Our Parliament has many rules, conventions, quirks and traditions. When you work there, you start to learn about all these different bits and some turn out to be quite interesting. As I looked at todays House of Commons agenda, I noticed that one of my favourite ones happens tonight, one that seems to have taken an interesting twist.
Every May, we get to see a very interesting spectacle that really is its own world. It happens after the House of Commons adjourns on two Wednesday nights, and goes for about four hours or so, during prime time. On each night, the Parliament goes into “Committee of the Whole” and the Official Opposition gets to chose two ministers to come and testify before the committee, and basically answer any question that relates to the Main Estimates of that department.
Long story short, if you ask a question that’s related to a budgetary matter, the Minister has to reply. Making the spectacle even more interesting is the fact that by the rules of these nights, the Minister is only allowed to give an answer that is approximately as long as the question that is asked. So, if a member takes 15 seconds to ask a question, the Minister has approximately 15 seconds to answer. Under this format, it really reduces the chance to bloviate and run out the clock, but also tends to lead to many interesting answers and pieces of information coming out.
As with anything that happens in Parliament, there is usually some strategy around these nights. As you get to call two Ministers, normally the Official Opposition tries to pick two Ministers who either hold portfolios that are hot or contentious, you pick a Minister who is, frankly, a poor performer, or some combination of those. I remember the one “Committee of the Whole” I got to be a part of in the last Parliament, we called former Indigenous Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt to testify, and he was predictably awful.
So, in May 2019, with all of the matters that have been taking up the oxygen in the House of Commons, there is a list of names I would have assumed the Conservatives would call before the House tonight. Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi, Finance Minister Bill Morneau or new Justice Minister David Lametti would have all made complete sense, given the attention that the Conservatives have put on their files.
Yet who is the first Minister that they are calling to testify? None other than National Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan, a choice that seems to be a bit out of left field. Why Sajjan? He isn’t directly involved in any of the major stories that have been happening and even in the Mark Norman affair, he hasn’t been a central figure.
It’s a choice of witness that leaves a lot of open questions, but also could lead one to believe that the Conservatives think they have something up their sleeve, I would assume on the whole Mark Norman case and the military procurement. Tonight is one of those rare nights where the Official Opposition basically sets the agenda and chooses who they face. It’s a night that the Opposition usually looks forward to and the government dreads. So with this choice, it seems that something is a foot for tonight, assumedly something of note. Otherwise, the only explanation is that it’s a bad choice and some other minister who was probably much more likely to face this scrutiny will be off the hook, a crucial mistake if that is the case. We’ll see how it all plays out tonight after the House rises for the day, starting probably around 7 pm EST/4 pm PST. Will this decision be a stroke of genius or will it be a strike out? We’ll see what happens tonight.