On long car rides, my family would play a game called I'm Thinking of a Person. Eventually, we changed the name to I'm Thinking of a Person who is Not a Famous Economist.
We had to do this because otherwise the game usually ended up with my dad (who's an economist) steering angrily along a scenic stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway shouting, "What? What? How the hell could you not have heard of Friedrich von Hayek? What the hell are they teaching you in that school? No one gets a Dairy Queen! No one gets a Dairy Queen!"
Wails would come from the back seat of the car. The kind that can only come from a shamed, sticky nine-year-old child who is sweat-stuck to a vinyl seat, or some similarly aged and situated creature. "But I got John Maynard Keynes!"
"Anyone can get Keynes!"
"And Irving Fisher."
"Only because you had help from your mother!"
The point to the game, which is a version of 20 Questions, is to ask the right questions to narrow down the possibilities slowly, until the answer is revealed.
"Is this person a woman?
"Is this person dead?"
"Did this man live mainly in the United Kingdom?"
"Did he collaborate with David Hume during the Scottish Enlightenment?" That sort of thing.
I've been thinking about these car games this week because their structure apparently has been adopted by the Conservative government.
This week in the House, Tom Lukiwski, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Government House Leader, offered up a 20-Questions-rules defence of International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda. Ms. Oda's failure to answer questions properly regarding the now-infamous "NOT" led House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken to rule that she may have misled the House.
"Specifically," as Mr. Lukiwski explained it, the questions that should have been asked were, "Madam Minister, if you did not insert the word 'not' and you do not know who did, how did it happen? How did it occur?"
If only the right question had been asked, you see, Ms. Oda would have been obliged to say "very clearly," as no doubt she was dying to do (because who doesn't like to get to the bottom of things and stop at a Dairy Queen?), something along these lines: "Because I instructed my officials to communicate to CIDA that I was not in favour of funding Kairos."
"That would have answered everything right there, a pretty simple follow-up question," Mr. Lukiwski chided. What? Is he going to have to explain the rules to I Spy next?
"Instead, we had no question as a follow-up from the member opposite," Mr. Lukiwski complained. "He asked, 'You didn't insert the word "not"?' The minister responded, 'No, I didn't.' Rather than ask, 'Then how did it happen?' he just said, 'Well, that's a remarkable occurrence.' "
You see, the questioning minister quit partway through the game, probably just to stare out the window and then pick a fight with his brother.
"There are many questions [the member]could have asked as a follow-up to get the correct information he so desperately desires." Mr. Lukiwski bemoaned, instead of foisting all the blame on poor Bev Oda.
I like to think of Brian Mulroney as the father of this style of integrity. He, too, was a man who was perfectly prepared to give a straight answer, if only someone had been interested enough to ask the right question. If someone had guessed, for example, the exact amount of money he had accepted from Karlheinz Schreiber, or the specific name of the airport hotel, it all would have come out sooner.
Asking, "Did you meet that man for coffee?" isn't going to get you anywhere near close enough. If someone had only asked Mr. Mulroney, "Did you have 652 millilitres of roasted Brazilian? Milk, no sugar?"
The honourable former prime minister then would have said, "Damn. Yes. Okay I'll write you a cheque."
Perhaps some of you are now remembering these words from the Oliphant commission: "For Mr. Mulroney to attempt to justify his failure to make disclosure in those circumstances by asserting that Mr. Sheppard did not ask the correct question is, in my view, patently absurd…" Replace the word "patently absurd" with the word "trailblazing" and I think we have our official rules down.
The current custodian of those rules seems to be Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who, interestingly enough, has done everything he can to distance himself from Mr. Mulroney.
Everything, that is, except to behave differently.