The Conservative government is refusing to say when Canada's military mission in Iraq is scheduled to end, sparking a standoff in the House of Commons that led NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair to question the neutrality of the Speaker.
Mr. Mulcair led off Question Period on Tuesday by asking when the Iraq mission would end – the government has said the initial deployment is for 30 days, but has ducked questions in the House on when that period actually began.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn't attend Tuesday's Question Period. His parliamentary secretary, Ontario MP Paul Calandra, responded to Mr. Mulcair with a series of questions and statements unrelated to Iraq, instead discussing Israel.
"I can understand the confusion. We are in the Middle East and under the I's, but we're talking about Iraq," Mr. Mulcair shot back. He asked a similar question, and Mr. Calandra once again evaded it.
"Mr. Speaker, there are rules in the book about Question Period. You are our arbiter. We ask you to enforce the rules on relevance [of answers]," Mr. Mulcair said.
The rules in the House of Commons Procedure and Practice handbook, however, say that the speaker "is not responsible for the quality or content of replies" and that "a minister's refusal to answer a question may not be questioned." Speaker Andrew Scheer, the Conservative MP whose nonpartisan role is to maintain order in the House of Commons, stuck by that.
Mr. Mulcair again persisted on the subject of Iraq, asking about whether an agreement outlining operating rules for Canadian Forces in Iraq had been completed, and when it would be public. Mr. Calandra again discussed Israel in response.
"Mr. Speaker, that does not speak very favourably about your neutrality on this House," Mr. Mulcair said. Mr. Scheer responded by simply calling on Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to begin his questions – essentially revoking Mr. Mulcair's remaining scheduled questions.
After Question Period, Conservative MP James Bezan answered the question Mr. Calandra had avoided, telling reporters the 30-day window began on Sept. 5, but declined to answer other questions, citing national security interests.
Mr. Scheer said in a recent ruling that he plans to continue to respect the practice of "not intervening in respect of answers to questions" as Speaker.
After Question Period, Mr. Mulcair played down the exchange and avoided singling out Mr. Scheer and instead criticized Mr. Calandra for his responses. "As far as we're concerned, when you ask a question that corresponds to all the rules on a very important subject of national concern, like Canada's involvement in the war in Iraq, Canadians deserve better," he said.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said the issue is an example of Parliament's dysfunction, but declined to criticize Mr. Scheer. "I look forward to the Speaker continuing to behave in a responsible and impartial manner," he said.