Because we haven’t seen nearly enough of John Baird lately: Liveblogging the Government Operations committee

Everyone’s favourite Minister of Shovel Readiness will be talking stimulus, of course – I’m guessing he probably does in his sleep at this point – and will, ITQ predicts, be facing a lot of very pointed questions about that $3 billion how-dare-you-suggest-it’s-a-slush fund.

Oh, and there’s also a vote on various odds and ends in Main Estimates – the GG, Privy Council, that sort of thing – and rumour has it that after that’s out of the way, Pat Martin will be presenting a potentially incendiary motion.

11:02:47 AM
Wow, Derek Lee is rarin’ to go — the last meeting ran long (thank goodness, since that gave me enough time to scamper from West to Centre) but he’s very anxious to get this show on the road, which explains the rapidfire tippity-tapping of the gavel before the meeting is underway. Which it is as of now, and after a very brief introduction, he hands the floor over to the minister.

11:06:53 AM
Minister Baird, that is, who tells the committee that he understands that the federal government doesn’t “hold the shovel” – it’s in the hands of the provinces and municipalities – but Ottawa is nevertheless ready with truckloads of cash.

11:09:42 AM

Good news! If you wanted to sum up this entire opening statement in one largely meaningless phrase, that’d do it.

Luckily, Baird is surprisingly succinct, and opens the floor to questions in surprisingly short order.

11:11:09 AM
Cue Dan McTeague, who brings up the McCallum motion – which would require the government to provide information on exactly how the $3 billion in immediately available funding will be spent, and which Baird claims not to have yet seen, although he reminds McTeague that there are *other* parties – provincial parties – that have to be consulted before the money starts to flow.

McTeague, oddly, does not seem reassured — the minister *must* have some idea where the money is going to be spent, he notes. “Where is the money going?”

11:15:10 AM
Baird and McTeague have lapsed into what ITQ suspects is an entirely mutually satisfying exchange of talking points – Baird repeats various good newsisms from his opening statement and McTeague uses phrases like “blank cheque”. It works beautifully for everyone. Well, except the liveblogger, who prefers more variety.

11:20:12 AM
Ding! That’s it for McTeague – well, the first round, anyway – and the spotlight shifts to the Bloc’s Jean LaFramboise, who also wants to know how the money will flow, and Baird reminds him that municipalities are governed by provinces, and assures him that he’s working hard to conduct intergovernmental relations, which isn’t easy, by the way. Isn’t that why there is ostensibly a minister dedicated to *exactly that job*? (Yes, I had to think for thirty seconds before I could remember who it was, but I bet I’m not alone.)

Anyway, Laframboise notes that there are projects that have been waiting for months – years – to get underway, so — what’s the holdup? Baird makes sounds of optimistic industry, but Laframboise accuses him of blaming Quebec. Hey, I didn’t notice that, but he sort of is! Just like with McTeague, he was using “his premier” — McGuinty — as an excuse to not provide spending specifics! It’s like provinces are both a sword *and* a shield.

11:27:10 AM
Something the minister is *not* planning to do with Quebec (or any other province, presumably): Spend two years establishing a framework agreement. There’s just no time for that sort of frivolry in These Economic Times.

11:29:30 AM
And taking the first slot for the government is — Jacques Gourde, who isn’t even going to pretend that he’s asking insightful, hard-hitting questions. In one, he simply asks the minister to “make some comments” on how this is important and necessary and will help communities.

11:33:40 AM
Okay, even for a sycophantic-MP-on-minister duet, this is just embarrassing. I don’t actually understand what they think reading a series of press releases into the record actually achieves. I don’t think *Baird* is even listening to himself at this point.

11:36:56 AM
And over to the NDP’s Pat Martin, whose motion may not make it to the table today, alas – and it’s too bad, because it would have the Parliamentary Budget Officer brief the committee on the alleged lack of parliamentary oversight over the $3 billion fund.

Anyway, he wonders about the projects across the country that are “low-hanging fruit” — what about projects where the hole is in the ground, the shovels are in mid air? Wouldn’t that be the perfect opportunity for the government to step in? Well, yes and no, says Baird — he doesn’t want to put in money just so that another funding partner can pull out, since that wouldn’t create a single new job. “We don’t really know what the rules are,” muses Martin, who wonders how you even *apply* for money under this fund. This is a far less aggressive line of questioning than I would have expected from the NDP.

11:43:57 AM
Okay, guess who is sitting behind me? An avuncularly chuckling Lloyd Axworthy! I thought I was imagining things, but the chair just noted his presence for the record.

Back to committtee, where Martha Hall Findlay wants to know if Baird has a list of projects. Does he have a list? Does he? Does he? He tries to counter her with a few of the already-announced projects, but she wants to know whether those will be funded by the $3 billion, which he won’t say.

Okay, now that he rather unwisely answered in the affirmative – yes, I have a list, he said, will he share it? He’ll share the MetroLink proposal, but she wants the list. Will he table it?

Baird is obviously getting testy, because he points out that it comes down to confidence in the government – and the Liberals have voted confidence 61 times.”You can’t be a little bit pregnant!” He tells MHF. “You have a big decision to make!” No, she says, “we *all*” – Parliament, that is – “have a big decision to make” – and the minister is apparently refusing to share his secret list with the rest of the House.

Yeah, you know that sinking feeling you get when you realize we may actually be on the verge of a snap election? I think every single person in this room just experienced it. Who needs geese walking over your grave when you have John Baird daring Martha Hall Findlay to vote down the government.

11:54:12 AM
Just five more minutes with the minister, and Laframboise continues to obsess over who will decide how the money gets spent in Quebec.

11:57:12 AM
Back to the government side, and Patrick Brown is likely going to be the last person to get a crack at the minister himself, since he’ll be leaving momentarily. The chair notes that his officials *will* be sticking around, but I doubt that will lead to the sort of tension-infused standoff that we just saw between Baird and Hall Findlay.

Wait, did Patrick Brown just say something about “oompa loompas”? Man, I always start to get a bit punchy by the end of a doubleheader.

12:01:06 PM
Apparently, being obliged to work with the provinces constitutes an accountability mechanism. You don’t know what monkeyshines a government could get up to with $3 billion if not for those nosy provinces.

Meanwhile, Team Treasury Board has rolled in just in time for the next item on the agenda, and is now currently cooling its collective heels in the spectator section.

12:05:35 PM
And – reboot. Out with the minister, in with the bureaucrats; specifically, Alister Smith, Kelly Gillis, Brian Pagan and Dan Danagher. They’re here to give the committee a bit more background on the stimulus package. “Sounds like a lot of expertise,” notes the chair before handing the floor over to Gillis, who is the assistant secretary at corporate services, and gives — you guessed it, an overview on Vote 35 under the Main Estimates, which is the $3 billion we now fee that we know so well, and also love.

12:13:13 PM
And – questions! McTeague is up first again, and he asks about her reference to this as a “unique” vote; Roberts fields that one, and notes that it is, well, unique – the money involved would have to be spent by the end of June, and it’s a one-time deal. He also tries to reassure McTeague that Baird’s Secret List notwithstanding, all due diligence will be conducted, although that does involve after-the-fact auditing.
McTeague asks him, point blank: Does anyone know where the money is going? The answer is — actually, I can’t tell what the answer is, and MHF takes over the questioning. She really just wants to know where the money is going, as do all parliamentarians – and the minister, “after prodding”, has admitted that he *does* have a “long list” of projects “ready to go”.

Oh, how uncomfortable a situation this must be for these poor bureaucrats. To paraphrase Yes, Minister, one ministerial committee appearance can undo years of careful planning.

Anyway, Roberts tries to get philosophical; any “list” that existed would still have to go through the full approval process.

12:20:56 PM
According to Roberts, the important period is the one between April 1st and June 30th, but MHF just doesn’t get why we don’t know where the money is going to go when it is scheduled to start flowing in just a few weeks. Roberts explains that all the projects will have been listed under the budget; he just doesn’t want to guess. Don’t make him guess, y’all.

12:22:31 PM
Okay, onto the Bloc Quebecois’ Diane Bourgeois, who wants to know more about the vote – is it the same as Vote 5, or different? That would probably be easier to follow if she’d give a little bit more background on what these reports *are*, because most of us don’t know what every nunber corresponds to by heart.

The items *must* be budget initiatives, Roberts reminds the committee.

12:26:41 PM
You know, someone really ought to put together a Schoolhouse Rock-inspired cartoon that explains the estimates process. Mains! Supps! Votes!

12:28:54 PM
Meanwhile, Bourgeois warns that one can’t confuse the Building Canada Fund with the $3 billion stimulus package, and Roberts doesn’t disagree, but he argues that there’s really no reason why the money *shouldn’t* be made available as soon as possible.

12:30:37 PM
Chris Warkentin, everybody! He wants to make sure that there are no misunderstandings coming out of this meeting involving this silly business about a so-called “blank cheque”, when every cent of the $3 billion has to be spent on projects that have already been announced in the budget. Ministers can’t suddenly decide to spend it all on, say, “golf balls with members’ names on them” and there is *no way* that isn’t a shot at the Liberals. Anyway, Roberts obediently confirms his thesis, and Warkentin wonders if this will be enough for Martha Hall Findlay, who has already voted in favour of the budget, and consequently, all such projects.

12:40:07 PM
Back to Pat Martin, who points to the long record of past auditors general expressing “grave concern” over the Vote 5 process, and wonders whether *this* auditor general has expressed similar views about this vote; Roberts will state only that she ‘has been consulted’; he declines to give any further information about what she said, and Martin muses that perhaps *she* should be called as a witness. Anyway, he really doesn’t like the fact that the Prime Minister, among others, is giving Canadians the impression that this fund has the AG’s “seal of approval” when we don’t know what she said, and Roberts — isn’t really much help.

12:47:34 PM
The chair notes – somewhat reluctantly, it’s fair to say – that they’re nearly out of time; apparently the committee after this one makes them vacate the room a bit before the top of the hour, so he puts the two members who still have questions – MHF and Laframboise – on notice that the time limit is now two minutes and thirty seconds, which will be strictly enforced.

She — doesn’t really manage to meet the deadline but *does* drive the chair crazy with her stubborn insistence on preambling – prerambling, really, not that she’s the worst offender – but the upshot is that she wants to know how due diligence will be applied; the chair, meanwhile, wants to know how Parliament will be notified that the money has been spent. A notice to the House? A statement by the minister? A breathless press release? A photo op involving the PM demonstrating his skill with a nail gun? Sadly, none of the above, but it will be reported in supplementary estimates – both A and B – as well as those quarterly reports to Parliament.

12:53:13 PM
And — we’re out of here, y’all! Well, after Rob Anders finishes his usual whine about the very existence of the steering committee — he doesn’t need other meetings in his life — which gets its usual response. At which point the chair finally brings down the gavel and sends us scampering into the hall. Whee!