Jim Flaherty, this is your life: Liveblogging Committee of the Whole

7:15:31 PM

7:15:31 PM
Okay, a slight miscalculation on the time – it turns out that the much-anticipated Finance Committee of the Whole is at 7:15, not 6:30. Which works out well, since I needed to grab a sandwich.

Anyway, I’m here now, and they’re just winding down debate on some private members’ bill that will, its sponsor was just assuring the House, will get mollycoddled criminals off the streets and bring about paradise on earth for working families.

Some ground rules, then, for what could be a very long night — just so you know what to expect, I’m not going to be doing minute by minute blogging, since it would probably bring on the dreaded Pizza Finger Syndrome, and anyway, you know I’m allergic to lengthy debate on full accrual accounting.

I’m also going to have to sprint back to my desk to post every now and then, and depending on how it goes, I may even wander down to the foyer to see if Maxime Bernier is lurking behind a pillar, waiting to be scrummed. But I promise to get all the good bits. Presuming there will be good bits, that is.

7:20:27 PM
Ooh, they’re starting to rearrange the furniture on the floor of the House! A clerk just brought in a wee brown table, which he placed reverently in front of Flaherty’s seat. I think he’s allowed to have staffers there, since it is about to make a remarkable transformation from the House of Commons to a committee room.

The difference? No mace. (You might remember that if you get bored with conventional interior design, and have a sudden urge to turn your living room into a legislative chamber.)

7:25:18 PM
Jim Flaherty just walked in, looking chipper and ever so slightly chippy as always, surveyed the scene – and walked back out. I guess he doesn’t want to spend any more time in his seat than he has to, given the punishing schedule ahead.

Just in case anyone was wondering, I am, in fact, the only person in the gallery. I thought Akin might show up at least. Then again, there’s still time. Lots and lots of time.

Flaherty is studying his briefing book, even though I’m pretty sure that he already knows it forward and back, in English and French, sickness and in health, as long as this night shall go. Let those two brought together by a team of sleep-deprived senior staffers let no man – especially an opposition member – divide.

I wonder if it’s a bad sign that I seem to be experiencing delirium already.

7:37:03 PM
There are currently five people on the government side of the House, and three on the opposition side. No, I have no idea why it’s taking so very long to get underway. This is my first live COW, y’all. Be gentle.

— <– This, btw, is what I’ll do every time I post a batch of entries, so anyone masochistic enough to follow along in real time can find the latest content easily.

7:48:47 PM
The minister didn’t even get to deliver an opening statement, it was straight to business. Untendered contract business, to be precise, courtesy of the first Liberal questioner, John McCallum, who demands that Flaherty apologize to the people of Canada for using their money to hire a crony from Queen’s Park, and then fumes when Flaherty refuses to do so.

And up pops John Williams – hey, this really is like committee, suddenly – who huffs and puffs that this stuff was covered in detail at committee – and oh boy, was it ever – but the Speaker reminds him that committee of the whole is supposed to give members the chance to ask questions about anything.

I should take a moment to describe the view from above, since I’m in the gallery. Two opposing factions are huddled on either side of the aisle: on the opposition side, twelve or so members, mostly Liberals but with a Bloc or two in the mix, and on the government side, the minister, his parliamentary secretary, a few backbenchers, and Chuck Strahl, for some reason.

7:55:13 PM
John McCallum is now trying to get Flaherty to apologize to all those investors who lost money in income trusts, and Flaherty is accusing the Liberals of not getting things done. So far, this is like a tiny version of Question Period. (No, that wasn’t a short joke, I swear.)

7:57:11 PM
John McKay takes over for the Liberals, and quizzes the minister on — stuff about stimuli, and tax formulas, and every time the minister answers, the group behind him claps obediently. They’re going to get so tired of doing that, but they can’t stop now, because then it will look like they’re particularly unimpressed with a particular answer.

Oh no, now Martha Hall Findlay has fallen for the clapping trap!

8:00:16 PM
Did you know the Liberals want to bring in a carbon tax?? OMG!

Someone has apparently found the briefing note Flaherty needs to answer all those very specific questions about tax formulae. That could have been embarrassing.

8:02:39 PM
“You know, Ontario,” Flaherty drawls. “I know a little something about Ontario.” The Liberals hoot, but it doesn’t faze him. Really, nothing ever does, even if it should. Oh, and he provokes much hilarity by noting that he “left a surplus” in Ontario, but those bad Liberals spent it all on something else.

Random Liberals: Walkerton! Walkerton!

8:04:48 PM
Oh, now he gets to deliver his opening statement. Seems like the perfect juncture to sneak back to the Hot Room and post this update.

8:15:23 PM
Wasn’t that fun? The Finance minister’s opening statement, that is? I was going to recap it, but I just couldn’t capture the magic, so I gave up. Anyway, now it’s the government round, which means probing, insightful questions that the minister’s legislative assistant handed out in the lobby.

Joe Preston, for instance, wants to know what the minister is going to do to help the poor, beleaguered manufacturing industry. In response, Flaherty talks about forklifts for longer than I would have thought possible. As a followup, Preston asks what Canadians think about the Liberal carbon tax, and as you can probably guess, they’re ag’inst it. Very, very ag’inst it. Appalled, horrified, aghast. “Save us!” channels one of the backbenchers.

8:21:53 PM
And now, the Bloc Quebecois, in the form of — is that Paul Crete? Yeah, I think so. He implores the government to change its way, and help the economies of Ontario and Quebec — and the rest. What do you think the chances are that he’ll say, ‘Oh, I can’t say no to that face. Sure.’
How about that? He didn’t.

8:24:50 PM
The opposition MPs have fanned out like a lopsided V. I wonder if they’re planning to fly somewhere as a flock. The Conservatives, meanwhile, are still in power force mode, and Paul Crete is yelling about gas companies and surpluses, and he thinks the minister should fess up on how much will go to big oil.

According to Flaherty, not as much as would have gone to big oil if the government hadn’t cut the accelerated gains tax. So there!

8:27:46 PM
This government is spending more on skills training than any other government in history, y’all – and it’s totally working: why, just today, Bombardier launched a hiring blitz in Montreal!

Okay, I have to say this: the Bloc Quebecois MP – the one up now – I don’t think I’ve ever seen him before in my life. I don’t think he’s really a member of Parliament; someone probaby forgot to show up, so they made one of the drivers fill in. (One of the fun parts of COW is that the members don’t have to sit in assigned seats, so you can’t rely on the map to tell the seriously obscure backbenchers apart.)

8:31:34 PM
Olivia Chow just turned up, and I realize now that Thomas Mulcair is sitting in front, so the NDP is fairly well represented. In case anyone was worried.

8:35:26 PM
Jim Flaherty almost seems to be agreeing with the opposition member who just brought up transfers, per capita or otherwise, but really, he’d be more happy talking about how strong the fundamentals are, and how much money he has allocated to science and research and development and other good things.

8:37:00 PM
The clerk introduces Mulcair, who, he notes, is here for the first time — he gets the choice of a statement, or questions and answers, and goes for the latter. He asks for the total number of jobs lost in the manufacturing sector since the Conservatives took over. The answer, apparently, is “some” but those losses were made up by gains in other sectors, so it’s all good. “Some,” huh? Math is hard, I guess.

Time for a trip to the lobby, I think. Just to see if there’s any excitement going on out there. I did warn you that I’d be doing this a bit differently than the usual gavel-to-gavel coverage.

8:51:02 PM
Well, I’m in the foyer. No Maxime Bernier, but that’s okay. It looks so — empty. Two security guards, a few – as in two – MPs, one of whom is forcing a bored-looking security guard to talk to him, and that’s it. I can hear a smattering of applause from the Chamber, but nothing else. They should really hook up a closed circuit TV out here so you can follow the debate from outside.

Now I’m feeling guilty for missing the action, so I’m headed back upstairs, and I’d like to take a moment to thank all those pillars for staying in one place so I can avoid running into them despite the fact that I’m staring at my berry: a human traffic accident waiting to happen.

9:00:03 PM
Well, I got back just in time for another government issue question – something about what cunning plan the minister has to save the Canadian economy from the looting, pillaging, carbon tax-and-spending Liberals.

“You’re so full of it,” grumbles a Liberal.

Hey, a shoutout to Warren Kinsella, courtesy of Flaherty, who is very much opposed to a carbon tax, and wrote a blog post to show how much. He also sneaks in a dupe — that quote from Gerard Kennedy about how clumsy and inefficient a carbon tax is, he totally used that last time he stood up to ostensibly describe his fiscal vision, but ended up spending all his time rubbishing the idea of a carbon tax.

9:03:36 PM
Hey, Bob Rae just wandered into the room. I guess the Afghanistan committee let out.

Oh man. Flaherty just gave an update on the hockey game “for the eight or ten Canadians not watching the game, but watching us.” That’s me! Too bad I couldn’t care less about hockey. (And I prefer Second Cup to Tim Horton’s and Starbucks. So there.) (Aren’t you glad we have this time together, to share and learn and grow?)

9:05:35 PM
Canadians get to save money now, and it’s all thanks to the last budget. Advantage: Canada! Hey, did Hugh MacPhie come up with the title?

Now Flaherty is baiting Garth Turner by quoting things he said during his time as a Tory. Garth, meanwhile, is sitting at the epicentre of the opposition cluster, staring intently at the minister and fiddling with his pen.

9:07:53 PM
Well, that was serendipitous: it’s Garth’s turn to take the floor. Be interesting, Garth! He gives a little rah-rah speech about non-partisanship, and announces that he’s going to ask questions not by him – “from the CBC!” shouts a random Conservative – but from ordinary Canadians. The first one is from a guy named Ben – hi, Ben! – who wants to know if the income trust flipflop was vetted by the Prime Minister. Instead of answering, Flaherty reminds us, for the hundredth time, that Garth crossed the floor. “Answer Ben’s question!” calls a female Liberal; Anita Neville, I think. Good luck, Ben.

9:11:00 PM
Just before Garth moves onto his next question, Gary Goodyear pops up with a point of order – the same point of order as the one posed by John Williams earlier. This is supposed to be about the main estimates, not other stuff! Why is he trying the same line that failed on Bill Blaikie when he was in the chair? Oh, because there’s a new chair – Andrew Scheer, a Conservative – but he shuts down Goodyear too, and repeats Blaikie’s comments about how the members have leeway to ask about anything regarding the department.

Garth is getting annoyed: the answers aren’t supposed to go for longer than the questions, and his have been short and snappy. Unfortunately, the chair can’t help him there, and now it’s time for Martha Hall Findlay, who asks – impishly – who the last finance minister to turn a deficit into a surplus was. Flaherty then delivers an even-for-him spectacular bit of evasion: it was back in the early 90s, when there was a change of government, he squiffs.

A Liberal government, Findlay reminds him helpfully – headed by Jean Chretien, and steered by Paul Martin as finance minister.

The chair is getting frustrated — he just had to yell order three times in a row. Now Martha asks who the last Conservative Prime Minister to run a surplus was, and a Tory backbencher complains: “What is this, a history lesson?” More back and forth, but it turns out the answer is Robert Borden, in 1912.

Okay, this line of questioning is actually amusing, but Flaherty just plows relentlessly ahead, predicting deficit doom and gloom under a future Liberal government, may it reign for never.

9:19:31 PM
Marlene Jennings wonders what the “advantage” is to cutting Quebec regional development funding, and Flaherty brings up the Bombardier hiring blitz again – 700 jobs here, 500 there. Let the good times roll!

Marlene is also annoyed by the minister’s loquaciousness, and makes her case to the chair, and the government members whine that she should be punished for making a “partisan political speech” that did nothing but disrespect the chair.

Poor Andrew Scheer. He really is a good egg, and his party is behaving somewhat appallingly at the moment.

Oh, and we have just over two hours left, according to the official clock. Pray for me, y’all. And forgive me for what I’m about to do: hit the cafeteria, because I’m starving. I promise I’ll eat fast.

9:37:18 PM
And I’m back – just in time for the last bit of Carol Skelton‘s Lynne Yelich [and thanks to the watchful reader who spotted my mixup] hagiography of the man, the myth, the Menzies – who is also Flaherty’s parliamentary secretary. They’ve figured out that, if they give speeches instead of asking questions, they can give the minister a time out, and lo and behold, there he isn’t. Hey, I’m taking the odd break too; no judging here.

9:39:19 PM
http://budget.gc.ca – drop by any old time, says Ted. No offence, but I’m sitting through main estimates; that’s really above and beyond the call of duty. He, too, points out that Garth Turner once supported TIPS – and reads the same quote. Garth, from across the aisle, reminds him that he was talking about a retirement plan. “Read the whole sentence.”

9:43:00 PM
How odd – Dean Del Mastro is sitting in his usual seat, at the other end of the chamber, far from the other government MPs, typing quietly away on his laptop. Did he get locked out of his office or something?

Oh, Flaherty is back, and so is Canada. The economy is great, the finances are great – really, it’s all going according to plan. His plan!

That was in response to a Bloc question, incidentally – the tireless Paul Crete, who wonders if it wouldn’t have been a better idea to invest the surplus in struggling industries, rather than pay down the debt. Flaherty implores him to look at the big picture – the BIG picture, he repeats – where Quebec gets a lot of money from Ottawa.

9:48:09 PM
Have I mentioned the Finance Guys yet? There are three staffers – departmental, I’m guessing, not political – sitting around that small table in front of the minister, and they’re absolutely — wait, Jim Flaherty doesn’t have a pension? That seems like a risky decision. Oh, but Sidney Crosbie has scored again, he tells the House – to much applause from Dean Del Mastro – so it’s all good.

Anyway, yeah, the Finance Guys. They’re a riot of quiet activity, flipping through binders, assembling papers, putting their heads together and whispering furiously. It’s kind of hypnotic, especially when the alternative is listening to Paul Crete rail against the fiscal imbalance.

Now his cohort, Jean LaForest, wants to know when the government plans to introduce the bill to bar the feds from encroaching on provincial jurisdiction, which, he says, is impossible. Flaherty reads a paragraph from the budget, but doesn’t give a date, and now it’s back to fiscal imbalance, so I’m going to take an open-eyed nap.

9:57:19 PM
The member for Louis-Hebert, huffs LaForest, has been annoying him with disorderly behaviour this whole time. In response, the member in question chortles merrily.

9:58:40 PM
Oh, that’s why Dean Del Mastro was here – he’s up now, and he’s asking another utterly platitudinous question, so I’m going to sneak off to post. Yes, I can still hear him – he’s talking about the need for a federal securities regulator, sniping at Ralph Goodale – “who served very briefly as finance minister” – and struggling with the pronunciation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. I just can’t give you an eye witness account of what’s going on in the background. Oh fine, I’m going back inside. Sheesh.

10:06:59 PM
Poor DDM. He seems to have accidentally reshuffled his talking points, and had to rifle through them frantically while trying to conclude his speech. Flaherty is a pro, though, and he’s ony too happy to condemn the current regime of securities regulation. I can’t say I disagree with him there.

On a happier note, we’re past the halfway point. Courage!

10:10:40 PM
Wow, the government side has really filled out. There’s Rona Ambrose, even! She gives Flaherty a big round of applause.

DDM up again. Did you know Stephane Dion hates seniors? I had no idea. This changes everything. Also – he wants to introduce a carbon tax! Does National Newswatch know about this? Is this my first COW scoop?

Another score update from Flaherty, and another shot at the Liberal carbon tax. This is my life.

10:14:38 PM
Back to the opposition, and Michael Savage, who wonders how much money, exactly, Flaherty cut from literacy programs in 2006? Flaherty doesn’t remember cutting any programs – there were reallocations and reductions, but not cuts* He then segues awkwardly to financial literacy, which is important in these trying times, what with mortgage evaluations and stuff. Wait, I thought everything was going smashingly well.

Savage notices that the Defence minister is in the House – hey, he’s right; there’s Peter – and asks whether it was he or the PM who submitted the plan for last week’s big defence spendathon announcement to Treasury Board. Ooh, a Scott Taylor shout out – Savage reads from his post-spendathon column that ran last week in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, which described how the budget spiralled to nearly $100 billion from the comparatively sleek $30 billion announced by the PM. Flaherty once again reminds the committee that he can’t breach cabinet confidences, so he is constrained from explaining how the total number was tallied.

10:21:03 PM
On to Joyce Murray, who has a question about sewage, which is probably a bad subject to bring up when everyone in this room is getting punchy. Nevertheless, she notes that it was a Liberal government that initially signed the deal for a “supposedly new” fund for the Victoria Harbour that was recently announced by the Conservatives.

Before Flaherty can get up, the chair – still Andrew Scheer – out to whom my heart is going at the moment – chides “the Finance minister’s colleagues” for heckling, and cautions them to behave.

10:24:42 PM
Confusion in the Liberal ranks – Joyce Murray doesn’t seem to realize that her round is over, and it’s David McGuinty’s turn. She eventually sits down, and McGuinty warns the minister that he has very specific questions, and would like very specific answers.

Unfortunately, his first one – which is about the transit pass plan – is too specific, and the minister can’t even hazard a guess; it was a setup, tho, for the second question, which is about whether any value for money studies have been done on the ecoTrust provincial spending agreements. Flaherty tells him to check with Environment, and that gives McGuinty the opportunity to point out that the associate deputy minister of Environment has admitted that not a single dollar can be attributed to co2 emissions. Touche!

10:29:33 PM
Breaking news! Liberals to introduce carbon tax: Flaherty

McGuinty notes that the minister is responsible for drafting a carbon pricing plan, yet isn’t able to price a single megatonne, and that seems as good a time as any for another posting run.


10:42:32 PM
I walked back in just to hear the minister — let’s guess, shall we? Explain his vision for a prosperous, sustainable Canada? Sing a show tune? Or .. reveal the shocking fact that Ben is Glory the Liberals are planning to introduce a carbon tax.

You heard it here first.

In fact, they may be doing it right now, because the only person on the opposition side of the House is the NDP’s Nathan Cullen. Hang on to your carbon, people! This is not a drill!

10:46:19 PM
Nathan Cullen is up, and he apologizes, tongue in patrician cheek, for interrupting “this Conservative infomercial” before reminding the people across the aisle that it was Brian Mulroney who ran up the biggest deficit ever before pop quizzing Flaherty on whether incomes for working families have gone up or down in the last ten years. Up? Up? Up? The government members chant jovially. Bzzzt, nope – and that’s something a “competent minister” should know.

Next question – are most jobs created in this economy part-time and temporary, or fulltime? 80% are fulltime, snips Flaherty, and he suggests that Cullen look at a graph in the most recent budget document, since it shows household incomes going up. Up! And taxes? Down!

The Liberals are starting to trickle back into the chamber, as are the Bloc. Wait, is that hockey game still going? Damn you, main estimates, for making me ask that question. I was so happy not caring.

Cullen is winding down, but has one last question: what is the average hourly salary for the manufacturing jobs lost, and the wage of the service jobs created?

Flaherty isn’t answering the question, but he’s pretending that the NDP is actually claiming that governments create jobs, and he’s – just going on and on, and I can’t even force myself to follow the tortured thread of rhetorical lollygagging going on here.

Cullen takes issue with the claim that NDP governments run deficits, and Conservatives manage money like scrupulous maiden aunts; he’s getting quite wound up, and the Tories are hooting and snarling and bellowing in return. Oh, democracy. You’re such a charmer.

10:57:30 PM
Every now and then, an MP glances up into the gallery, and notices I’m here – me, as in a human being, not me, personally – and looks shocked, alarmed and a little bit glad, all at the same time.

11:01:46 PM
Back to the Liberals: Hedy Fry, who notes that this government has broke “dozens” of promises since taking office, and asks about one of them; Flaherty answers a completely different question, and I think I could probably save my fingers some wear and tear by making that a macro. She reads more platform orphans — softwood lumber, affordable housing — and Flaherty weaves and dodges and rags the puck, and I don’t know what just got into me; I never use sports analogies since I’ve got a good chance of getting it wrong.

11:07:39 PM
My worlds are colliding – Maria Minna is asking about gender analysis in budgets, and demands to know whether the minister has taken that into account when preparing his numbers. When she heckles him, he accuses her of “chirping” and the Speaker gives her a frowning. Minna asserts that the gender analysis demonstrated that the minister’s tax cuts and savings gambits don’t help women at all, yet he chose not to listen to that advice. Flaherty dismisses the idea of a 50/50 balance, and – actually, that sort of says it all, but he goes on to claim that even if playing to the truck driver demographic helps fewer women than men, there are other measures that do. Or don’t. Or something like that.

Minna asks about the child care benefit, which – she claims – did nothing for low income women, especially single mothers, which Flaherty flatly contradicts.

11:12:05 PM
Omar Alghabra asks for the name of the highest spending finance minister in Canadian history: “Yes, I can,” says the minister. Will he admit that he is the highest spending finance minister? “Is he allowed to call me ‘he”” Flaherty wonders. (“Do a gender analysis,” someone suggests.) He is, and Flaherty finally grudgingly acknowledges that, oh, alright, yes, it’s him.

Is the minister aware, then, that his plan will make greenhouse gases go up? Insert carbon tax apocalypticia from Flaherty now; Omar, however, is trying to get him to admit that their plan will put a higher price on electricity and natural gas, and asks him what measures he has in store to help lower income Canadians.

Flaherty takes issue with the premise – “It’s John Baird’s paper!” shouts a Liberal.

“I have no idea what piece of paper he’s waving,” Flaherty replies, airily. What he does know, though, is that he won’t be bringing in a carbon tax. No, sir.

The paper, it turns out, is ‘Turning the Corner’ which was produced by the Environment Department in March 2008, and it prices carbon at $65 a tonne, according to Omar. Flaherty sulkily wonders what that has to do with estimates. He thought the opposition wanted to ask about the estimates!

11:18:33 PM
I think we’re coming to a close, because Rick Dykstra is thanking all his colleagues for showing up, and naming them, one by one, which is yet another cue for me to run the city-block length hall between the House and my desk in order to post this update.

11:34:09 PM
Okay, last stretch. I think we got started at around 7:50, so that, plus the four hours maximum allowed, times the price of carbon under the Baird scenario, carry the 5 means I’ll be home by midnight, ideally. Which is a good thing, since I’ve got to be back at 10 to liveblog three hours of Insite hearings.

Oh, the committee? Yeah, it’s the Bloc’s turn, and Jean Laforest is once again beseeching the government to help older workers, but Flaherty would rather laud the strength of the Quebec economy.

I know it’s a cliche to say I’ve heard all this before, but I swear — these are the exact same questions this MP asked last time around, although he did just get in a shot at Bernier — there used to be a minister from Beauce, he says – now there’s just a member. Flaherty, however, dismisses his ideas as “short term bandaids”. There is change in the economy, and resistance is useless.

Do you know that not a single other reporter has shown up tonight? I’m a little surprised, actually.

11:41:46 PM
Oh good, the Bombardier/Morgan Stanley “hiring blitzes” in Montreal. I’d almost forgotten about those — it’s been at least an hour since the minister mentioned it. Now, I wonder if the Liberals are planning to introduce some sort of tax on, say, carbon. Anyone know? And is that a good thing, or a bad thing?

11:45:02 PM
Wait, it’s over? Really? Really? Huh. I — have nothing left to say. I’m spent. Posting this final update, and I’m getting the heck out of this place. I’ll have actual thoughts in the morning, but for now – I’m gone. G’night, all!