OTTAWA—It is, quite possibly, the most loathed political position in Canada today—Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister.
A few men have filled the role in the same vein under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, each earning a certain notoriety among their political peers and spawning critical, sometimes incredulous, punditry over their conduct during question period.
They take the hard questions about controversies that embarrass the government, or on issues for which a good answer is hard to come by. They stand in for the PM when he’s away on travel, or would rather not answer a question already asked, or one from an opposition MP too far toward the back of the benches.
And when they stand, any answer will come with an equal dose of insult. Sometimes, like the recent controversy current parliamentary secretary (PS) Paul Calandra found himself in, it’s all insult and no answer.
It’s a pattern that has led to the Ottawa Citizen describing the role as that of a buffoon, or Maclean’s Aaron Wherry as “the designated obfuscator.”
One former PS was Dean Del Mastro, now sitting as an independent pending an Oct. 31 court ruling that will decide whether he broke election spending limits in 2008.
“It was an honour to serve,” he says of his time as parliamentary secretary.
Del Mastro said he always answered the question, but if it had been asked and answered many times before, he felt compelled to give a bit of pushback.
It’s that pushback Del Mastro and his colleagues are most remembered for.
Function of Question Period
Calandra sparked debate about the function of question period (QP) and was compelled to give a tearful apology after he responded to a question in late September about troops going to Iraq with accusations that the NDP didn’t support Israel.
The opposition parties have little but derision for the Conservatives’ enforcer during QP. Even former Conservative Brent Rathgeber worries about what the role has become.
“The PS to the Prime Minister becomes the government’s chief attack dog and chief partisan enforcer and tries to score political points and engage in partisan bickering as opposed to representing, respectfully, the high office of the Prime Minister, which I think would be a more appropriate role.”
He thinks it makes the government look bad, especially in a situation like that of Calandra’s where he was refusing to answer the most serious of questions, that as to the possibility of sending Canadians to war.
While that kind of behaviour is offensive to some MPs and certain voters, not everyone would object, says Rathgeber.
“I think that probably plays very well to those who are dyed-in-the-wool Tory blue Conservatives. But I think for the rest of us it is very disrespectful, very immature. It is disrespectful to the public’s elected House of Commons where the public deserves answers to important questions.”
All parties use the House of Commons and question period for some amount of grandstanding, says Rathgeber. Questions come loaded with inflammatory preambles, and hyperbole that borders on slander. It’s a dynamic that turns the House of Commons into a theatre of the absurd rather than a home of considered debate.
A Role that’s Changed
Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner had the PS to the PM job himself in the last year of Jean Chretien’s time in office.
The job was different back then, he said, and certainly not as prominent as it has become. Last year, Maclean’s magazine included former PS Pierre Poilievre on its list of most powerful people in Canada at 28.
“It’s absolutely changed,” said Cuzner.
Questions related to departments, no matter how controversial, went to the ministers, while currently many of these questions end up with the PS.
“We were never put in that situation. It was always the ministers who responded,” said Cuzner.
In effect, the PS handles the dirty work in the House of Commons, being the face that answers some of the most controversial questions—over and over again—making sure to punish the asker as much as possible.
“He has become the fourth-line left-winger who creates a bit of time and space for the party and prime minister. Very much aggressive,” said Cuzner.
A Price to be Paid
But there is a price to be paid, he added. Being the “attack dog” for the prime minister comes with blowback, including long-term political liabilities, said Cuzner.
“If that’s the game you play, it’s bound to come back and bite you in the rear end.”
“If you want to earn a reputation or make your pay by being that ultra-hyper partisan, I’ve seen it destroy careers. I’ve seen it embarrass members of Parliament.”
He says those who get respect realize their political opponents are adversaries, not enemies.
“You can get away from it in the short term, … but it’s got no longevity and it’s got no legacy, and I think Canadians see that now.”
Del Mastro said he’s never worried about the long-term implications, and he brushes off some of the harsher criticism that was directed his way.
Rathgeber says the current nature of the PS reflects something broader that is wrong with question period generally.
“The purpose specifically with QP is to ask government questions of public policy and to make ministers responsible for their departments. We’ve lost sight of that and that’s what we need to get back to.”
Unfortunately, the high drama and biting remarks are about as interesting as debates get in the House of Commons, at least if you are tuning in for a 10-second sound bite on the nightly news.
Rathgeber expects few voters would care enough to make it a ballot box issue.
“It will be long forgotten in the face of cheaper cellphone bills and other consumer policies the government might be able to offer if in surplus,” he said.
“I think that will ultimately, and I say this sadly, sway voters more than the inner machinations of a distant Parliament Hill.”