The Commons: Gaming the system

 Gaming the system

The Scene. No recession. No deficit. No need to worry. Just support the troops and buy more stock. In the midst of an election campaign, it was easy. Win the news cycle, win the day, win the week, just get to the end.

Then October 15 came.

The recession set in. A deficit became unavoidable. Job losses piled up. The stock market fell hundreds of points more. The extent of our losses in Afghanistan became clearer. And after a few days of relative calm, this government’s critics in the House of Commons began to howl.

Unable to manage such realities, Stephen Harper’s government has apparently now decided the best thing to do—perhaps the only thing it can do—is bankrupt its opposition.

“The greatest histories,” Jim Flaherty mused about a half hour into explaining the state of the national economy, “are written in the toughest times.”

Shortly thereafter, he was finished. And shortly after his final words, he and the Prime Minister took their leave, long gone by the time Scott Brison, Gilles Duceppe, Jack Layton and Thomas Mulcair got round to blistering the Commons paint with indictments of the story just told.

In the thirty minutes preceding, Flaherty had explained, in the most ominous of adjectives, the depth and breadth of the crisis that now faces us. Unprecedented. Sudden. Devastating. Historic. “Canada,” he said, “has not faced such severe challenges in a generation.”

Perhaps hoping to assist those of us who traffic in symbolism, an infant wailed from the gallery.

The Finance Minister’s response was simple enough. “We cannot ask Canadians to tighten their belts,” he said, “without looking in the mirror.”

The United States has committed $1.5-trillon to its wobbly economy. China, $600-billion. Britain, $418-billion. Japan, $275-billion. Germany, $213-billion. Canada’s government has looked in the mirror and decided to do away with the subsidy that sees political parties receive a couple dollars for each vote it receives. By our government’s count, doing away with this subsidy will save the national treasury approximately $30-million. A bit more than 89-cents for every Canadian man, woman and child.

There might yet be more. The government promises to get back to us. Perhaps next spring.

In the meantime, there were only cross words.

“Mr. Speaker, this is truly a dark day for Canada,” Stephane Dion had mourned at the start of Question Period.

Snickers and catcalls coming at him from the government side.

“We are facing an out-of-touch Prime Minister who has driven Canada into deficit, a Prime Minister who is paralyzed in the face of an economic crisis, a Prime Minister with no plan to get our economy back on track,” he continued. “Is the Prime Minister even able to move beyond cheap political games to do anything about what matters to Canadians, the economy and their jobs?”

If the leader of the opposition misspoke, it was only in his use of the word “cheap.”

Upon arrival in the capital, any newcomer to Ottawa must realize the extent to which everything that happens here is understood through The Game. Every policy, pronouncement, initiative, legislative proposal, spoken and written word interpreted in terms of which team has won, which team has lost, which side is advantaged, which angle is being pursued and whose partisan interests are advanced. The Game is everything—every politician, every aide, every government official, every reporter, every interested bystander viewing the business of government through this paradigm. Some liken it to chess, but that probably flatters the proceedings.

For sure, it leads to a certain coherence, clarifying and simplifying what happens here. But it also diminishes. It makes it possible to live day-to-day without the crushing realization of what consequences may result from the decisions made and actions followed. It keeps the players sane (relatively speaking) and good-humoured. But it demeans all else. And, implicitly, insults all who are not of this place.

Meanwhile, in parts unknown, the world resolutely carries on.

Another eight Canadian soldiers were wounded last week when their vehicle ran over an improvised explosive device north of Kandahar city. Just last night, a suicide bomber killed four people, and wounded another 17, near the U.S. embassy in Kabul. Meanwhile, half a dozen Canadians are feared to be among the hostages in Mumbai, several others harmed in the attacks. Wider war may be next.

Nearer to here, British Columbia’s mining industry is poised to layoff perhaps as many as 500 workers. U.S. Steel in Hamilton is expected to layoff 150. Nortel, 1,300 layoffs. Magna, 850 layoffs. In Oshawa, employment insurance claims have increased 96.4% over last year. Claims are up 30.4% in Windsor. From January 1 to the present, the Toronto Stock Exchange has dropped 5,000 points.

What was proposed today addresses none of the above. Helps no one. Amounts to nothing. But it is exactly what Stephen Harper would like us to be talking about.

For a day, his gamesmanship served only to embolden his opposition. Indeed, if nothing else, the Prime Minister is perhaps to be commended for managing the neat trick—and no small feat—of making his usually dizzy critics seem suddenly substantive and reasonable by comparison.

First Dion, then Duceppe, then Layton with a crescendo. “Mr. Speaker, later today Canadians are going to be looking for bold leadership and dramatic and immediate action. They are going to be looking to see EI reform. They want to see strong action to protect their pensions. They want to see credit guarantees for businesses that are on the edge. The jobs of those workers are on the edge literally this afternoon. Canadians want to see investments in infrastructure to create work,” he cried.

His caucus rose to cheer, his voice swelled to yell over them. “Instead of an immediate stimulus package to attack the recession, the government is apparently going to attack democracy,” he continued, the Conservative benches clucking at this. “I ask the Prime Minister how such an attack is going to create one job or protect one pension?”

The Prime Minister did his best to respond, raising his voice, if not his rationale.

“The Minister of Finance has been very aggressive throughout this crisis,” he boomed. “Protecting the entitlements of political parties is not going to do anything for the Canadian people.”

How cutting such entitlements might do anything for the Canadian people was left unsaid.

The opposition moved on to other matters. During discussion of the auto industry, the Prime Minister absentmindedly tapped out a tune with his fingers on the arm of his chair. For the much of the rest of the hour he slouched and smirked, variously bored and unimpressed and satisfied.

After Question Period and with the conclusion of Flaherty’s economic storytelling, the opposition sounded nearly triumphant. Or at least newly, and rarely, focused. That probably won’t last. But a wider war seems in the offing.

If the Prime Minister is committed to this, there will be a vote. Which may very well be a matter of confidence. Which may very well bring about an election or an unprecedented mess of constitutional squabbling. Which is probably just as well, this Prime Minister having only ever displayed a fondness for this stuff.

The Stats. The economy, nine questions. The auto industry, the Canadian Wheat Board and Afghanistan, four questions each. The forestry industry, arts funding, banks and employment insurance, two questions each. Mumbai, the military, small business, natural health products, science and technology, ministerial spending, the meat packing industry and Aboriginals, one question each.

Stephen Harper, eight answers. Tony Clement, David Anderson and Ted Menzies, four answers each. Peter MacKay, three answers. Lawrence Cannon and Ed Komarnicki two answer each. Lisa Raitt, Stockwell Day, James Moore, Rob Merrifield, Diane Ablonczy, Leona Aglukkaq, Gary Goodyear, Jay Hill, Jean-Pierre Blackburn and Gail Shea, one answer each.

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