OTTAWA — One of the Conservative government’s most colourful guard dogs made a tearful apology to the House of Commons on Friday over his controversial non-answer to an opposition question.
Paul Calandra, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s parliamentary secretary, stood following question period, his voice cracking with emotion, and said he was sorry for failing to answer NDP Leader Tom Mulcair’s queries earlier this week about Canada’s mission in Iraq.
“I allowed the passion and the anger at something I read to get in the way of appropriately answering a question to the leader of the Opposition,” said Calandra, who has spent the last three days on the hot seat of public disdain.
“For that I apologize to you and to this entire House and to my constituents.”
Calandra also suggested to Speaker Andrew Scheer that his response wasn’t based on any behind-the-scenes instructions, although Conservative members receive extensive pre-question period prep every day.
But he had barely exited the House of Commons when the buzz grew deafening on Parliament Hill over the alleged involvement of the Prime Minister’s Office.
“This was my response,” Calandra said, weeping. “I take full responsibility and I apologize to the leader of the Opposition, to you and to all my colleagues.”
Later Friday, however, the CBC reported the PMO ordered up the apology. A senior government official, however, said Calandra acted alone in his decision to apologize.
On Tuesday, Mulcair had asked the government to clarify when the 30-day window for Canada’s Iraq mission would close.
Calandra, in response, demanded Mulcair explain a two-month-old Facebook comment from an “NDP fundraiser” harshly critical of the Israeli military action in Gaza and news coverage of the conflict in the Middle East.
This stance, Calandra said, was in stark contrast with the Conservatives, who stand with Israel.
Mulcair immediately ridiculed Calandra, accusing him of confusing two countries that start with the letter I, but also pleaded with Scheer to intervene and instruct the MP to provide relevant answers.
When Mulcair asked a second question of Calandra on Iraq, the Tory replied: “Mr. Speaker, what does the leader of the Opposition not understand? Our friends in Israel are on the front lines, combating terrorism.”
The scorn soon spread beyond just the NDP and an array of media pundits. Even some of Calandra’s Conservative colleagues were unhappy with the way he handled Mulcair’s question, including senior cabinet ministers.
Social media erupted with mockery on Facebook and Twitter.
Apparently wounded by the criticism, an emotional Calandra attempted to make amends on Friday.
Mulcair told reporters he accepted the apology. He said the question and answer issue had spurred a massive public outcry.
“Judging from the reaction that we got, and the people who are in charge of correspondence in the party and my shop — they’ve never had such a unanimous reaction on any topic that went public from coast to coast to coast,” Mulcair said.
He added that the NDP would be putting forward a motion in the Commons to make relevancy a criteria during question period, and not just for other parliamentary debates.
That motion would authorize Scheer to lower the boom on members who provide irrelevant or repetitious replies.
The Speaker, in a brief comment the day after the non-answer on Iraq, said he has no power to force people to answer questions.
He quoted one of his predecessors: “It is not for the chair to decide whether the content of a response is in fact an answer. As we have heard many times, that is why it is called question period, not answer period.”
It wasn’t the first time Calandra has responded in the House with non sequiturs, raising questions about whether he will stick to his Friday pledge to never again deliver a pointless response.
Last October, when asked about the Senate expenses scandal, he replied: “I do like flowers and, of course, with lemons I like to make lemonade.
“My two daughters, this summer, actually had a lemonade stand where they sold lemonade for five cents on the street. They did very well. I am very proud of them.”