In the life of any Parliament, there are high points and low points of varying degrees. There are times when a party will take one position and then when they find themselves with the shoe on the other foot, the manage to pull a full 180 degree turn to take the completely opposite position. It’s a kind of hypocrisy that isn’t solely belonging to one party but when it crops up, it’s impossible to miss. We saw an example of it yesterday play out for an entire day inside the House of Commons.
But in order to properly highlight the hypocrisy that we saw in the House of Commons yesterday, we have to start with the moment of original sin. It was a scene that played out on June 2nd, 2010 in the House of Commons Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates and it was one of the lowest moments I personally witnessed during my time working on Parliament Hill:
Yep, so many of us remember this day when then-Harper Conservative Cabinet Minister John Baird went to this committee, in a complete attempt to disrupt and stop a committee from getting Conservative staffers to testify before them on matters of extreme importance of the time. Baird ranted, yelled and berated Yasmin Ratansi, who was chair of the committee at the time, listing off everything under the sun about “Ministerial Responsibility” and how ministers are the ones who are ultimately responsible for their staff. We then saw the Liberal members of the committee, led by then-MP Siobhan Coady, pointing out that they had to take this step because ministers were not appearing before the committee, were ducking their responsibilities and weren’t being accountable to Canadians.
It was all an ugly, ugly moment during that minority Parliament, the last one we had before this one. But beyond the heat and anger in this moment, both sides were not completely wrong in what they said. Baird wasn’t incorrect in saying that ministers are responsible for their staff because they are elected, and the staff aren’t. The buck should stop with the ministers, which is true. Does that mean that staffers can’t or shouldn’t ever be called? That I would dispute, because there are times when only the staffer in question can answer the questions that a committee may have. It should only happen in rare cases, like honestly that case in 2010 did require. And Coady was also right when it came to the steps the Opposition had to take because of Conservative obstruction in that minority government. At the time, the Conservatives were doing everything under the sun to try to stop committees from functioning properly and were trying to avoid hard questions and because they didn’t have the votes to control the committees, we saw stuff like that happen. That forced the Opposition to take steps like they did at that time, like calling for staffers to testify.
Was it normal? No. Was it ideal? No. But what is what right and what needed to happen? Yes. Well fast forward to yesterday, March 25, 2021 and you can quickly see why yesterday was not only a low point in this Parliament, but it was also amazing to see the full 180 of hypocrisy come full circle:
Yep, it all played out yesterday in the House and it didn’t even take the full first hour of debate on a Conservative Opposition Day Motion to call Liberal staffers to various committees to testify for those proverbial shoes to find the other feet. It happened almost with lightning speed that left the head spinning. We saw Conservative MP Michael Barrett stating a case that the Liberals were obfuscating committee work, doing what they could to undermine and stop the work of committees, all because they didn’t have the votes to stop the Opposition because this is a minority Parliament. We then saw Liberal MP Mark Gerretsen rising to quote none other than Stephen Harper in the most approving manner, playing the role of John Baird (who I have to admit looks so much like Gerretsen that it’s almost uncanny) claiming that it’s the role of ministers to answer questions and how dare the Opposition. Oh the vapours were strong with indignation on the government benches yesterday, just as they were in that fateful committee meeting back in 2010. The only consistency in this story is what the NDP members had to say, both in 2010 and in 2021:
Yep, if you listened to all of what Nathan Cullen had to say in 2010 and all of Charlie Angus’ interventions in the House yesterday the words may have been different, but the sentiment was eerily similar; Christ man, let’s get this work done and stop it with the theatrics. But instead we got a day full of theatrics, as the Conservatives and Liberals both seeming to revel in their new roles in this melodrama, one that never really needed to be repeated. And if what happened in 2010 was a real low point for that Parliament, some news coming out at the end of yesterday portended the possibility that in 2021, this government was looking to plumb whole new depths:
Yep, that headline really says it all. Liberal House Leader Pablo Rodriguez made it clear that his government would ignore this motion, which passed later yesterday, and instruct the staffers in question to tell the committees to go fly a kite. Not only is that advice legally dubious, especially given the whole episode that we saw play out with the Kielburger brothers just a couple weeks ago. They quickly learned that wasn’t an option, legally or politically, and they ended up before the committee for an appearance that did not end well for them. Political staffers have no more protection or ability to say no to a committee if they summon them to testify, and to have their bosses advise them to ignore such a thing is to put them in the same kind of jeopardy that the Kielburgers were staring down the barrel of before they backed down. The difference here is that most staffers can’t afford the legal advice that those two could. So we’ll see where that leads.
But in the meantime, yesterday was a low point in this Parliament and no one really comes out of it looking great. Sure the NDP and Bloc look better by comparison, but that’s mostly because they were just being basically decent Parliamentarians during it all. For the Liberals and the Conservatives though, it was hypocrisy of the highest order and the worst kind. And for the Liberals, they just had to take it a step further with that “order” to their staff. You can just imagine how the Liberal members of that standing committee in 2010 would have reacted if Stephen Harper had made a similar order and told the committees to go and pound sand. They would have been furious, and they would have been right to be so. But now that they are in government, well hey, you know, what’s good for the goose, right? It’s all so distasteful and quite the opposite of the “Sunny Ways” we were all promised back in 2015. I mean I guess we shouldn’t be surprised by it all, but yesterday really was bad. We months of real serious concerns around transparency and good government be treated with all the seriousness of an act in the centre ring of the Shrine Circus. Except this time it was the Red Teams turn to take centre stage. It’s days like those that make people cynical about our politics and make them feel that things can’t get any better. Or as Charlie Angus put it, “a pox on all of their houses” because after that performance yesterday, they surely earned it.