Jim Flaherty and the Chamber of Secrets Sober Second Thought: Liveblogging the Senate National Finance committee

Just when we thought the budget debate was drawing to a close, the Senate starts making noises about actually wanting to do its job rather than simply break out the rubber stamp and send it on its merry, economy-boosting way. Honestly, the nerve of those guys.

9:08:12 AM
You know, I’d forgotten how much more civilized it is over here on the Senate side of the street, at least as far as committee rooms go — not only are there fancy microphones and a full selection of audio and video feeds for the electronic media, but a live closed circuit feed from the floor streaming live to the viewing gallery via flatscreen TV. It’s also considerably livelier than your typical House committee room at the moment; when I got here, there were already staffers – committee, political, ministerial – swarming the table like hummingbirds and a full phalanx of cameras and boom mics lying in wait for the minister, who swanned in a few minutes later, full entourage – of course – intact.

Anyway, while I was typing that, the meeting actually did get underway; the chair – Joseph Day – is currently running down the ground rules for new or forgetful committee members: keep your questions short, that sort of thing.

Oh, and he just asked the minister if he’d be “amenable” to splitting the bill into at least two parts – one that would include only the stimulus package, the other those potentially contentious ‘non-budgetary items’ like the proposed changes to the pay equity system. I’m guessing the answer to that is going to be no, possibly even with a “Hell” in front of it for emphasis, but we’ll see.
9:17:57 AM
And here’s the minister, who reminds us, once again, that these are “extraordinary times” and he’s being extraordinarily impatient with the Senate already — he wants this budget passed right now, this minute. No “going on spring break”. Now.

9:20:25 AM
Well, that was pretty stark: Flaherty reminded the committee – particularly Day, who was apparently around at the time – that the then-Liberal government brought in a budget that amended just as many extraneous acts and statutes – and it wasn’t even a crisis of extraordinary nature and proportion like this one!

“I say with respect that this is vitally important for Canada,” the minister says before once *again* stressing the need to pass the budget now, without delay, no dillydallying. “The elected House of Commons has overwhelmingly approved” of this bill, he reminds them. Really, I don’t think this is the best tactic if he actually wants to get the Senate to act quickly; senators don’t tend to react well to being threatened, directly or indirectly. It’s more ceding the battle as far as policy goes, and moving straight to the public relations war.

9:27:04 AM
Senator Terry Stratton is fiddling with his BlackBerry, but other than that, the minister seems to be commanding the full and undivided attention of both the government and opposition sides of the table, although possibly for different reasons. Grant Mitchell – a Liberal; a Liberal from Alberta, no less, which means there are at least three “senators-in-waiting” offended by his very existence – anyway, he’s dutifully taking notes. Senator Irving Gerstein – yes, the one who almost but not quite made an appearance before Ethics during Camp In and Out – is wearing a truly spectacular tie – black with green polka dots, but much more interesting than that sounds.

9:31:31 AM
Flaherty has letters from frantic Canadians – more than 2,000, he said earlier in his statement – and, while he won’t identify them by name, he wants senators to consider the plight facing those who may not be able to pay rent or buy food for their families. Once again, he reminds the Senate that the Liberals in the House understood the importance of this bill – that’s why they made sure to pass if quickly.

9:33:25 AM
Day seems curiously unmoved by Flaherty’s speech, and asks him again if he’d be willing to split the bill; the budget, the minister tells him, is not severable, no matter what certain senators might think.

9:35:30 AM
And – questions! Starting with the aforementioned Grant Mitchell, who, with deceptive mildness, wonders why this government can only get its agenda through by using “trickery”. The minister, he points out, claimed in his opening statement that unemployed workers could very much use that extra five weeks of EI coverage *right now*, which, Mitchell points out, is ridiculous; it would apply at the end, not the beginning. Finance official Yves Giroux takes issue with that and tells him that it would apply to any claimant currently receiving support, but Mitchell argues that the majority of people who will need it haven’t yet lost their jobs, since the worst of the downturn has yet to come.

Mitchell also wonders why the pay equity measures have to be in the budget, and the minister reminds him that several provinces — including some that aren’t Conservative-governed – have brought in similar systems. Not sure who won that round.

Flaherty insists the current pay equity system is woefully inadequate, but Mitchell is unconvinced; he moves to a new issue, however, and demands to know why he should trust the minister’s judgment now when he insisted as late as last October that there was no crisis, and that Canada would escape the recession. Flaherty gets a bit tetchy in response — crystal balls are mentioned — and once again warns the Senate not to “go on holidays” before passing the budget.

9:42:39 AM
If the government wants its stimulus package through by the end of the week, that’s fine, says Eggleton — the problem is everything else with which he has encumbered the bill. “We’re going to examine this, and examine it in pretty good time,” he tells the minister.

9:45:26 AM
Flaherty unconvincingly tells Eggleton that he’s “glad to hear” that the committee will be working next week, and not “going on vacation”, because he’s not glad at all; that means he can’t keep accusing of them of wanting to do so.

Also, Art Eggleton has a lot of opinions on employment insurance – to the point that the luckless Giroux has been brought back to explain it to him. The senator wonders why the government didn’t increase benefits, and quizzes Flaherty about retraining until he runs out of time.

9:49:46 AM
Liberal Senator Pierre Ringuette begins her round by telling the minister that she has letters too, oh yes she does – and she plans to read them too. First, however, she wants the minister to point out in the budget exactly where the arts funding is – specifically, that odd contest thing that went over so very badly in Quebec.

The minister plays for time while flipping through the document – which, in fairness, is like three inches thick when you stack all the various booklets and bills together. That seems to mollify her momentarily, but – oh, no, it didn’t; she wants more details on the planned infrastructure spending now.

9:54:37 AM
Oh, she wants information on past infrastructure spending as well — just to make sure it was used wisely, I guess – and this sends Flaherty off on an ever so slightly sanctimonious tirade about how this is about stimulus spending, not infrastructure, and the interim money that is so very much needed – we promised our G20 colleagues that we’d have it, and, well, tick tick tick. She chides him for being so “aggressive”, and reminds him that these are not unreasonable questions.

9:56:35 AM
In the midst of an awkward segue to the question of dirty oil and the Navigable Waters Act, Ringuette manages to not become the first person to invoke the O-name by noting that “we had a short visit from a very important visitor”. In response, Flaherty — once again — stresses the need to ACT NOW DON’T DELAY, but Ringuette wants him to give a yes or no answer: does this – the budget, presumably – have anything to do with the Mackenzie Pipeline? No, the minister explains. It’s — a budget bill.

10:03:31 AM
Consiglio di Nino – a Conservative – gives Flaherty the opportunity to address some of the more contentious claims about the bill, specifically regarding environmental assessment – which will still happen, Flaherty assures everyone – and project dire-ish fates for the various shovel-extra-ready projects that are anxiously awaiting money to proceed.

10:07:43 AM
Senator from Pakenham Lowell Murray, everyone, who begins by musing that “it takes a lot of nerve” for the minister to come in and start threatening the Senate over timing when it was he who lost two months to prorogation, and “trying to dig yourself out”. But that’s in the past; he does, however, seem to agree with Day that the minister doesn’t need this budget right now — he needs the stimulus package.

Oh, and if he were still a permanent member of this committee, he’d move a motion right now to take the stimulus portion of the bill to clause by clause, pass it this morning and have it back in the House by nightfall.

10:12:12 AM
Oooh, interesting — did we know this already? Apparently, the expert advisory panel – you remember, the one that he appointed last fall, headed up by Carole Taylor – anyway, they didn’t actually submit a written report to the minister; the recommendations were oral. Were there notes, Murray demands. Well, some people might have taken notes, the minister allows, but — anyway, after a few more exchanges along those lines, Murray tells him that he wants to see just what this panel recommended, even if in unofficial note form. Flaherty suggests that they could call Taylor as a witness, but Murray waves that off — they’ll ask the department, or go through Access to Information, he says.

Pssst, Senator! You’re a committee of Parliament – you have subpoena power, which is far more efficient than ATI.

10:16:30 AM
Okay, that was my first experience with Irving Gerstein, and – wow. First of all, the tie is actually green with white polka dots, not black – and the minister was apparently a fan too, because he mentioned it. Also, he sounds like Hugh Segal on helium, and was near bursting with pride and self-satisfaction at his ability to read his almost cartoonishly sycophantic question, which had something to do with how much better the situation in Canada is to that of the US.

10:19:30 AM
Alright, the minister has to go, apparently, but ITQ has no such competing obligation, and will be here for the second half, wherein the affable Ted Menzies attempts to hold off the ravening horde as his minister makes his escape.

10:21:42 AM
An interesting bit of potentially crucial administrivia came up as the minister was packing up — apparently, the Senate needs to give permission for the committee to meet for more than two hours twice a week, which hasn’t happened yet; one senator – not sure who it was; there was much confusion as the minister was leaving, what with the scrums and the exodus of most of his officials – predicted that it will take at least forty hours of “preliminary work”, but that sounds bluffy. Oh, also, Gerstein pledged to be here “with [his] sleeping bag” as long as the Liberals are ready to work.

Also, you’ve no idea how grumbly the other Conservatives look whenever Murray starts causing trouble; it’s aggravated – or enhanced, if you’re a spectator without any particular vested interest – by the fact that he sits on the same side as the other Conservatives, although on this issue, he’s definitely on Team Opposition. He should swap seats with Consiglio Di Nino, who is stuck on the other side with the Liberals for some reason.

10:26:54 AM
Robert Neufeld – one of the new kids – gives a long and rambly preamble about the many excellent measures in the budget, which really does have to be passed quickly, and then throws Menzies a lazy, open-ended gimme about tax breaks.

10:30:25 AM
Menzies points out that the Navigable Waters Act is actually a little bit wildly anachronistic, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering that it was first drafted in 1882, and many of the proposed changes are related to things like the invention of electricity. One provision would require that docks have lighting — back in 1882, this just wasn’t even conceivable. He makes good points — so many of them that he uses up the rest of Neufeld’s time.

10:34:23 AM
A brief interruption in testimony as Senators Stratton and Day argue over whether the committee already has permission to sit extended hours – Stratton initially insists that it does, and almost seems to be accusing Day of some sort of nefarious plot by feigning otherwise, but it eventually transpires that he has the permission of the whips, but not the Senate. So there!

10:36:38 AM
Neufeld asks Menzies to confirm that the Liberals in the House voted *in favour* of the bill, which he does.

“Thank you, Senator Menzies,” Day says, before correcting himself amid the resulting laughter. Hey, the Senate could do far worse as far as I can see. Menzies also lauds the role of Liberal Finance critic John McCallum, with whom he was in constant contact over the holiday break.

10:41:07 AM
Where is Colleague Wells when Nancy Ruth needs him? The senator – a Conservative – asks Menzies to explain the link between infrastructure and other stimulus spending and the needs of Canada’s researchers, and Menzies notes that the government consulted with the community, and they told the minister that money was desperately needed to maintain and restore existing buildings and facilities.

Like a cat, Day pounces on a loose string unraveled by Ruth and notes that the passage from the budget related to research spending quoted by the senator includes many variables – “if”, “may”, “up to” – which prompts one of the remaining Finance officials to leap to the parliamentary secretary’s side: Erin O’Brien, a stridently no-nonsense brunette in blue who is, apparently, chief of microeconomic policy. She tells the committee that the program in question will be managed by Industry Canada, which is still negotiating the details.

10:50:12 AM
You know, Flaherty should really have come down with the ministerial equivalent of the diplomatic flu and let Menzies carry the day here; he – Menzies, that is – seems to have a much better sense of how to handle inquisitive senators without feeling the need to issue veiled (and not so veiled) threats at the slightest imagined provocation.

10:55:05 AM
In response to Stratton’s not even artfully disguised leading question, Menzies points out that, despite criticism from some quarters over not predicting the recession, it’s not the job of the Prime Minister to “scare” Canadians with prophesies of economic doom and gloom. He also points out how much better the situation is in Canada as compared to other countries, and is carefully optimistic about the prospect of quick recovery, which is pretty much exactly what the PM is expected to do this afternoon in Brampton. You’ve heard about the speech, right? His office is billing it as his “first major speech on the recession”, which can’t be right, can it? I’m sure we’ve heard fairly substantial statements from him in the last few weeks and months – wearing a hard hat, on a snowmobile, that sort of thing.

Anyway, I find it interesting that PMO seems to be ratcheting up expectations; either they’re pretty confidence that this will be the greatest speech of his career, or they’re panicking over something else entirely, and doing everything possible to preemptively wrest control of the agenda.

11:06:01 AM
Apparently, the Finance official currently in the revolving witness chair is an old hand at committee – the senators all seem to know him well. “You should become a member of the committee,” one suggests. “Sometimes I feel like I am,” he shoots back. His name is Lalonde, it transpires; he’s in charge of tax policy, and he confirms Eggleton’s contention that WITBY – the worker tax credit – is not actually in the budget, although it seems to be in the next implementation bill. “So it isn’t as urgent,” Eggleton notes; Menzies, however, is quick to remind him that the agreements with the various provinces have to be in place before the money can begin to flow.

11:12:00 AM
The chair chides both Eggleton and Menzies for longwindedness – he’s trying to impose a five minute time limit on second round Q&As, but it doesn’t seem to be working – before giving the floor to Ringuette, who wants to know more about the retraining programs that the government has planned; she seems to be somewhat sceptical of the extent, but he points out that back in his riding, some construction sites are already rehiring, which means not all workers who lose their jobs as a result of the recession will necessarily need to be retrained. Some will just have to wait for the jobs to come back.

In response to Menzies’ cautious attempt to define “regifting”, Ringuette then proceeds to run down the clock — her clock, to be clear — reeling off the names of programs and spending allotments, and after the first dozen or so, nobody – including, I suspect, the senator – is listening.

11:18:50 AM
I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to hear Consiglio di Nino’s voice coming over the airwaves, but if it means no more incoherent rambling from Ringuette – who also needs to learn not to overwhelm the microphone; it’s very sensitive and doesn’t require yelling to work – it’s but a small sacrifice to listen to him parrot the minister’s lines.

11:22:40 AM
Two more to go – Senator Murray again, and then Nancy Ruth to play us out. He wants to talk Navigable Waters Act — again — particularly with regard to parliamentary oversight, which it seems would be reduced under the changes proposed by C-10. He agrees that there may well be good reason to do that, but those who disagree deserve to be heard — isn’t that why we have a Parliament? Menzies doesn’t entirely disagree – not with the need for Parliament, encouragingly – but once again points to 1985 1995, and how the Liberal government of the day did precisely the same thing, as far as an omnibus budget implementation package that amended dozens of other pieces of legislation.

11:27:56 AM
Nancy Ruth – yes, we’re done with Lowell Murray for the moment, although I suspect he may reappear – would like to see the data behind the ostensibly gender-balanced aspects of the budget; she wants to see breakout tables, and that sort of thing, and frankly, she doesn’t care if it means more work for the departmental officials: “They should have done it in the first place.”

According to Menzies, over half – half! – of the minister’s policy advisors are women, including the one who has just taken the spot beside Menzies, and who assures the committee that gender-based analysis is conducted on all policies as a matter of course. Ruth, however, points out that the information she wants is from tax filings. “You know who’s male and you know who’s female. Do it.” I would not mess with her, y’all.

11:32:07 AM
And – that’s all, as it turns out; the committee has officially run out of time. At least for the moment – somehow, I have a distinct feeling that I may be spending the next few days here. I can think of worse ways to spend my March break.