As a general rule, I’m reluctant to offer back-to-back musings on any one particular political contretemps — barring major developments or a triple-pretzel-worthy twist in the plot, it just feels lazy, somehow, to gather up all those arguments and observations that didn’t make the final cut during the first go-round and then churn out a follow-up that covers little, if any, new ground.
You’ll note, though, that the rule does allow for exceptional circumstances, and those are what confronted me just a few days after I confessed to being utterly unable to pick sides in what was then a still-raging debate over whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national security adviser Daniel Jean should be obliged to give the House public-safety committee the same off-the-record briefing he had reportedly given journalists during Trudeau’s spectacularly ill-fated trip to India.
In that briefing, Jean — or, to be scrupulously accurate, an unnamed senior government security adviser — allegedly blamed the addition of convicted attempted terrorist Jaspal Atwal to Canada’s Delhi high-commission guest list on certain unspecified factions within the Indian government keen to portray Trudeau and his government as soft on Sikh extremism.
After the Liberals used their majority to defeat a motion asking Trudeau to order Jean to appear, the Conservatives launched a procedural protest that forced MPs to spend 20 straight hours voting on the annual spending estimates, and vowed to keep up the pressure for as long as necessary — a threat left hanging over the Hill as MPs headed back to their ridings for the two-week Easter House break.
The governing Liberals, meanwhile, pointed out that they had offered Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer a classified briefing session with Jean during which he would be given all pertinent information, including material that hadn’t been provided to media. Scheer, for his part, pointed out that it was the unclassified information Jean had purportedly given to reporters that he was most curious about.
That’s pretty much where we were at when I filed my last column, but by the middle of last week, the storyline had shifted dramatically.
Scheer accepted the government’s offer for a closed-door briefing, having stipulated that his caucus and the press have the option to attend the non-classified portion of the discussion.
The government acceded to this request, and Jean went a step further, offering to make himself available to the committee “at the earliest practical opportunity.”
He’s now booked for a one-hour appearance on Monday, which, for those with an abiding interest in the state of our parliamentary democracy, definitely constitutes must-see TV — not because of the new details it may reveal about the comedy of diplomatic errors that was Trudeau’s India trip, but because it will serve as an excellent real-world test of whether our committees can actually explore such a highly politicized issue without descending into hyper-partisan bickering.
Although anything can happen after the gavel goes down, it’s a fair-to-good bet that Jean — who is, it’s worth noting, a career civil servant with more than three decades of service on his record under both Liberal and Conservative governments — will take the tried-and-true approach of being as boringly, bureaucratically by the book as possible.
His every utterance, from his opening statement to his responses to MPs, will probably be expressly constructed to deprive both the media and the opposition of juicy pull quotes or eye-grabbing headlines.
He’ll answer the questions, of course — clearly, concisely, and in the most determinedly anodyne tones he can muster — but politely and implacably decline to be drawn into any direct confrontation with the opposition, or to defend his boss in a manner that goes beyond what any senior public servant would do when challenged over a particular government action or policy.
And that is why Scheer and the Conservative contingent — for it is the Conservatives who have been leading the charge, although the New Democrats’ lone representative at the table will likely go along for the ride — may get a sharp reminder of why, both in court and in politics, it’s generally not advisable to launch a volley of pointed questions without having at least some idea of what the answers will be.
That rule often falls by the wayside in the House of Commons, where opposition members can rely on any number of rhetorical tricks to ensure that no reply is good enough: hypotheticals, hyperbole, framing it as a binary choice between two problematic options.
In committee, though — and, more generally, when dealing with those outside the partisan fray — they have to be much more careful about how any attempt at interrogation might come across to the public. It’s one thing to accuse the prime minister of trying to cover up an embarrassing misstep, but treating a civil servant like a hostile witness is strategy that can easily backfire.
And if the hour wraps up without a gotcha moment — which, as noted above, there’s a good chance it will — the Conservatives will be left with a conundrum: Their main demand has been met, and they’ve had the opportunity to question Jean in public, so how will they be able to keep the controversy alive?
They can proclaim themselves unsatisfied by the answers, of course, but unlike the classified briefing Scheer will presumably be getting, those answers will be on the record — they’ll no longer be able to complain that Canadians are being kept in the dark.
Which, of course, brings us to that test I mentioned earlier. By agreeing to have Jean testify in public, the Liberals may have dodged what was the most potentially lethal weapon in the Conservatives’ arsenal: the suggestion that Trudeau and his office had something to hide.
If Jean turns up with a passable explanation for his alleged disclosures to journalists — or, for that matter, credible evidence to support the contention that outside forces may have been involved in a bit of mischief-making — a fair number of those still keeping tabs on this subplot may conclude that, contrary to the best efforts of the Conservatives to turn this into a cause célèbre for the ages, there really wasn’t anything to see here after all.
May we have a moment of your time?
Our public funding only covers some of the cost of producing high-quality, balanced content. We depend on the generosity of people who believe we all should have access to accurate, fair journalism. Caring people just like you!
Get Current Affairs & Documentaries email updates in your inbox every morning.