"We can't allow things that are inaccurate to stand." — The Word of Our Dan, February 19, 2008.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Question time

In his testimony on Monday, John Ottenheimer let slip a line that may yet — absent something even more shockingly stupid, or more stupidly shocking, down the road — to define the commission of enquiry into the hormone recepter test scandal:

MR. COFFEY: I’m going to suggest to you though that although you didn’t get a question, that wouldn’t have prevented you from actually making some comment upon it, would it?

MR. OTTENHEIMER: If I were asked to make a — if I were asked to comment on this issue, I would have been, number one, obligated and secondly, pleased to do it, to update the House of Assembly as best I could. But it is not the norm for a Minister to stand when it is only indirectly relating to the Department, to simply stand and make a statement. What is normal, and what is usual, and what is the practice, is for a Minister to respond to questions by an informed Opposition who wants to seek out answers to questions in the public interest. That’s what is normal and as a Minister of the day, that’s what I would have been prepared to do to the best of my ability, with the information that I had been provided with, if, in fact, the questions were asked.
And had the questions actually been asked?

That’s a whole other, well, question.

Ottenheimer’s defence — that the opposition should have asked questions — is interesting on two levels.

First, the fixation on asking questions, good questions, has been a Danny trademark since his election as MHA in 2001. It started as the opposition frustration of not getting questions answered. It morphed, with the change of government in 2003, into the government frustration with the opposition asking impudent and inconvenient ones. The question of questions has been a hallmark of the Premier’s speeches and interventions in the House of Assembly, to the point where you have to wonder: who authored the “they should have asked questions” defence in the first place.

Second, you have to wonder... what if the question had been asked?

In his first Question Period in the House as Premier, he said:

Mr. Speaker, I know the frustration of being on the other side of the House, and I know what it is like not to get answers to questions. I stood over there for two years, I must have asked a thousand questions, and never got an answer, so in order to make it easy for the Leader of the Opposition, the answer is yes.
On April 14th, his idealism was still undiminished:

Mr. Speaker, we obviously have no problem with the Leader of the Opposition asking questions, that is his right. We respect his right to ask questions, and he is perfectly free to do so. We see no benefit in having the Leader not ask questions. We think that is to everybody’s benefit.
It was still being expressed that fall:

As the hon. gentleman opposite can appreciate, and I can repeat it again, this is a very delicate time, we have to be very careful. I understand you have a job to do as Leader of the Opposition and you have to ask questions.
And into December the importance of questions was still top of the Premier’s mind:

We have asked a lot of questions. Unlike the previous government, we continue to ask more and more questions. We continue to be in the light rather than in the dark, as the member was when he was a former minister.
But as early as May of 2004, a change in sentiment was already evident:

With regard to a non-answer to his first question, I think he understands here that this is about exposing the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador to liability for disclosing information that should not be in the public domain, that is proprietary, confidential information. I am sure you would not want us to do that and cost the people of the Province liability and damages for disclosure of that information.
As it was on May 23, 2006:

He should not be asking questions about legal matters about which he knows absolutely nothing.
Or perhaps the question on the hormone testing, if asked, would have been answered by the Premier in his typical blathering blarneying style, a fine example of which as any was on December 12 of that year:

MS FOOTE: Taken right from the Blue Book, Mr. Speaker, yet we have contracts being awarded under the guise of being done fairly, and in some cases, even the Premier apologizing for not following the proper process.

I ask the minister: Would you table for this House, or tell us tomorrow, what exactly government paid to Target Marketing for that comprehensive review they did of the communication’s plan?

PREMIER WILLIAMS: Mr. Speaker, it is interesting, the new-found righteousness that has come over on the other side. This is the same minister who decided to take her husband on a little trip.

They went to Australia and New Zealand to see if they could find Crocodile Dundee maybe - Crocodile Judy. They also went to China and they dropped into Hawaii on the way.

MR. SPEAKER: Order, please!

I remind the Premier that you should not refer to members by their first names but by their districts.

PREMIER WILLIAMS: I apologize for using the name. I was trying to take just an angle on Crocodile Dundee, but having said all of that — so you traveled all around. Now she has a new sense of accountability, and since we have decided to take a closer look, we took a closer look at some correspondence in her department when she was minister. This is to one of her employees: Could you, please, order a case of wine for me, half red and half white, from the liquor store on Kenmount Road and Howard will pick it up for me tomorrow morning.

I forgot to mention it earlier and I have some businesspeople dropping by the house - to drink the case of wine now, mind you - on Monday and this will be the only opportunity you will have to pick it up for me. The red is Wolf Blass Yellow Label, and the white is Trapiche. Let Howard know after you have placed the order. Here is the invoice to the government, Mr. Speaker. Sense of accountability!
Excellent answer, Mr. Premier! Desk-thumping all round.

Earlier in the fall, Craig Jackson of the Telegram paraphrased the then opposition leader, in his report for the paper on November 22, 2006:

Asked what irked him so badly during question period, Williams said there was an implication that when he was in private business he received a $40 million cheque from the provincial government for telecom services.

“That’s completely untrue,” he said. “I’m not going to stand for this kind of maligning and defaming people’s characters.”

Liberal Opposition Leader Gerry Reid said it’s a typical response from the premier.

“He tries to threaten people, he tries to divert our attention away from the issues,” Reid said, noting he and Industry critic Judy Foote asked more than a dozen questions pertaining to the fibre-optic cable deal but the government isn’t providing any straight answers.

The premier’s strategy is to try and intimidate the Liberal Opposition from asking questions, Reid said.
Or perhaps, the question, if asked, would have been answered in the same spirit that led off the Question Period of June 4, 2007:

MR. REID: Later today, Chief Justice Green will be delivering his report on constituency allowances and spending to government at 4:30 p.m., I understand, according to the Premier’s press release.

In February, after briefing the Premier on the status of his report, Chief Justice Green immediately briefed me and, later, the Leader of the NDP. He also stated to our caucus that his preference would be to have the report delivered to all parties in the House of Assembly at the same time.

I ask the Premier: In the spirit of openness and accountability, would you be willing to provide a copy of Chief Justice Green’s report to all Members of the House of Assembly and to the public once you receive it this afternoon?

PREMIER WILLIAMS: Mr. Speaker, in the spirit of truth, integrity, fairness, and everything that is right in the political system, I do not know why we even bother to answer questions that are asked by the Leader of the Opposition.
So, speculate away: Had there been any inkling back in the summer of 2005 that the Premier, or his office, or both, were aware of certain facts; had those facts, or that awareness, been the subject of questions, in the press or in the House; which Danny Williams would have responded to them?

The Danny Williams who, as opposition leader, knew what it is like not to get answers to questions?

Or the Danny Williams who, as Premier, does not know why he even bothers to answer them?


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