Hey, remember that $3 billion “slush fund” that almost triggered an election? Liveblogging Vic Toews at Govt Ops

Anyone else getting a creeping sense of deja vu from the description of today’s meeting? I swear I’ve liveblogged this before, although last time, it was John Baird assuring the opposition that there was no need to pester the government for details on Vote 35, or, more specifically, the $3 billion in short-order stimulicious spending goodness with which it would shower the land. I guess we’ll find out how that went, huh?  And aren’t you glad we’re past the era of empty bluster and don’t-push-me-on-this-I-swear-I’ll-turn-this-Parliament-around-and-go-home brinksmanship?

Check back at noon – yes, noon, they’re spending the first hour in camera – for full liveblogging coverage.

11:41:22 AM
And still more deja vu — I’m *sure* I’ve sat disconsolately in front of this very same closed committee room door in the past, although really, when you venture into the bowels of West Block, it really *is* a series of twisty little passages, all alike. I’m not alone out here, at least — not by a long shot — although the minister has yet to make an appearance, there are a half dozen civil servants of varying degrees of visible stressedness huddled by the wall; I’m almost positive I’ve liveblogged at least a few of them during past infrastructurecentric committee meetings, but it’s so hard to associate names with faces when you get stuck sitting behind the witnesses.

Anyway, there’s some rather tense and self-conscious banter going on between the members of what I assume is the designated Toews greek chorus, but I’ll spare you the details. Gotta save something for the parry and thrust of the floor debate, right?

11:50:19 AM
Hey, there’s Minister Toews – who just wandered past the assembled masses without saying a word to any of us, accompanied by his entourage – yes, still more people; they’re going to run out of chairs at this point. The entourage, of course, was summarily ejected from the room — only Members are allowed to burst in on an in camera meeting without being invited — and are now standing out here, yet somewhat emphatically apart, at a safe distance from the rest of us.

11:58:26 AM
And we’re in! All of us — including the Hill Times and ITQ, who are apparently the only members of the media to make it all the way to West Block.

The chair – Derek Lee – opens the meeting by introducing the minister and his left- and right-hand staffers, Kelly Gillis and Alister Smith. Lee notes that Toews has been here before on the same issue – and notes that the committee *also* has a new member; Judy Foote, who will be representing the Liberals. I wonder if that’s a promotion, or if someone has been bumped up to a more glamourous committee. (More glam than GovtOps? Impossible to imagine, I know.)

Anyway, Toews has an opening statement, of course – they’re moving with “unprecedented speed”, but don’t confuse that with “spending like drunken and probably Liberal sailors”; he gives a shoutout to Vote 35, which gives the government the power to extend “short term bridge financing” before the full stimulus package goes online, and – wait, why do they even need the emergency short-order fund now? Wasn’t this more relevant back in March, when the opposition demanded that the government explain how it planned to spend the money, and the government petulantly refused to do so for no particular reason, and we almost wound up with an election?

Meanwhile, Toews is lauding the “rigorous” approval and review policies, which are achieving “real results for Canadians”.

12:07:48 PM
Toews wraps up his “formal comments”; before moving onto questions, Lee wonders whether Toews has any idea when he plans to bring forward the June spending report, to which he made glancing reference in his opening remarks, which leads to a pointed bit of back and forth between the chair and the minister: All Toews is willing to say is that it will be before June 23, which doesn’t seem to satisfy Lee; he points out that it has to be before the House rises, or it “won’t really matter” — it will to Canadians, says a beatific and slightly sniffy Toews.

Eventually, Lee relents and hands the floor over to Martha Hall Findlay, who wants to know why it seems to be taking so very long for the money to make it to the various projects that have been promised support. Toews reminds her that the government has been making announcements – which is inargauble – and tells Hall Findlay – who only has five minutes for his round, so will not put up with rambling – that Baird – who is, of course, the Infrastructure Czar – is taking the unprecedented step of releasing money before receipts have even been received. When Toews tries to equivocate, she interrupts him – politely, but unrelentingly: She’d just like to know how much money has been spent, thanks. Toews argues that without Vote 35, *none* of the money would have been spent; as for specific numbers, she’ll have to go to the various departments to get her answer.

12:17:46 PM
The Bloc’s Diane Bourgeois is similarly sceptical — she wants to know how, exactly, Vote 35 has “helped families”, and calls for a strategic review of the results that will be available next month, which seems — ambitious. Anyway, Toews points out again that the fact that any money is flowing at all is thanks to Vote 35, and then plunges into an intimidatingly technical explanation of the allocation process. Eventually, Alister Smith takes over; he notes that there is a difference between new spending and a “topoff” for existing departmental budgets.

Bourgeois wonders how the minister can assert that deputy ministers have sufficient resources to hire staff when, she suggests, so much of that work is being farmed out to private companies. Toews assures her that this is done through the official, approved contracting process.

12:24:35 PM
And now, Five Minutes with Jacques Gourde. I’ll let you know if he asks any questions that don’t just give the minister an opportunity to relive the highlights of his prepared statement. Why doesn’t Rob Anders ever get to take the first slot? That seems so unfair, somehow.

Oh, according to Toews, the deadlines were so tight that they wouldn’t have been able to spend a single loonie until *December*. Once again, he delivers a rousing hurrah for Vote 35. Gourde, meanwhile, is nodding enthusiastically along with the minister.

12:28:48 PM
“The operations of government are a mystery to Canadians,” begins the NDP’s Pat Martin — even to members of this committee, and Vote 35 is, of course, even more mysterious; he wonders what the “fast track emergency” was that resulted in millions of dollars going to “maintain” the Chalk River nuclear plant. Toews again argues that some of these projects might have fallen between the ways and means gaps, but Martin reminds *him* that opposition MPs were told that Vote 35 was absolutely essential to get the infrastructure money out the door – which he refers to as “nearly unprecedented”. In response, Toews brings up the “Liberal sponsorship slush fund” as an example of what this *wasn’t*, and seems to get frustrated all over again at the memory of all those allegations being thrown around. Martin, however, is adamant that the “pitch” to pass Vote 35 hinged on the economic crisis, and wonders, again, how Chalk River fit into that definition; Toews gives the same explanation – gaps, falling, missing the Supps. I think this exchange has now officially gone circular.

12:35:31 PM
Basically, as Toews sees it, it’s *all* part of the overall stimulus plan — bricks on houses, Chalk River; money is money, and it all leads to spinoffs. Not surprisingly, Judy Foote finds this a curious shift; like Martin, she, too, has a clear recollection of how the opposition was persuaded to go along with the government on Vote 35, and it was all about the stimulus package. Which, to be fair, is how ITQ remembers it too, but apparently – at least, according to Toews, that is – spending $200 million and change to boost the Canada Revenue Agency’s ability to implement new tax measures is just as stimulating as building a bridge. Also, again – this is not the sponsorship program, and really, if I were him, I would stop inviting comparisons where few currently exist. Yet.

12:41:16 PM
It’s interesting how Toews keeps suggesting that the committee ask *other* ministers about the money — Baird, Finley, not Paradis yet, which is too bad, since he’s the only one slated to appear on this very issue within the next few days. Anyway, the Bloc Quebecois’ Jean Roy makes it unanimous, as far as the opposition’s collective recollection of the Vote 35 goes: He, too, believed that it was all about the stimulus package. Toews – who is getting a teensy bit frustrated – gives the same explanation: Without that vote, none of that shovellable money could have been released.

Toews assures the committee that “all of their questions will be answered” – not right this minute, but soon; the first report, he reminds them, will be tabled in June. Somehow the chair restrains himself from once again pressing the minister for a date.

12:47:40 PM
Ooh! Rob Anders has ‘disturbing quotes’ that he wants the minister to explain! This could be juicy, y’all!

Oh wait. It’s just a bunch of the same Ignatieff quotes that keep finding their way into Conservative talking points, SO 31s and ministerial responses in the House. That was disappointing.

Actually, Toews seems ever so slightly annoyed by the question — not that he can’t give the expected reply, mind you — and doesn’t deliver a stream of consciousness anti-Ignatieff diatribe in reply. He does dismiss the idea of raising taxes, and he actually agrees with one of the *other* quotes – something about working with the provinces – which Anders put forward to contrast with the questions coming from the Liberals today.

12:54:05 PM
One more five minute round for Martha Hall Findlay, who asks the minister to confirm that nothing has been allocated to increase support for employment insurance processing, which — seems to take him by surprise; he looks to the busily-binder-flipping Smith, who is already on the case, and notes that the department already receives a certain amount of money to administer EI. Smith starts to read out the section of his notes that detail increased funding for training, and Hall Findlay cuts him off; she wants to know how much is being put into the EI system, what with the increased pressure. Again, Toews invites her to ask the associated minister for the specific numbers — it would come out of the EI fund, he seems to be saying, not through Vote 35.

Finally, she challenges the minister to name a single *new* project that has actually broken ground — new, she stresses, not “cannibalized” from past announcements — and Toews assures her that money is being spent. Well, that’s a safe bet.

And – wow. As the minister left the room – no doubt relieved to have a previous engagement preventing him from staying for another round – I automatically rose in my place. Clearly, I’m still a little bit Ol-institutionalized.

That’s all for the moment — and if I hurry, I may just be able to make it to the House for Question Period. It’s been far too long.

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