mr. Harper continued.

“Here we go!” sang a Liberal backbencher.

”This government improved the agreement,” the Prime Minister read. “‘The concerns that a particular bureaucrat, Mrs. Olexiuk, had raised and the provisions that she had apparently at that time argued for were indeed put in the agreement by this government, the Conservative government, and kudos to them.'”

Having indirectly congratulated himself, Mr. Harper returned to his seat to bask in whatever kind of victory this amounted to.

The Stats. Government spending, eight questions. Afghanistan and foreign ownership, five questions each. Helena Guergis, three questions. Taxation, immigration, First Nations University, the environment and food inspection, two questions each. Crime, the disabled, Burma, Haiti, employment, Rights & Democracy and the economy, one question each.

Stephen Harper, eight answers. Rob Nicholson and Rona Ambrose, four answers each. Jim Flaherty, three answers. John Baird, Jason Kenney, Chuck Strahl, Stockwell Day, Mike Lake, Jim Prentice, Gerry Ritz and Bev Oda, two answers each. Diane Finley, Jean-Pierre Blackburn and Deepak Obhrai, one answer each.