Theatre of the Absurd

Last night in the House, there was a Committee of the Whole until 1:30am. On the option of the NDP, two departments of government can be submitted to examination of the main estimates (or the Department’s 2012 budget) through a Committee of the Whole.  This entails the whole of the Commons being converted from Parliament to Committee, with the Speaker off the throne and at the table, the mace removed, and MPs free to move about. 

It can be a useful opportunity.  The NDP opted for Defence and Environment and the time for the meetings was duly scheduled by the Conservatives.  As customary, the Committee of the Whole (COW) begins when the daily business of the House is over.  The Conservatives chose the week the environment committee was out on the road, holding meetings across Canada, to have the Environment COW and then scheduled late votes both nights.  Earlier that day it was announced that last night would be the cut-off on Copyright legislation, Bill C-11.  I had many amendments to attempt removing the most onerous digital locks sections of the Copyright bill. Thanks to support from the Liberals as seconders and in forcing votes, we were able to force recorded votes.  Only once all substantive amendments had been defeated did I ask to compress the voting process to “Apply the vote,” cutting about an hour and a half off our voting time.  Still, COW did not start until about 9:30 pm and ran for four hours til 1:30 am. I attended both and wondered why anyone thought this could be useful.

True, departmental officials were available.  In each case a small table was placed at about the spot where the Prime Minister usually sits (although he was not there), and at the table top ranking officials sit in case their expertise and background is needed to answer questions.  I want to try to paint the picture of the table, one side pressed against the government bench.  In close formation, one on each of the three open sides of the table, sit the highest ranking officials.  Sitting like statues, facing each other.  True, General Walter Natynczyk had the best ram-rod like posture.  Staring straight ahead at the Defence Deputy Minister Rob Fonberg at a distance of a few feet.  The same formation for the Environment Deputy, Paul Booth, only he stared straight at Peter Kent, in the front row of government benches, flanked by the head of Parks Canada Paul Latourelle and Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency head Elaine Feldman.  What must have been going through their minds? In four hours of Defence and four hours of Environment, they never spoke.  Why were they there?  Maybe that’s what they were thinking: why am I here? 

Certainly not to help Peter MacKay or Julian Fantino answer a simple question from Liberal John McKay who asked (three times? four times?) if anyone knew the cost per hour of the Department’s current jets, the F-18s.  And the only person rustling through papers to provide answers to Peter Kent was Michelle Rempel, his Parliamentary Secretary.  And, really, when nearly every answer was like a Chinese menu, why did anyone need to be there to help with answers?

Menu options for Peter Kent:

Option A: If asked anything by an NDP MP, answer with some variation of how bad bad bad the leader of the Official Opposition was to call the oil sands a disease;

Option B: If asked anything by a Liberal MP,  say “we will never ever ever bring in a carbon tax;”

Option C: If asked by a Conservative backbencher, for extra measure one MP actually bothered to read from the script and ask Peter Kent, “will you ever bring in a carbon tax?”  Answer: We will never ever ever bring in a carbon tax, unlike those bad bad bad Liberals. 

So was there anything new?

Well, last night Peter Kent said some unbelievable things.   For one, when Megan Leslie asked if the government planned to allow Opposition Members on the delegation to the Rio plus 20 conference this June, he said “no” (that was the believable part). And then he said, for the Durban climate conference, the government had offered assistance to the two Opposition MPs who attended. He claimed that while not actually providing credentials as part of the Canadian delegation, the government helped with getting the Opposition MPs into the UN FCCC Conference of the Parties in Durban.  Well, that description only applies to two people: me and NDP MP Laurin Liu.  I tried to help Laurin.  She had a whole day in Durban without being able to get into the conference centre at all. The NGO Climate Action Network finally succeeded in begging the UN Secretariat to grant her a badge with them. I asked her last night if she had had any offer of help from the “official” delegation that I didn’t know about. Nope. 

I know for a fact I was never offered any help.  And I know I never saw any help.  Since I was granted credentials as an advisor to the Government of Papua New Guinea (PNG) and they never had any request from Canada, the whole claim was as unnecessary as it was invented.   (Fun to imagine the conversation as a senior Canadian diplomat rings up his counter-part in PNG, “We have the Leader of the Green Party, you know. And it’s kind of awkward because we are not going to allow Canadian MPs on our delegation, unless they are Conservatives, so we aren’t paying her way or helping her find a hotel, and frankly, we feel pretty lousy about it, but it would be just aces if you could accept her on your delegation.” Not.)

There was also the claim, not once but twice, that the contaminated sites programme was a Harper Conservative initiative: “Our government invested $3.5 billion”. Twice, they said it.  Even though the $3.5 billion was put in place in 2005 by Paul Martin’s government to remediate contaminated sites on federal land.  At the time they thought there were a total of 8,500 sites.  Now, with half the money gone and 40% of the sites remediated, they realize the total is 22,000 sites.  So the Environment Commissioner Scott Vaughan reported that a plan is needed.  More to the “unbelievably score card,” when Liberal Kirsty Duncan asked about the Commissioner’s report, Kent managed to insult both her and Scott Vaughan (and here I paraphrase) “The hon. member is as confused as the Environment Commissioner.”  She pressed to find out if he accepted the commissioner’s report. Nope. Not really. On toxics, Vaughan was confused. On climate, well, the poor man is obviously out of his depth.  Used out of date data sets. 

To both Liberal and NDP environment critics wanting to see plans for climate or toxic sites, Kent delivered a paternalistic, “the hon. members should be patient.”

Perhaps most unbelievable was Kent confusing the goal, to which Stephen Harper affixed his signature in Copenhagen (in the non-binding Copenhagen Accord) to avoid allowing global average temperature from reaching 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.  Kirsty Duncan prefaced a question noting that the “window is closing” on our ability to avoid a global average temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius. Kent looked at me as he said, (not yet recognized by the chair) “it’s closed.”   And then he rose and said the temperature in our Arctic has already risen above 2 degrees Celsius.

He said the same thing to me in Durban and I had explained that Arctic temperature increases are not the same thing as a global average temperature increase. The poles warm more rapidly than any other part of the planet.  The reason scientists are warning that we must avoid 2 degrees Celsius global average temperature increase is because that is a level of serious danger. It will be too late for low-lying island states at 2 degrees global average temperature.  That is why scientists and African nations rally around the slogan “1.5 to stay alive.”  Going beyond a 2 degree global average temperature increase is catastrophic.  The Minister of Environment doesn’t know the difference.  Kirsty Duncan explained the difference.  She is both a Liberal MP and a scientist. She worked on the IPCC. When she had clarified the science for the minister, she let out a sad sigh. It carried on her mic.  And Peter Van Loan and Peter Kent and Michelle Rempel all found that a hilarious moment.  And they all laughed uproariously. I wish I had found that more unbelievable.