Calling out Liberal rhetoric is already getting tiresome

Justin Trudeau preaches openness, then turns around and stamps out opposition efforts to publicly scrutinize Canadian arms sales to foreign regimes such as Saudi Arabia. Governing can be ugly, and principle can pretty quickly go out the window.

Trudeau preaches openness but blithely stamps out efforts to scrutinize Saudi arms deal

The latest Liberal point man on the Saudi arms deal, Commons foreign affairs committee chair Bob Nault, has accused opposition parties of 'playing politics' with the issue — similar language to the kind Harper ministers once used. (Jody Porter/CBC)

First of all, the spectacle of Conservative MPs alive with moral outrage, demanding openness and transparency from the Trudeau government, is so decadently rich it's almost enjoyable.

It's stunning how interim Opposition Leader Rona Ambrose, a former Harper cabinet minister, has so neatly transformed herself into an advocate of transparency, Neil Macdonald writes. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

For someone like Tony Clement or Rona Ambrose, both former cabinet ministers in Stephen Harper governments, and therefore both former muzzlers of public servants and enforcers of near-total secrecy, to so neatly transform themselves into passionate advocates of democratic transparency requires a level of shamelessness that's simply beyond the ability or training of people who aren't seasoned politicians or Wall Street bankers.

Remember: When Ambrose and Clement were in office, they were enthusiastic acolytes of a prime minister whose contempt for reporters, the public's right to know and the rights of opposition MPs (not to mention his own backbenchers) will probably become his principal legacy.

And yet, there was Clement this week, quivering with righteous anger about the Liberals' efforts to keep details of the government's $15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia secret.

"It's important that parliamentarians and Canadians have access to the information the government is relying on to make their decision," he said.

As always, Clement added his now-standard talking point, meant to inoculate him against references to his political past:

"The Liberals campaigned on openness and transparency in the last election and they should live up to it."

The thing is, however gormless that might sound coming from Clement — and it does — he has a point. The Tories, who negotiated the arms deal and kept it completely secret, never promised real openness and transparency. Justin Trudeau did.

Conservative global affairs critic Tony Clement is demanding the Liberal government do something the Tories wouldn't when they were in office: release more details on Canada's $15-billion deal with Saudi Arabia. At right, Saudi forces in a graduation ceremony in Riyadh. (Adrian Wyld/CP and Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters)

Trudeau, in fact, makes a meal of moral dictation, preaching openness and inclusiveness and consultation, and the need for a "social license" in devising public policy.

Then, blithely, he turns around and stamps out opposition efforts to publicly scrutinize Canadian arms sales to foreign regimes — a matter important enough to be embedded in Canadian export laws.

Sounding for all the world like a Harper minister himself, the Liberal point man on the issue, Commons foreign affairs committee chairman Bob Nault, accused the opposition parties of "playing politics." (Perhaps one of the silliest catch-alls in parliamentary discourse; isn't playing politics the duty of politicians?)

"Our committee is too high-profile and too important to play politics with issues," Nault told the Globe and Mail, "and we weren't, quite frankly, very impressed that people were trying to seize on one issue when we think it's a lot larger and more complex."

So, then, it is unimpressive and specious to suggest the public should better understand a deal that will ship billions of dollars worth of weapons and warfighting vehicles to an oppressive regime that's busy killing civilians in a neighbouring country and that has a history of coziness with extremists?

Nault's answer: Parliament does not need "a special committee for every issue that people think needs to be discussed."

So, the deal stays secret.

Of course it does. Other democracies enthusiastically sell guns and bombs and missiles and all manner of child-mutilating, civilian-killing ordnance to nasty dictators. Why shouldn't Canada?

The nastiness of the customer or even the eventual use of the weapons isn't really a concern at all. All that matters is the jobs and profits the deal creates domestically.

No evidence?

The United Kingdom, for example, is still peddling aircraft, bombs and missiles to the Saudis, even though a UN investigation and human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch have gathered evidence of Saudi attacks on all manner of civilian installations in Yemen, where Riyadh has intervened in a civil war.

Among the thousands of dead are at least 900 children, according to Save the Children, the vast majority of which, according to the UN, were killed by Saudi attacks.

Ah, says the British junior foreign minister Tobias Ellwood, but we — the U.K. government — have no evidence of such things!

It's a fine distinction, and probably true. Because to have evidence of such things, you have to go looking for it. And why would you go looking for evidence that would disrupt a profitable arms deal? John le Carré wrote a whole book on the amorality of arms sales.

Canada has put forward the same defence for selling arms to the Saudis as the U.K. government's junior foreign minister Tobias Ellwood: We have no evidence of of any violations. (Julie Jacobson/Associated Press)

So really, it's unsurprising to hear the new talking points of Canada's foreign minister, Stéphane Dion, the man who actually gave final approval to the deal, and who seems to have the unfortunate job of offering himself up in place of the PM.

"Should I become aware of credible information of violations related to this equipment, I will suspend or revoke the permits," he said.

"We are watching this closely and will continue to do so."

In other words, Canada has no evidence at the moment. The moment it does, it will cancel the permits, and kill the deal, and put thousands of people out of work.

Of course it will. Uh-huh.

As Ariel Sharon said, after becoming Israel's prime minister and ordering the evacuation of the Gaza settlements he himself set up, where you stand depends on where you sit.

Social license, indeed. Governing can be ugly, and principle can pretty quickly go out the window.

Actually, the whole subject of what this government does, as opposed to what it says, is getting tiresome.

Pretty soon, it'll all just be a yawn, and we'll move on. Which is probably what the people in charge are counting on.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.