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Muzzling Ministers?

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For the last couple of days Canadians have been treated to our MPs performance in Question Period. So far it hasn't produced too many surprises. For the most part the opposition parties went where expected. There were several relevant questions on the economy, a few on Air Canada, some on staff cuts and potential budget cuts and then some throwback ones to G8 spending in Tony Clement's riding.

It is not totally unexpected for the opposition to go back on the G8 issue, but do they think the public is still listening? The issue is already many months old and they made their point back prior to the election. The focus of their attack, in this case Tony Clement, won his riding in the last election despite their best efforts and the government overcame the issue to win a majority.

So far the opposition parties haven't added much new to that debate, certainly not enough to have the public at large sit up and reengage on the file. Joe Clark who in his prime was one of the best questioners in the House insisted that those of us involved in QP prep follow a simple rule -- don't ask a question unless you already know the answer. The opposition hasn't quite figured that out yet. Unless the opposition can come up with something more substantive, and actually know the answer and have the facts, they are at a point on that issue where they can ask all the self-righteous questions that they want, but there is a point when it is best to move on to new substantive issues that might resonant with voters.

The only embarrassing moment for the government side was when they had a Parliamentary Secretary stand up to defend a minister. Who on earth thought up that tactic? In this case it was Deepak Obhrai defending the President of the Treasury Board, the above mentioned Tony Clement on G8 spending in Clement's riding.

Obhrai was responding to a couple of questions including those from the NDP's Charlie Angus. Angus essentially stood up and trashed Clement in the preamble to his question while insisting that Clement stand up and answer his questions. Interesting because Angus should know, as he is an experienced MP, that Clement can't answer questions on G8 spending as a minister can only answer questions about files under their present departmental responsibilities. Further more, when a minister moves to a new portfolio they can not answer questions on what happened in their previous ministry. While Angus has found a nice tactic to trash the minister's reputation it doesn't get him any closer to finding an answer. In this case if the issue fell originally under the minister in charge of infrastructure, then his question should have been directed to the present minister (Lebel). If it had been asked correctly it should not have been answered by a Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs but by the present minister in charge of infrastructure. Incidentally Lebel was in the House yesterday.

There is a larger issue than Angus's inability to ask a question and that is PMO's tactic of muzzling ministers when issues come up that a minister should be prepared to defend in the House.

Questions about ministerial travel, expenses, staff mistakes, decisions on files are all legitimate ones for opposition members to ask a minister. All too often though, the Conservatives designate a minister with little or no knowledge of the file to defend it in the House against opposition attacks. Quite often this is done by one of their attack dogs. Other than the present administration, I don't recall that happening under previous Liberal or Conservative governments.

A good example of that is the current controversy over the contract with Deloitte. The so called $90,000 a day contract. Treasury Board was the client for that contract, not Finance. The Treasury Board minister was in the House and should have been up answering questions around that contract. Instead it was assigned to Flaherty, the Minister of Finance. In this case the minister, who should have been accountable can't answer questions on a decision made by him because someone has decided it is better if another minister takes those questions. It would be interesting to know who made that decision.

While it might make for great political theatre to have an attack dog barking back at the opposition that along with designating a different minister to cover for another's decisions, undermines the principle of ministerial accountability. Men and women who accept to be a minister should be prepared to defend their position and their ministerial decisions both in the House and when required with the media.