Last week, the inquisitions of Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Senator Don Meredith followed to different processes. The open one is clearly superior.
Senator Don Meredith, left and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan are shown in March 2017 file photos. (Canadian Press photos)
Like two majestic Lego blocks, the House of Commons and the Senate have existed side by side on Parliament Hill for more than 150 years. Joined by marble corridors, vaulted ceilings and gleaming brass railings, it is difficult to imagine one without the other.
These magnificent edifices are overdue for massive renovations, which will begin next year. The House of Commons will be relocated to the newly refurbished West Block while the Senate will be housed down the road in the old railway station, (a 1912 heritage building more recently known as the government conference centre), located across from the Chateau Laurier.
Ottawa political life will be changed for a decade after these moves. No longer will MPs and Senators bump into each other in the corridors. They will literally be going in opposite directions, but as each chamber seeks to modernize and reform, the key for future support and success lies in finding a clear path to the principle of accountability — the notion of personal and individual responsibility combined with an obligation or willingness to accept that responsibility. The divergence between the two chambers was on raw display this week.
Question Period (QP), in the House of Commons, shot back into prominence as proposed government changes to the format regarding the prime minister’s attendance intersected with the mistake of a senior minister. The collision caused potential political damage as some called for the minister’s resignation.
No government is truly tested until it undergoes a very tough rite of governing — the intense interrogation of a minister in QP. Hard to watch, and dramatic to report, the volley of questions by opposition parties is a necessary weapon in the arsenal of our parliamentary democracy. In the past few days, Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan felt the full brunt of the attack.
Some will argue that he did not explain the reasons for his exaggerated statement. Others will argue that the opposition was too harsh on him. But nevertheless, the public questioning, initiated by media reports, forced him to take responsibility for his actions.
Fortunately for him, the Liberal government had not yet been able to reach consensus with the opposition on its proposal to limit the PM’s attendance to one day a week. Without the PM’s verbal assurance that he had full confidence in his minister on consecutive QP days, the beleaguered minister of defence could have found himself in real political limbo.
An initial report from the Senate ethics officer contained many references to questions and answers but Canadians could not see all the questions that were asked of Don Meredith. We don’t really know how he responded, except for the fact he wished to keep some details private. Fortunately, the ethics officer did not agree.
Unlike Harjit Sajjan, we have barely seen Don Meredith. He is currently on sick leave and has not yet apologized for his actions. Is it fair that one man was shielded from view, and the other was not? Both men are paid by the taxpayers. Sajjan is elected and will eventually face the decision of voters but Meredith avoids that reckoning because he was appointed.
The question of finding appropriate and timely accountability in our two legislative houses will always need strong voices and scrutiny, especially in light of media cuts. Legislation and codes of ethics will only work in a culture of consensus and agreement.
Until then, in my opinion, the House of Commons wins hands down. QP is not pretty, but it is public.
Penny Collenette is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa and was a senior director of the Prime Minister’s Office for Jean Chrétien.