MP shouting match breaks out at Rahim Jaffer’s committee hearing

If you follow Canadian politics, you’ve undoubtedly already heard by now about the chaos that ensued at the June 2nd meeting of the Government Operations Committee (this would be the committee currently investigating the antics of Rahim Jaffer). If you thought the Ethics Committee meeting from last week was bad, you have to check this out.

I’ll cite from the CBC News article about what happened, so you have the proper background:

A parliamentary committee looking into the Rahim Jaffer affair descended into a shouting match during an unprecedented — and uninvited — appearance Wednesday by a trio of Conservative cabinet members led by Transport Minister John Baird.

Baird, appearing in Ottawa alongside Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis and junior science minister Gary Goodyear, clashed with opposition MPs on the government operations committee until the testimony of two other witnesses was suspended by a vote call in the House.

The heated appearance was the latest salvo in the battle between Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government and opposition MPs over the Conservatives’ decision last week to bar ministerial staffers from appearing before committees as witnesses.

On Wednesday, the committee’s opposition members had sought to hear from staff members of all three ministers, only for their bosses to show up ready for a fight.

At one point, Baird repeatedly bellowed over the committee’s chair, Liberal MP Yasmin Ratansi, and tried several times to present a point of order, despite not being a member of the committee. Ratansi threatened to have the minister removed by security, while Baird charged that Ratansi didn’t know how to do her job.

Baird also denied he was appearing as a witness, although his letter stating his intention to appear before the committee said otherwise.

"You can’t have it both ways," Ratansi told Baird.

"I never said I was a witness," Baird replied. "I’m here to answer any and all questions and be accountable as a minister."

Now, when it came to what happened at the Ethics committee, I stated that the blame rested virtually entirely on Stephen Harper’s shoulders. He was the one who issued a new directive barring ministerial staff from appearing at committee hearings, and he did so the morning before the committee was to meet. So the Ethics committee was faced with an unprecedented problem, and mayhem ensued. Note, however, that I also criticized the Conservatives on the committee for their generally immature behaviour.

Here, however, I see things a bit differently. First of all, the Conservatives that were actual members of the Gov. Ops. committee comported themselves well enough. They made partisan jabs across the room, but so did the opposition. Patrick Brown was a bit immature, but he always is.

Secondly, a good deal of the blame for what happened today has to go to committee chair Yasmin Ratansi. As we’ll see, Ms. Ratansi made the rather ridiculous ruling that the three ministers present (Mr. Baird, Mr. Goodyear, and Mr. Paradis) could remain in the room, but she recommended that committee members direct their questions to the other two witnesses (Doug Maley and André Morin, for what it’s worth).

Simply put, that ruling was unwise and untenable. Was she saying that the three ministers were not witnesses? Was she saying that they were witnesses, but that they were to be ignored?

Her ruling didn’t make any sense, and contributed to the chaos that occurred in its wake. Compare her performance to that of Paul Szabo on the Ethics committee, who set stringent rules for

Mr. Baird’s appearance, and then dismissed him when those rules were violated. Here, it actually took Conservative MP Chris Warkentin to save the day, as we’ll see.

And, lastly, the largest share of the blame must certainly fall on Mr. Baird, who – it must be put this bluntly – simply acted like a jackass. He was rude, insulting, damaged his party’s reputation, and simply embarrassed himself and his fellow Conservatives (Mr. Warkentin in fact did look rather embarrassed).

It’s this sort of childish behaviour that helps to prevent the Conservatives from earning the trust of the majority of Canadians.

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