The Commons: Five rounds

How one defines essentiality is at the root of the discussion of spending cuts

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The Scene. In the moments before Question Period began this afternoon, Jack Layton sat in his spot, rehearsing the questions he would soon be putting to the Prime Minister, right down to the hand gestures.

Perhaps thus overly revved up, he then charged forward with his metaphorical chin rhetorically extended. Where, he demanded to know, was the job creation that would justify the government’s insistence on cutting corporate taxes?

This was far too easy for the Prime Minister and lo he did flatten the leader of the opposition with an impressive-sounding number: over 500,000 jobs created since the recession.

Mr. Layton, to his credit and salvation, had come prepared with his own numbers. “Mr. Speaker,” he ventured, steadying himself “let us take a concrete example.”

Imperial Oil, he posited, had received a tax break of something like $100 million last year. At the same time, it had reported profits of something like $2 billion. How many jobs, Mr. Layton asked, had Imperial Oil created as a result of saving that $100 million?

The Prime Minister, perhaps not surprisingly, did not have an answer for this. Except to say that Canada was doing much better than those other industrialized countries (Eat it, Estonia!) and that we’d best avoid the sort of tax increases advocated by the NDP.

Now Mr. Layton patronized. “Mr. Speaker,” he sighed, “one would think the Prime Minister would want to know how many jobs were created if he just gave $100 million to a large corporation. One would think he would want to know that. Canadians do.”

And speaking of things Canadians want to know, the leader of the opposition moved to the small matter of the government’s vague commitment to trim the “fat” it has apparently been carrying around for the last five years. “My question is, will the Prime Minister commit today not to cut services that are key to Canadian families?” Mr. Layton demanded. “They are counting on these services.”

The use of the word “key” here offered the Prime Minister a sizeable opening to waltz through. “Mr. Speaker, of course we will not cut such services,” he easily offered, “but at the same time what we will not do to Canadian families is raise taxes, as the NDP proposes.”

Taking the opportunity to rise for a fourth consecutive time, Mr. Layton took a shot at tying this all together. “Mr. Speaker, there are plenty of places that the government should be looking for cuts, but it is not. For example, subsidies to profitable to oil companies is a start, or cracking down on tax havens is another measure that could be taken, or ending corporate tax giveaways. Instead, we have cuts to environment, to fisheries, to defence, to the National Gallery. It speaks to the government’s priorities: the corporate fat cats get the gold and Canadians gets the coal,” he ventured.

“I am asking simply what other cuts the Prime Minister has up his sleeve,” he clarified. “What else are we going to hear about in days to come with regard to services that Canadians count on?”

Here the Prime Minister made what should probably be regarded as an important use of adjective. “Once again, of course, Mr. Speaker, this government has funded very well the essential services of Canadians,” he said, “and we will continue to do so.”

How one defines essentiality is likely at the very root of this discussion. But with his last opportunity, Mr. Layton opted to ask if the Prime Minister agreed with something one of his MPs had said two years ago to an American official about the possibility that unemployment might boost military recruitment.

Mr. Harper appreciated the opportunity to highlight his government’s support for the troops.

The Stats. The budget, seven questions. The Department of Fisheries, six questions. The environment, five questions. Health care, four questions. The military, three questions. Quebec flooding, taxation, aboriginal affairs and the Champlain Bridge, two questions each. The Canadian Wheat Board, railways, the seal hunt and Canada Post, one question each.

Stephen Harper and Keith Ashfield, seven answers each. Jim Flaherty, four answers. Chris Alexander and David Anderson, three answers each. Colin Carrie, Peter Kent, Vic Toews, Denis Lebel and John Duncan, two answers each. Gerry Ritz, Gerald Keddy, Jason Kenney and Lisa Raitt, one answer each.