The government's refusal to answer questions about Canada's deployment in Iraq sparked a flare-up during question period in the House of Commons on Tuesday.
Given the already testy atmosphere in the House, that may not be all that surprising. What was unexpected, however, was how Speaker Andrew Scheer chose to handle it.
After several attempts to elicit an answer to even the most basic questions on Canada's 30-day mission — like, for instance, just when those 30 days officially began — it was clear to observers that NDP Leader Tom Mulcair had pretty much had it.
Since MPs returned to Ottawa last week, both the NDP and the Liberals have tried to pin the government down on the start date for the 30-day mission. Several government representatives, including Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, have confirmed the clock began ticking Sept. 5, but not one Conservative has been willing to say that in the House.
Twice in a row Tuesday, the prime minister's parliamentary secretary, Paul Calandra, replied to Mulcair's queries on the Iraq mission by demanding Mulcair explain a two-months-old Facebook comment, posted by someone identifying themselves as an "NDP fundraiser," which expressed harsh criticism of the Israeli Defence Force and frustration over media coverage of the Gaza conflict.
This, Calandra suggested, represented a viewpoint in sharp contrast with Conservative Party, which, he assured the House, stands with Israel.
The first time Calandra came back with the Facebook post, Mulcair seemed amused.
"I can understand the confusion — we are talking about the Middle East, and we're on the I's, but we're talking about Iraq," Mulcair said before asking a follow-up to his first unanswered question — this time, on the number of Canadian soldiers on the ground in Iraq today.
Calandra repeated his response.
Before putting his third question, Mulcair turned to Scheer with a plea for intervention.
"There are rules in the book about question period," he reminded the Speaker. "You are our arbiter, and we ask you to enforce the rules on relevancy."
Mulcair tried again to get the government to offer information on the timing of the Iraq mission — and once again, Calandra cited the Facebook post.
Scheer remained silent, which prompted Mulcair to take a shot at him, too.
"That," he chided the Speaker, "does not speak favourably about your neutrality in this House."
And that, it seemed, was finally enough to galvanize Scheer to flex his disciplinary muscle after all — not by forcing Calandra to stay on topic, but by moving straight to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and depriving Mulcair of his last two allotted questions.
(Trudeau, for his part, ignored the entire exchange, and switched to a separate topic entirely. Asked later about the fracas, Trudeau talked about the "degradation in parliamentary discourse," but said he "looks forward to the Speaker continuing to behave in a responsible and impartial manner.")
The NDP later told reporters that the individual referenced by Calandra was not a full-time employee of the party, but had worked for them "occasionally" for a total of nine hours over three days in September. His last day was Sept. 17. By late Tuesday afternoon, the Facebook page was no longer viewable by non-"friends."
Asked to explain Calandra's refusal to answer the question in the House, a spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office said the government has already made it clear the 30-day deployment began Sept. 5, and said Calandra was raising "concerns" about the NDP employing "staff harbouring disgusting anti-Israeli beliefs."
Rules of relevancy
The rules cited by Mulcair, about the relevancy of government answers during question period, are technically still in force, but, as Shakespeare would say, are honoured more in the breach than the observance.
Indeed, Scheer and his predecessors have made it crystal clear on many previous occasions that it is adamantly not the job of the Speaker to police the quality of either questions or answers. (Which makes some sense, otherwise they'd be called upon to do little else.)
But by breaking his otherwise ironclad rule against intervening in House debate in order to sanction Mulcair, Scheer may well have done more damage to his own ability to command the respect of members on all sides of the chamber — a relationship that has been fraying, slowly but steadily, over the course of his tenure in this majority-held House.
And in the process, it will make his job over the remaining months before the next election all the more difficult.