Thomas Mulcair's defence was already doing him more harm than good by the time he suggested a reporter could use a dictionary.
It wasn't that the NDP Leader was losing an argument, it's that he was argumentative. In an itchy, angry way. His press scrum on Tuesday, responding to allegations his party misused parliamentary funds, turned into 30 minutes of condescending vinegar. Mr. Prickly Makes His Case.
Mr. Mulcair gets deserved credit for the effectiveness of his prosecutorial style in the Commons, but his defence-attorney performance slid straight into defensiveness. It's especially self-defeating because the NDP blames the other parties for labelling him Angry Tom, when, they say, he's not like that at all. Except there he was being snarky on TV.
He cut off reporters and asked others to pose questions instead. He claimed he was being treated unfairly by reporters unwilling to report evidence that proves his party right. To his credit, he stood for a half-hour and responded to questions about a controversy. But it was his testy demeanour that shone through.
The issue under his skin was a controversy over how the NDP hired staffers. It pooled MPs' parliamentary budgets to create a satellite office in Montreal, where those parliamentary staffers worked alongside party workers, in an office rented with party money.
The other parties are accusing the New Democrats of doing partisan work with parliamentary budgets. The NDP says MPs just pooled some money to do some common work, and there was no rule against doing it out of an office rented by the party.
The MPs by-laws say they can hire employees for an Ottawa office or a riding office – there's no third option. But a new rule was made recently to explicitly bar parliamentary staff from working in a party office – and Mr. Mulcair says the fact that the rules were changed prove it was allowed before.
The political parties can debate the rules – as they will when Mr. Mulcair appears before a Commons committee today. It's unlikely this complicated issue will blow into a huge scandal. But there's no doubt that the NDP has a perception problem. MPs have long had parliamentary office and constituency offices, but the NDP created something new, a regional satellite office. Housing it with a party office invited people to wonder if it's doing party work.
Some of Mr. Mulcair's defence Tuesday was the garden-variety fudging when faced with inconvenient facts. One reporter asked whether an NDP official told the House of Commons, on a form back in 2011, that the employees in the Montreal satellite office were working in Ottawa. Mr. Mulcair said the question was really about where their home base was, for management purposes. (The question, in fact, was whether the employees would work in Ottawa or a riding office.)
But there was also a whole lot of edge. When the same reporter tried to ask a question later, he cut her off and asked if anyone else had a question.
CTV's Laurie Graham started to ask a question by referring to his assertion that the rules had been changed, and Mr. Mulcair, referring to her as "Miss Graham," chose to patronize. "Miss Graham, when it says on a document that the rules have been amended – this just in, there is a dictionary, and the word amended means changed."
When Ms. Graham asked about another subject – whether Elections Canada is looking into free-mail sent by the NDP – he insisted that her stories on the topic had failed to include a "report" from Elections Canada exonerating the party.
"You didn't report that Elections Canada said we had respected all the rules," he said testily.
The problem with his accusation, however, is that Elections Canada never said that at all. The letter from Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand he was referring to, according to party officials (posted here http://www.ndp.ca/sites/default/files/news/mayrand_reply_-_reponse.pdf) simply outlined what the rules are, without saying whether the NDP respected them or not.
Perhaps the whole controversy over the NDP's satellite office has Mr. Mulcair feeling a little hard done by. It's hard enough to figure out the line between political staffers doing MPs work and those doing party work. But the NDP knew, at the very least, it was pushing the envelope with this and risking some blowback.
And that's what makes the NDP's prickly reaction bizarre. It doesn't really smack of a blame-the-media tactic to discredit the story. Mr. Mulcair really seems to feel bitterness, and somehow believes there's an unfair persecution going on. For a zealous prosecutor, he's surprisingly thin-skinned in defence.