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ethics commiteee

Obstruct, distract and ignore was the strategy adopted by the Conservative government today at a Commons ethics committee hearing on Access to Information.

Tory MPs attempted to block testimony and when that didn't work they threw softball questions at the witness. Pierre Poilievre, known for his attack-dog nature, also took on the committee chair, Liberal Paul Szabo, after he called Mr. Poilievre out-of-order on several occasions.

It was a tense meeting; at times it was awkward. The chair twice ordered Mr. Poilievre's microphone be shut off.

And it was all focused on the appearance of Ryan Sparrow, director of communications for the Human Resources Minister. According to documents provided to The Globe and Mail in March, Mr. Sparrow repeatedly intervened and tried to suppress the revelation the government spent $5-million on television advertising around the Vancouver Olympics.

Mr. Sparrow was asked to appear before the all-party committee to answer questions as to his role in that request. He is well known to the opposition for some of his past antics, including his suspension in the 2008 election campaign as the Conservative Party's chief spokesman for pointing out the Liberal ties of the father of a fallen Canadian solider who had been critical of the government.

Clearly, the Conservatives feel this a delicate subject, given the care they took with Mr. Sparrow today. First his boss, Diane Finley, appeared with him and requested that she do all the talking and take all the questions.

Mr. Szabo shot that down: "I will not entertain further debate on whether or not you can answer for Mr. Sparrow. My decision … is Mr. Sparrow is going to have to answer the questions directed at him."

The Human Resources Minister didn't accept that. "This Parliament has a long tradition of not calling on …"

"Order," Mr. Szabo cut in.

"... staffers," Ms. Finley continued.

Mr. Szabo dismissed that: "I made a ruling. … You have made your argument twice. I have made my decision and for the final time I am going ask Mr. Sparrow to answer the question."

And, he did - sort of.

Repetitious and vague, Mr. Sparrow allowed little, if not no, new information to enlighten the committee. He talked in circles. "Mr. Chair, as I said in my statement my goal was to provide accurate information in a timely manner. That was accomplished."

He went back and forth a couple of times with Liberal Frank Valeriote before the MP's time ran out. "You are telling me that you report each and every intervention to the minister, herself, and you only proceed with an intervention if you have her approval?" Mr. Valeriote asked.

Mr. Sparrow replied he does not make the minister aware of every single media inquiry. Next.

It was Bloc MP Carole Freeman's turn. She spent most of her time battling with Mr. Sparrow over whether he would table certain documents with the committee - the ones pertaining to changes in media requests that had been made on his watch.

Apparently, 51 such alterations were ordered in a six-month period; it was those files she wanted tabled. Mr. Sparrow didn't think he could produce them. "I don't have those with me," he said.

"Can you send them to the committee so we can study them?" Ms. Freeman countered.

Replied Mr. Sparrow: "Um, I believe they are available through Access to Information."

Mr. Szabo intervened, noting that this was not an acceptable answer; Mr. Sparrow could be ordered by the chair to provide them. In the end, the Human Resources Minister agreed to submit them in due course.

Lob-ball questions, meanwhile, was provided by Mr. Poilievre. The 31-year-old, who is also parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister, tried a couple of times to address Ms. Finley, rather than Mr. Sparrow.

"Order, order, order," Mr. Szabo said, asking that Mr. Poilievre's microphone be shut off as the Tory MP ignored him. Once he had Mr. Poilievre's attention he reminded him that the Human Resources Minister was not the witness.

"Thank you for your advice, Chair," Mr. Poilievre said - then proceeded to ignore that advice and ask Ms. Finley more questions.

"Order, order, order," a clearly exasperated Paul Szabo said, killing Mr. Poilievre's microphone for a second time.

"If we are going to have this game… I have made a decision and I have asked twice and I will ask a third time if it happens again, but at that point the only recourse that a member would have is to challenge the authority of the chair. … It is not in the best interests of this committee … to spend our time doing that."

Over to Mr. Poilievre, who launched into a long dissertation about how he believes this marked the first time in the history of Parliament that a minister has shown up at a committee and the chairman - who the Tory MP helpfully noted is a member of the opposition - did not allow her to speak.

Mr. Polievre also stressed that the information requested by the journalist was released by Mr. Sparrow within 21 days of the request rather than the standard 90 days. "So you have standards not only met but exceeded," he said.

"And you have a minister that has gone beyond the demands of Parliament and asked for the chance to be accountable for the conduct of her office. And you have the ironic situation where the opposition is denying her the ability to be held accountable," Mr. Poilievre explained, grinning.

And so it went until the committee's time expired and the room was cleared.