Five things you need to know when the inquiry calls

Oh oh. The summons has come. You have to testify before a commission of inquiry. You have done nothing wrong, of course. At least, nothing worth mentioning. Well, nothing anyone was so foolish as to write down. So you're completely innocent or, failing that, innocent enough for government work. Still, in view of pitfalls dug for you by people insufficiently appreciative of your long years of devoted public service, you deserve a few hints on how to avoid them. No need to thank me. In public, I mean. On an unrelated matter, my consulting firm offers first-rate oral briefings on various matters relating to public relations for, well, what price good advice when the national interest is at stake? First, let's talk about memory. The moon has none, and neither should you. It might seem odd that people could enjoy such success in public service with an entirely feeble grasp of detail, but don't worry. SMIA (Sudden Microphone-Induced Amnesia) is such a well-recognized phenomenon in public life by now that yours will not attract attention. Remember what happened to Bill Clinton, long famous for his capacity to recall a face and a name decades after briefly meeting a person, when that dreaded little red light went on? No, you don't. You don't remember any Bill Clinton.

A word to the wise here. In addition to these hints, we have provided a handy little laminated card of the five things you must not say in the course of your testimony. The first is "I do not know the individual currently testifying." You will shortly find yourself unable to remember an enormous number of individuals, I assure you. During these inquiries, people who recently held important jobs suddenly become such nonentities it's a mystery how they ever even got into the building. But don't get too eager because, if you deny that you know yourself, it could tend to undermine your credibility on similar assertions subsequently. (Parenthetically, if you find yourself in such a tight spot that denying your identity really starts looking like your best option, we recommend instead our insightful travel guide: Paraguay: Big AND Remote, plus a set of those convenient travel documents readily available on the Internet.)

Second, be dull. Government is impenetrably, incomprehensibly dull. Why shouldn't your testimony be? But not because of a mass of details: nasty things, details, with sharp bits protruding from the fog. What we're after here is context or, better yet, contextualization. Process. Bore them into submission. It works in meetings. It's the basis of government. You know it's your friend, and today you need a friend. Use it to your advantage.

Third, let's talk grammar. Notoriously tedious to generations gone by (and all but forgotten in the modern skule sistum) but dull is your friend here and, in this case, all those old schoolmarms with their hair scraped back in iron-grey buns were right: Grammar matters. Especially the active voice. It should be inactive. In government, mistakes are made, money is wasted and windows are jumped out of. But no one makes them, no one wastes it and, as long as they remember these rules, no one needs to break the third in the interest of bringing their testimony to a sudden halt.

Fourth, good intentions are all that count. Of course you did nothing wrong, but if wrongness was done, the best of motives were had by people with whom meetings were never held and, if memos were sent by them and initialed by you, no recollection is had of discussions of background issues held with or by them. Whoever they were.

Fifth, that good old lawyer's standby, pleading in the alternative. As in, my client didn't commit the murder, but if he did, he was insane. This being politics, our version is more ornate. Remember Bart Simpson right after all the occupants escaped from the dog-catcher's wagon: I didn't do it nobody saw me do it you can't prove a thing. In normal life, that's three separate assertions. In government, it's just one, and a good one. But dull it up: Speak of the responsible discharge of duties, the inevitability of delegation and the irresponsibility of unsubstantiated allegation.

Finally, your handy list of Things Not To Say When Testifying Before a Commission:

"I do not know the individual currently testifying."

"You know, what the heck?"

"What's a million?"

"Eeeh, who wants to know?"

And, above all, do not shout

"You can't handle the truth!"

There. Don't you feel better? Here's an invoice for my services ... actually here are three invoices for my services. Heh heh. How weird is that?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson