Again with the shovels: Liveblogging Gov’t Ops on the stimulus package

From the witness list, it looks like the gang’s all here:  Western Economic Diversification, Human Resources, the National Research Council, along with a very special last minute political zeitgeistalicious addition: AECL executive vice-president Michael Robins, who will likely be the main target for the opposition — now freshly armed with new numbers, courtesy of CTV. That doesn’t mean the other witnesses will necessarily get off easy, though — when it comes to a multibillion dollar stimulus package, there are usually more than enough pointed questions to go around.

10:50:34 AM
Greetings, OGGOpoggos! I’m currently standing in a hallway in West Block, where a crowd is starting to form outside the doorway to 308. As is usually the case when there are multiple departments on the witness list, there are dozens of officials here to act as support/cheering sections for their respective teams. It also gives them a chance to mix and mingle, which makes for fascinating eavesdropping fodder, although it really would be a violation of all known liveblogging principles to chronicle all that candid intrabureaucrat chatter.

11:00:43 AM
Ooh, Derek Lee is in a feisty mood: He just burst in on the still disbanding and taking its sweet time to do so environment committee, and announced, to all and sundry, that their meeting was “ten minutes over”, and threatening to “gavel down”. Unfortunately, the effect is somewhat lost when, moments later, he can be heard demanding to know the whereabouts of said gavel. Just use your fist, chair. That’ll show ’em.

11:06:11 AM
“Can we get some witnesses at the table,” Lee asks, although it sounds more like an order than a request.

With that, he gavels down. Game on, bureaucrats – game on!

Lee opens the meeting by apologizing for the late start – “the environmentalists” on the last committee, he explains, run on their own clock, but he forgives them for that.

With that, it’s over to the witnesses, starting with Western Economic Diversification, and Daniel Watson, who does his best to squeeze what is likely a ten minute opening statement into 120 seconds or less, and is meant to reassure committee members that as far as *his* agency is concerned, the stimulus funding is flowing like a river, and he expects that there will be actual project announcements very soon.

11:09:51 AM
Now, over to Industry, and Kevin Lindey, who promises to answer the committee’s questions “with pleasure” after *his* opening statement, which seems to be mostly about tourism and recreation facilities, as well as broadband in remote and rural areas. Tourism programs, you will perhaps not be shocked to learn, are designed to *attract tourists to Canada*.

Also on the spending list — money for universities, research facilities, and “institutes of technology all across Canada”.

11:13:32 AM
Rob Anders Watch: No cravat, alas, but he’s doing his best to make up for the lack of fashion statement-making by meticulously ripping a handful of papers into strips.

11:17:18 AM We’ve moved onto Pat Mortimer – National Research Council – who gives a shoutout to Vote 35 – oh, don’t make me explain Vote 35 again, I beg you – which was absolutely essential to make sure that the youth programs – and other initiatives – got underway. She notes that NRC has been audited seven times in five years – and thanks Parliament for the stimulus package, and for making all her dreams come true, organizationally speaking. Aww.

11:20:03 AM
And now – AECL’s Michael Robins, who gives an excellent impression of someone whose crown corporation is not currently labouring under unparalleled scrutiny and suspicion. He even mentions Chalk River without looking down and shuffling his papers uncomfortably!

11:23:20 AM
So, as far as Robins is concerned, it’s all going according to plan. Huh. Something tells me that there may be a few questions about that.

11:26:03 AM
Finally, we hear from the “new” associate deputy ministe at Human Resources — he’d like to stress the “new” part, he tells the committee. He’s actually kind of adorably nervous – is this his first committee appearance ever? It sounds like it might be, actually — talk about a tough crowd for your parliamentary debut. Anyway, he’s going on about youth programs – the ones that his department runs, not the one that may be responsible for his appointment – as well as Canada Summer Jobs, a “very well-respected and popular program”.

11:33:00 AM That’s it for the witnesses; Derek Lee takes a moment to remind everyone why, exactly, these witnesses were invited here today; it’s all about the stimulus spending, and whether the money is, in fact, getting out the door, although he stresses that the committee isn’t suggesting that the rules shouldn’t be followed, as far as the funding process.

With that, he hands the floor over to Martha Hall Findlay, who laments the lack of examples – anecdotal or otherwise – of cheques being cut, and projects getting underway. The money that was made available through Vote 35, she notes, was supposed to be *used* before the end of April — she’d like to hear about the jobs that are being created *now*, that, in the absence of that vote, wouldn’t exist.

Lindey somewhat cautiously points out that actually, the money was supposed to be *approved* before the end of June; it can be spent throughout the rest of the year. Eventually, he admits that, as far as his department goes – Industry, in case you’ve forgotten – he doesn’t have any actual numbers to back up his contention that the “marquee tourism money” has increased attendance.

Wait, wait – MHF is confused: Is he saying that the funds weren’t for job creation, but to attract more tourists? Lindey admits that it is, although he makes the case that increased attendance means more jobs. “It sounds like that isn’t even part of the mandate,” she points out; not unreasonably, Lindey reminds her that most of the events haven’t actually happened yet.

11:41:26 AM Finally, a question for AECL — although not nearly as dripping with barely concealed scepticism as will likely face Robins’ colleagues at Natural Resources later this afternoon. Findlay asks for, and receives, a breakdown of how the millions of dollars that AECL got from the Vote 35 spending bundle – doesn’t that sound better than “slush fund”? – which seems to have been (or will be; ITQ confesses that she, too, is a teeny bit unsure whether the money has actually gone out, or is still in the mail) allotted to “decommissioning”, and isotopes.

She then gently chides Young Frank over the Canada Summer Jobs fund, which – though a worthy initiative – really doesn’t do much to combat the wave of job losses, which he tacitly acknowledges.

11:49:34 AM
Over to the Bloc Quebecois, and Diane Bourgeois, who wants to know about the balance between getting money out the door quickly while still making sure that it’s all spent wisely. Young Frank goes third, after Robins and a steadily encrankifying Lindsey (yes, there’s an S — I couldn’t see it behind his microphone before), and assures her that there are safeguards in place.

11:57:09 AM Finally, Team Government is up – those softball questions aren’t going to ask themselves, guys – and Patrick Brown takes the lead; he asks Lindsey something about research and technology funding, and the jobs that are being created, and how even Liberal ministers (provincial ones, anyway) are dazzled by how swiftly the money is being spent, although he phrases it in a way that makes it sound less like a drunken sailor on shore leave.

Lindsey obliges him with tales of various Vote 35 successes, including the onomatapeica RINC program — which builds hockey rinks – RINKS! Get it? Get it?? – as well as recreational facilities that aren’t featured in Tim Horton’s commercials. I mean, I’m assuming.

Oh, Brown also takes this opportunity to do a little cleanup on that “marquee event funding” — Lindsey doesn’t say anything new, so it was pretty much a wasted effort, but it didn’t *hurt*.

12:03:55 PM
On to Pat Martin, who is still a bit retroactively apprehensive – yes, another word for that would be “regretful” – over Vote 35; he notes that, despite the cheerful assertion from AECL that nuclear power is a safe, efficient form of energy, he doesn’t agree – he thinks it’s dirty, and risky, and – Chalk River! But even if he *was* a fan of nukes, how, he wonders, does handing over millions of dollars to the embattled nuclear industry get money into the hands of ordinary Canadians?

12:08:17 PM Young Frank – my apologies to Young Frank for the moniker, but I can’t see his nameplate, and have forgotten in which order the vowels in his last name go – gamely tries to take on Martin’s contention that much of the praise for Vote 35 has been “incomprehensible gobbledygook”, and does his best to reassure him, but within less than a minute, he ends up arguing over whether most of the money being spent on training, for instance, is coming out of the employment insurance fund, which has nothing to do with the stimulus package at all. Martin eventually drops the pretence of asking questions, and simply lectures the witness – and the committee, and really, everyone else too – on how it might have had a more direct impact on the lives of individual Canadians if we’d just handed out a $1,000 bill to every man, woman and child – although, he notes, only Karlheinz Schreiber still uses those.

12:15:14 PM
Sukh Dhaliwal also wants to know more about job creation; specifically, jobs created in Western Canada. Watson rises to the occasion, and assures him that the department is asking participating companies to make commitments *in writing* as part of the application process.

12:18:33 PM
Dhaliwal is not about to be fobbed off on Statistics Canada, which is what Watson seemed to be trying to do, at least as far as specific numbers on job creation. Eventually, he – Watson, that is – tells Dhaliwal that they’re still going through applications, which does not appear to satiate his hunger for hard data.

12:20:36 PM
Over to the BQ once again, and Bourgeois, who goes on for a time about how she sympathizes with the various departments charged with making sure the money gets out the door, but at the same time, she just understand how tourism leads to job creation, and, more broadly, how this stimulus package is actually helping Canadians. An awkward silence ensues as the witnesses try to figure out which one is on the hook for her question; eventually, Lindsey steps up to deliver, once again, his argument on how more tourists means more jobs.

12:26:25 PM
Wasn’t Jacques Gourde considered one of the Conservatives’ Quebec stars? Or at least diamonds in the rough? He was a parliamentary secretary, even, although I think that was mostly so he could field questions on supply management. Anyway, he prompts Pat Mortimer to talk up the National Research Council’s various initiatives, particularly those targeted at young graduates, which she does with obvious enthusiasm.
“For some of these firms, it’s the first time they’ve had a scientist or engineer, and they’ve had no idea how useful they can be” she expounds, somewhat puzzlingly, because — really, why would a firm that doesn’t normally hire scientists start doing just because of an intern program? Are these scientists actually doing – you know, science-y things?

12:31:30 PM
Martha Hall Findlay is back up; she wants to know more about that $82 million earmarked for rural broadband – when and how will it be spent?

Lindsey does his best to keep his answer vague and forward-looking, but Findlay gently pushes him off his talking points; she appreciates that it’s a complex question, but she’d like to know whether that money is going to private companies, and is just the tiniest bit uncertain about the use of the word “development” in the description for that particular item in the estimates. Lindsey eventually is forced to acknowledge that private companies *do* know who they serve, but reminds her that they *don’t* know who they don’t serve, which is like the bureaucratic version of a Zen koan, I guess. That’s where some of the money will go, it seems — finding out what regions are still languishing in the land of dial-up connections.

Taking the floor for Team Government, Chris Warkentin actually does a better job than Lindsey of lauding the rural broadband program, which then tangents off into a process question for Watson, who would like to remind us all that the Financial Administration Act prohibits him from passing out cheques all willynilly, or to promise money without having explicit authority to spend it. Thanks to Vote 35, though, he was able to make “I promise” commitments, and – oh, just trust me (or rather him) – it was a lifesaver.

12:49:35 PM
Another exchange on employment insurance between Bourgeois — I know, it seems like she’s had more questions than anyone else – and Young Frank before she shifts her attention back to Robins, and AECL.

Exactly how many new jobs will be created as a result of the Vote 35 cash? Approximately 150 at AECL itself, and another 150 within the community.

12:52:27 PM
Another attempt by Team Government to turn what they seem to think could be the headline out of this meeting — FESTIVAL FUNDING FAILS TO FIX FISCAL MESS! or something like that, I’m guessing. This time, Warkentin takes the baton, and asks whether Lindsey can provide any numbers on how increased tourism promotion will at least stave off losses, particularly international visitors, which, sadly, he cannot — not today, at least; he’ll look into it, and get back to the committee.

12:55:36 PM
Derek Lee brings things to a confusing close with a question about leadership — specifically, from whom did the respective departmental spokespeople receive the order to go forth, and spend stimulus funding. Was it the minister? The deputy minister? “Did anyone say ‘get out the lead, and get this money into the pipeline’?” Watson credits his minister – wise decision – and Lee then points to the next witness in line, who happens to be Lindsey.

Conservative Paul Calandra – who, unless I missed it, didn’t ask a single question – grumbles that he has another meeting to attend. The chair points out that he hasn’t finished his question, but Calandra – and Patrick Brown – bustles off anyway.

Meanwhile, back at committee, everyone seems to be pointing to their respective deputy ministers as the souece of the lead-getting out edict, although Robins claims he got a phone call from a director general at Natural Rsources. (Colleague Akin and I assume he meant ‘deputy minister’, because – really, a DG?)

That’s it for the meeting — and for ITQ’s attention span, what with her ill-considered decision to skip breakfast, which is now bordering on lunch. See you back here this afternoon for Natural Resources!