Today Canada was watching closely at a bit of drama that unfolded in certain committee room in downtown Ottawa. Calling an emergency meeting of a House of Commons Committee is not an everyday event, but when the situation warrants it, they come. I’ve had the chance to take part in more than a few of them in the past, with the most recent coming in September when the Natural Resources committee called a meeting to discuss the acquisition of the Trans Mountain pipeline. Calling such a meeting is one of the few tools that the Opposition has in our system, as all it takes is for four members of a committee to request that meeting for it to automatically happen. In this Parliament, that’s meant three Conservatives and one New Democrat can come together to call such a session.
That is what happened today, as the Conservatives and New Democrats called for a meeting of the House of Commons Justice Committee. They called it to try to initiate a study on the whole SNC/PMO scandal, to get answers and get to the bottom what happened. The Liberal members on the committee controlled the outcome, as they hold the majority of the seats in the committee itself. So it was all in their hands as to where this all went, and what happened.
In the majority of these kinds of special meetings, the government tends to simply just vote down the suggested motion and try to get everything done within 15 minutes; that’s what they did with the meeting I mentioned above back in September. But given the gravity of this story, and how badly the government has managed it to so far, the simple tactic of “refuse and hope it goes away” really wasn’t an option.
So what did the Liberals on the committee do? Well they tried to outsmart everyone and in the process, only seemed to have outsmarted themselves. The Liberal members came to the committee with a motion of their own, one that was on their terms and was their attempt to re-spin this story. To best explain the difference between the two motions, I will explain them like this: The Conservatives brought a motion to have a study to get to the bottom of exactly what happened in this case while the Liberals brought a motion to have a study about how Attorney Generals operate properly, the Parliamentary conventions involved and seeks to explain how the government did no wrong.
In the committee the Liberals went to great pains to say “hey, we’re offering to do something, and you’re still mad…. There’s no pleasing you!!!” while trying to ignore the actual matter at hand. Listening to the government members of the committee, it became very clear very fast that there was no clear message from them, as their explanations and excuses kept running into one another. And when that was pointed out by the opposition, indignant cries of “partisanship” flew from their mouths in reply.
The best example of the talking points and strategy simply not adding up here was the inclusion of a witness list in the Liberal motion. The Liberals motion included three witnesses, including two who have publicly said on the record there is nothing to see here. Their motion did not include 6 people the Conservatives had in theirs, including Jody Wilson-Raybould herself. In an attempt at compromise, NDP MP Nathan Cullen tried to amend the Liberal suggestion to add a few more witnesses, including Wilson-Raybould.
That brought an explanation that was a car wreck of logic; Liberal members said they couldn’t discuss witnesses to invite in public because that is not how things are done in committee. And if it stopped there they actually had a point; almost all House of Commons committees that I worked on in the past determined things like witness lists “In Camera” (also known as a private session). But there was a big problem with their logic; They included three witnesses in the motion, in public. So why was it alright to discuss those three names in public, but not others? It made no sense and was a clear gaffe on the behalf of the Liberals. When you add to it the indignant words from some government members pleading this was all a “Witch Hunt” (hmmmm… where have I heard that before?), it made it all look worse.
And really that was how most of the meeting went on the government benches. This was seriously one of the worst attempts at the old “bringing out your own motion to blunt the one you don’t like” plan that I have ever seen. The plan seemed to be half-baked, underestimated the other side of the table and was poorly executed. It was seriously ham-fisted and did nothing to help their cause. It was so bad that it even made a below-average performance from some Conservatives on the committee look better by comparison, which was quite the feat.
Today’s performance before the House of Commons Justice committee was simply a bad sign for the government and another bad day to add to the past week of them. Today they could have really taken some of the air out of this by seriously considering the Conservative motion and going ahead with it, as is. If they had, they would have a chance to appear much more transparent in this whole matter and would have been the best place available to try to mitigate the damage.
But by trying to deny the chance for Jody Wilson-Raybould to speak before the committee, and formally voting in public to not call her, it gives her greater credibility. And they did that, despite the fact that there are no guarantees that she will ever actually be able to speak due to the privilege concerns. They could have invited her, be seen to not be afraid of what she might say, and have a legit chance she never gets to say a word. But instead they went out of their way to try to shut her down today, shut down questions being asked and tried to suffocate it all with the Parliamentary equivalent of a university lecture series.
Those are not the actions of a confident government and those are not the actions of someone with nothing to hide; they are quite the opposite and just raise more questions. In the span of a week, the government has managed to completely lose control of this story, has missed multiple opportunities to deal with it head on and really have no one but themselves to blame for the mess they find themselves in. Is it too late to correct course? It’s hard to say but these are the kinds of things that can happen when your words say you’re all about “Sunny Ways” while your actions continue to show you throwing shade. After a while, people start to notice when the sun doesn’t come around that much anymore.