The Commons: Delighting in the missteps of one’s opponent

“Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me five times, it must be a Liberal.”

The Scene. The politician draws confidence not only from real or perceived demonstrations of his own righteousness, but from the real or perceived missteps of his opponent. The former may carry one forward, but it is often the latter that gets one through the day.

And so whatever the Photoshop shame of the day before, Michael Ignatieff was not ready this afternoon to let rest this matter of the sick and elderly. Indeed, he seemed only emboldened.

“Mr. Speaker,” he began en francais, “yesterday when I announced the Liberal plan for family care, the Conservatives said these families could use their holidays to care for their families.”

“Shame!” called out a voice from the Liberal side.

“They have no holidays,” Mr. Ignatieff explained. “They sacrificed their holidays.”

Why, he wondered, did the government so misunderstand?

The Prime Minister stood, buttoned and straightened his jacket and proceeded with a series of shrugs. This was, he figured, the fifth time the Liberals had promised such help, the first four times without success. The Liberals, he reckoned, were eager to raise taxes that would negatively impact the economy. “That is why,” he concluded, “this government can not support something so irresponsible as that.”

Mr. Ignatieff stood and wondered aloud if the Prime Minister was suggesting it was irresponsible to help these families. “C’est incroyable,” he exclaimed.

The Liberal leader attempted then to do the math. “This is a government that in 72 hours spent $1.3 billion on a photo op for the Prime Minister,” he recalled. “That sum of money, if spent to help families in need of care, would have aided more than 600,000 family caregivers.”

How, he wondered, could the government justify its “reckless and irresponsible” priorities?

The Liberals jumped up to applaud their leader, but Mr. Harper stood ready to respond. “Mr. Speaker, if this was such a responsible policy, I do not know why the Liberal Party would have broken its commitment to Canadians on it four times already before making a promise a fifth time,” he snapped back.

With that retort registered, the Prime Minister then ventured into his own understanding of reality. “The reality is this,” he testified, a bit more animated now. “What the leader of the Liberal Party promised yesterday was billions and billions of dollars of tax hikes on ordinary Canadians and on job creators in this country. This would have devastating effects on our economic recovery. That is why the policies are irresponsible. That is why on this side we do things that are real, affordable and when we promise them, we do them.”

“You’re fibbing!” came a cry from the Liberal side.

The House had now a clear difference of opinion.

Mr. Ignatieff was moved to repeat himself. “Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister is saying it is irresponsible and reckless to help families dealing with the burden of ALS or dealing with the burden of looking after somebody dealing with cancer for four years,” he relayed. “He will have to explain to those families why it is that the only thing the government can say back to them is that they should take some vacations to look after those they care for.”

There were groans from the government side, the Conservative members perhaps disappointed to see that Mr. Ignatieff now seems willing to engage in a game they have owned for some years.

The Liberal leader was now bringing his fingers together to pinpoint the precise nature of the problem. “Why does he not understand the needs of these families,” Mr. Ignatieff pleaded of the Prime Minister, “why does he characterize their needs as reckless and when will he start to do something for them?”

He leaned his upper body forward over the desk in front of him and nearly spat these words across the aisle.

The Prime Minister returned to his feet, first to assert his government’s efforts in this regard. “Mr. Speaker, this government has taken measures, whether it is on compassionate leave or EI, a number of measures to help our seniors to make real, measurable progress in the lives of people,” he reported.

Then he moved to entertain a new variation on his reading of reality. “That is a very different approach than on the other side,” he proclaimed, “where they promise billions and billions of dollars that would damage the Canadian economy in terms of tax hikes and then turn around and break those promises.”

It was unclear whether this was meant to raise or assuage fears, but before anything could be clarified, Mr. Harper was moving to a quip he was no doubt eager to table.

“Fool me once, shame on me,” he offered, wagging his finger at the other side, “fool me five times, it must be a Liberal.”

The Conservative side howled with delight at this and leapt up to applaud their leader’s phrasing.

Still, it was Mr. Ignatieff who was only too happy to walk out into the foyer afterwards with some advice for reporters huddled around the designated microphone. “In Question Period, the Prime Minister said it was irresponsible and imprudent to help family caregivers,” he reported. “And I just think people ought to notice that.”

The Stats. Ethics, 12 questions. Foreign investment, four questions. Home care, three questions. The census, natural resources, Nigel Wright, the military, infrastructure, prisons, employment and foreign affairs, two questions each. Taxation, seniors, product safety, Gilles Duceppe, aboriginal affairs and privacy, one question each.

Stephen Harper, eight answers. John Baird and Rona Ambrose, six answers each. Christian Paradis, four answers. Tony Clement, three answers. Peter MacKay, Dave MacKenzie, Diane Finley, Chuck Strahl and Peter Van Loan, two answers each. Denis Lebel, Lawrence Cannon, Bev Oda and Stockwell Day, one answer each.

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