Parliamentary Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics circus

It’s been such a busy week, what with Conservative lawyers breathing down my neck and such, that I haven’t had the time until now to go over what happened during the May 25th meeting of the Parliamentary Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.

If you’ll recall, this was the meeting in which John Baird appeared instead of Dmitri Soudas, after Stephen Harper invented a new policy forbidding ministerial staffers from appearing before Parliamentary committees.

Here is a citation from the CBC article linked to above, for a bit of a refresher:

The Conservative government has presented a new cabinet policy directing that only cabinet ministers and not their political staff can appear as witnesses before parliamentary committees.

The controversial new policy could trigger a fresh showdown between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the opposition parties over the powers of Parliament, just weeks after a similar dispute over MPs’ access to uncensored documents pertaining to Afghan detainee transfers was resolved.

In a statement in the House of Commons on Tuesday morning, government House leader Jay Hill blamed the "tyranny of the opposition majority" for turning its attention to government staffers "who did not sign up … to be humiliated and intimidated by members of Parliament."

He said the new policy ensures "there is no substitute for ministerial responsibility."

"It is ministers who decide policy and ministers who must defend it before the House and ultimately before the people of Canada," Hill told the House. "Public servants and staff support ministers’ authority; they do not supplant it."

So, Mr. Soudas was scheduled to appear before the Ethics committee last Tuesday. Going by the new policy, his boss – that would be the PM – should have appeared. But, of course, since Prime Ministers don’t normally appear before Parliamentary committees, Mr. Baird was sent, even though he has nothing to do with the PMO whatsoever. Make sense? Mmm? Mmm?

Of course, the meeting descended into chaos, which I’ll show you in a moment. But before I get to the footage, I want to comment briefly on what happened.

First of all, despite the bad behaviour on the part of the Conservatives that you are going to witness, remember that this whole mess falls entirely on the shoulders of the PM. This was his directive. He issued his missive, and it was up to the committee members to deal with the consequences — which, of course, left the Conservatives on the committee in an extremely uncomfortable position. None of them – not even Pierre Poilievre, not even John Baird – should shoulder the bulk of the blame for what happened.

The other issue here is that the Conservatives are in the rather unenviable position of having been in a minority government situation for several years. Parliamentary committees have grown increasingly powerful as opposition members have come to recognize their power to shape the mandates of such committees. Simply put, the opposition parties have a forum in which they can make the Conservatives look bad that the majority governments of old did not really have to deal with. What we are witnessing is the evolution of an institution from rubber-stamp factory to a genuine forum for accountability, and the Conservatives have to bear the brunt of that.

Having said all this, the absolutely immature behaviour displayed by the Conservative members of the committee was painful to watch. Mr. Poilievre was his usual abrasive, obstructionist self, but that wasn’t even the worst of what went on. The other Conservatives in the room behaved like children, laughing, shouting out insults and jokes, and palling around with Mr. Baird. Randy Hoback in particularly seemed desperate to confirm his status on the bottom rung of MP IQ ladder.

It is also curious as to why the Conservatives seem so intent on provoking another showdown with regards to Parliamentary power, seeing as they lost the battle over the issue of the handover of confidential Afghan detainee documents. Do they want to have such a showdown in the House? Are they intent on bouncing from there to an election? One wonders.

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