The Commons: A keen eye for the lowest common denominator

The Liberals must surely have known a withering retort was coming

The Scene. The Liberals appeared in a fine mood this afternoon. Up and down they went in unison. They applauded when their leader stood, in keeping with tradition, but they applauded too when he’d finished. They were on their feet again when he finished his second question, and then once more when he’d finished his third.

And it was not merely for the exercise. Indeed, today the Liberal side had this morning managed to announce something that sounded like a plan, a promise even of what they might do were they to one day again win the right to govern. They had successfully stated a position, clearly articulated an intention. Here they were, taking a stand. And so here they stood—to demonstrate their pride, or at least to reassure each other that theirs was a good idea and in no way could this, unlike most everything else they’ve tried this decade, possibly turn badly.

Across the way though sat the Prime Minister. And in his sharp mind the Liberals surely knew a withering retort—of the sort that would eviscerate all of their carefully made plans—resided.

When Michael Ignatieff rose first to report that he’d visited a family across the river in Gatineau this morning, there were merely groans from the government side. Mike, Mr. Ignatieff reported en français, had cancer. Helen, his wife, had made various sacrifices to care for him. Why, Mr. Ignatieff wondered, did the government side insist on reducing corporate tax rates when such families were in need?

Up came the Prime Minister to recall simply enough that Liberal governments of the past had promised to provide sufficient home care without success, and to claim that all the Liberals had done was raise taxes and all they would ever do is raise taxes.

Undaunted, Mr. Ignatieff returned to his feet and to his point. “Mr. Speaker, Mike has been suffering with cancer for five years. Helen has given up all her vacation time to care for him,” he said. “Does the Prime Minister not understand that when the minister gets up and says that Helen should take more vacation time to look after him, what she fails to understand is that Helen has exhausted all her vacation time and that it is an insult to talk to her this way?”

Here he gestured to Human Resources Minister Diane Finley seated along the government’s frontbench. From there, Ms. Finley loudly objected to the Liberal leader’s interpretation of her earlier remarks to reporters.

“Does he understand,” Mr. Ignatieff finished, “that he is letting these families down?”

Mr. Harper returned to his own feet and to his own points, adding in this case the contention that a Liberal opposition that has dutifully not felled this government over the last five years has still not been sufficiently supportive of the government’s family friendly policies.

Mr. Ignatieff would give it one more try, explaining the parameters of his proposal, explaining how it might be paid for and rhetorically wondering if the government might explain its priorities to “hard-working families like Helen and Mike.”

The Prime Minister here was finally afforded the opportunity he’d been waiting for, a chance to deliver the last and definitive word on the matter. And so here he summoned the full stature of his office, all of the credibility, trust and capital he has earned these last few years, to pronounce on this matter of public policy as it pertains to the fate, future and welfare of the nation and to reassure the nation of his government’s righteousness and responsibility.

“I wish the Liberal Party would actually get its messages right,” he lamented, holding in his hand a copy of the opposition’s policy pamphlet. “I look at this brochure where on page six the Liberals talk about health care and on page four they promote somebody smoking.”

And lo, it was true. There in the hand of a man—a man relaxing outdoors with his elderly parents or in-laws—was indeed what looked to be a cigarette.

An hour later, the Liberals had carefully removed the offending object from the image. But by then, ’twas too late. The Prime Minister’s point had been made: whatever concern the Liberals may claim, whatever promises they may make, whatever solutions they propose, whatever flaw in his side they may detect, here is a party that cannot be trusted to edit the photos in its brochures smartly enough to avoid his ridicule.

Amid all else, Mr. Harper had once more identified the precise point of the matter at hand.

The Stats. Access to information, eight questions. Home care, five questions. Afghanistan, Nigel Wright and trade, four questions each. Foreign investment and the census, three questions each. Infrastructure, veterans and Zajid Delic, two questions each. Crime, immigration, labour and taxation, one question each.

John Baird, 11 answers. Peter MacKay, six answers. Stephen Harper and Tony Clement, five answers each. Tony Clement, four answers. Diane Finley, Denis Lebel and Jean-Pierre Blackburn, two answers each. Rob Nicholson, Jason Kenney, Lisa Raitt and Jim Flaherty, one answer each.

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