by Chantal Hébert
In parliamentary politics, little is more self-defeating than a minister who consistently insults the intelligence of his or her critics. Sooner or later the approach inevitably backfires.
For a case in point one only needs to look at the last Parliament.
Former GTA MP Paul Calandra rose to fame in the House of Commons as Stephen Harper’s last parliamentary secretary at a time when the Senate scandal was in full swing. In that capacity, it was he who would usually take questions from the opposition leaders when the prime minister was away.
Obfuscation was Calandra’s specialty. He seemed to take pride in turning question period into a gong show. In no time his desk became the place where issues of substance came to die.
For those with short memories, here is the answer he offered in response to a Liberal query about the Senate in December 2013: “I ask the Liberal party to join with us in protecting the citizenship of Santa Claus, join with us in making sure the North Pole remains part of Canada. For all of those kids around the world who are depending on Santa Claus, I ask them to abandon their ideas and stick with us, and keep Santa Claus Canadian.”
This is just one of a tiresome number of examples. At one point a website devoted to Calandra quotes was created. There was never a shortage of new material to refresh it. By the time he lost his seat last October, he had become the poster boy for the Conservative government’s disdain for the contribution of the opposition parties to the parliamentary debate.
There is not yet a match for Calandra on the Liberal side in the House of Commons but these days Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef is auditioning aggressively for the role.
For the better part of a week, the minister in charge of fulfilling Justin Trudeau’s promise of a new voting system in time for the 2019 election has failed to offer any concrete evidence that her government has an agenda other than having its own way with the electoral process.
Pressed by the opposition parties, she has defaulted to bromides. Like Calandra, she is prone to explanations that defy logic. The main difference is Monsef does it with a smile.
Her proposed electoral reform committee is to be dominated by the Liberals. It will report to a House where a Liberal majority calls the shot. On the notion that the government is stacking the decks in its partisan favour, most independent outsiders concur with the opposition. But Monsef maintains that the fate of the reform is in the hands of all MPs. It’s clear the opposition is free to propose as long as it is the Liberals who dispose.
In response to Conservative calls for a referendum to be held prior to the introduction of a different voting system the minister initially offered a tally of tweets on the issue of electoral reform. Had she read them Monsef might have found a groundswell of opposition to her chosen process.
Alternatively the minister argues that a plebiscite is not an effective option to sound out Canadians on the way forward because some voters would decline to participate. The underlying contention is that summer-long government-controlled parliamentary hearings and town halls are more inclusive. It is an unsustainable proposition.
By offering asinine answers to questions that resonate well beyond the opposition benches of the Commons, Monsef has so far succeeded in burning bridges where she should have been building some. Even before it has gotten underway the Liberal electoral reform process is largely discredited.
It would be tempting to put this train wreck to the inexperience of a rookie minister but a government can count on the benefit of the doubt for only so long.
In the case of Calandra, for instance, observers did initially wonder whether he might not simply be out of his depth. But at some point, the answer ceased to matter, for no government minimally respectful of Parliament would have allowed its affairs to be conducted in such a farcical manner. The same will soon be true of Monsef’s disingenuous handling of the electoral reform file.
Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services