The Commons: Carry on

The congeniality of the opening session ended quickly. Let us be thankful for that.

The Scene. The Speaker called on the leader of the opposition and Nycole Turmel stood in her spot, just to the left of the conspicuously vacant chair. The New Democrat caucus stood to cheer and the Conservatives across the way offered a round of applause. After Ms. Turmel had finished with her first question, the Prime Minister stood and congratulated her on having done so.

The congeniality ended there, or at least very soon thereafter. And let us be thankful for that.

For however the passing of Jack Layton is to influence our politics from here on—and in many ways for various reasons it would be good if it did—it should probably having nothing to do with reducing Question Period to a polite exchange of demure musings and rhetorical hugs. A Question Period without accusations that one or another is in league with terrorists or criminals might be nice. But a Question Period without vigorous disagreement, raised voices and scathing indictments would be a silly legacy for a man who so often revelled in such stuff.

Credit then to Mr. Harper, who, with his second response, opted to suggest aloud that Ms. Turmel hadn’t the faintest idea what she was talking about. Here was the signal that it was okay to impugn again.

Ms. Turmel’s second question had been fairly straightforward. “Mr. Speaker, last month unemployment rose in Canada. Our economy shed over 5,000 more jobs,” she observed. “More and more Canadians are giving up because of the lack of job opportunities. To reach the same proportion of working Canadians as before the recession, we actually need to create 420,000 new jobs. Canadians need a job strategy now. Where is the job plan?”

“Mr. Speaker,” sighed Mr. Harper, “I would encourage the leader of the opposition to get her facts correct.”

And so here Mr. Harper asserted a few facts of his own. “There are more people working in Canada today than before the recession,” he said, “the only advanced country where that is the case, and that is because the government remains focused on jobs.”

The relative merit of Mr. Harper’s argument here may depend on how one defines advanced (ie. Does Luxembourg count? How bout Australia?). Somewhat indisputably, the unemployment rate in this country, while lower than it was in 2009, is still higher than it was in 2008. But this would seem to be less the crux of the disagreement between the government and official opposition, than the beginning of it.

You see, while the opposition feels the government should do something, the government thinks the opposition stop talking.

“We realize that our unemployment rate is still too high,” Jim Flaherty conceded this afternoon under questioning from the NDP’s Peggy Nash. “We have to keep working at it. The way to get there is not to have a $10 billion tax increase on business, which is what the opposition has suggested.”

You might recognize this as precisely the sort of debate these sides have been engaged in for something like the last half decade. You might equally recognize the second topic raised this day: namely the small matter of the G8 Legacy Fund, its creation and its use for the purposes of outfitting Tony Clement’s riding in new gazebos and public toilets. Once more it was Charlie Angus up in his sing-songy Northern Ontario lilt. Once more it was Mr. Clement, resolutely remaining in his seat, making a good show of being preoccupied with his paperwork.

“I have a simple question for the President of the Treasury Board,” Mr. Angus humbly offered. “If any bureaucrats, political staffers or even ministers attempted to keep the Auditor General in the dark or mislead her about the spending and misspending of money around the G8, would the minister not agree that would constitute a very serious breach of public trust?”

“Mr. Speaker, here we have once again from this member and once again from the New Democratic Party the same old, same old,” sighed John Baird in response.

Mr. Angus tried again, focusing this time on revelations revealed this summer.

“Mr. Speaker,” sighed Mr. Baird, “I say to my colleagues opposite there is nothing new here.”

So as to raise the matter in both official languages, the NDP duly sent up the ably accusatory Alexandre Boulerice. For Mr. Boulerice’s edification, Mr. Baird restated his disinterest.

“Mr. Speaker, the same old, same old,” the Foreign Affairs Minister moaned. “There is nothing new here whatsoever.”

Indeed, there is nothing new here. The same questions and concerns mostly remain. The same spectre of a government using public funds approved by the House of Commons for border infrastructure to build toilets in the riding of a cabinet minister for the purposes of leaving a “legacy” for a three-day international summit still looms.

But it is not all bad news.

“The good news is that because of those infrastructure projects we saw economic growth, more jobs, more hope and more opportunity,” Mr. Baird enthused sometime later. “That is why Canada is leading the world in the G7. That is why our economy is among the strongest of the industrialized nations. That is why the Minister of Finance was named the best minister of finance last year.”

And so here was answer to both the opposition’s demands that the government do and the economy’s inability to get moving: a gazebo in every backyard and a bike rack on every street corner, let a thousand public washrooms bloom.

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