Ministers' appearance sparks committee chaos

A parliamentary committee looking into the Rahim Jaffer affair has descended into a shouting match during an uninvited appearance by a trio of cabinet members.

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.

Transport Minister John Baird responds to a question in the House of Commons last month. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))
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."

Liberal MP Siobhan Coady called Baird's actions "ridiculous and patronizing" and challenged the minister directly.

"Are you trying to intimidate me, Mr. Baird?" Coady asked. "Because I'll put myself up against you any day on intimidation factors. Don't ever try to intimidate me, ever."

NDP member Nathan Cullen described the appearance as "theatre of the absurd," saying it undermined the "power role and responsibility" of the committee.  

"My mom told me it was rude to show up to a party you're not invited to," Cullen told the ministers.

But Conservative committee member Patrick Brown defended the ministers and blamed Ratansi for allowing the committee to become a "circus."

Speaking to reporters after the committee was suspended, Baird said the "fundamental right of all MPs to be heard was ignored."

Coady, however, said Baird's "schoolyard bullying tactics" won't deter her from getting answers.

"I'm not giving up on this," she told reporters. "I don't get intimidated easily."

Staffers shielded

The government operations committee is investigating allegations Jaffer, a former Conservative MP and husband of MP Helena Guergis, lobbied his former government colleagues for access to a green infrastructure fund.

Documents show some staff and parliamentary secretaries of cabinet ministers, including Baird and Paradis, treated Jaffer's inquiries about the fund on a priority basis.

When the committee session resumed and the ministers were sworn in as witnesses, Coady questioned Baird over Jaffer's queries and whether every Canadian had the same access to the green infrastructure fund as the former MP did.

The minister said every Canadian has access to government programs. He also testified he was the only person with the authority to make decisions on grants and contributions, and insisted no application from Jaffer ever came to him.  

Paradis said he rejected an earlier invitation to appear before the committee because he didn't have anything to say beyond the documents that had already been turned over to the committee. The documents included an email from his staff member complaining to Jaffer's company, Green Power Generations, that her department was being "hard-headed" over the proposal.

Jaffer, who is not registered as a lobbyist, has denied conducting unregistered lobbying or receiving a penny of federal funds.  

In April, Jaffer's wife Guergis was forced to resign from Harper's cabinet and was kicked out of the Conservative caucus after the prime minister learned of what he called "serious" allegations about her conduct. Harper also referred the matter to the RCMP and the federal ethics commissioner.

Guergis remains the MP for the central Ontario riding of Simcoe-Grey and insists she has done nothing wrong.