The Commons: Give or take a dozen billion dollars

Debating numbers big and small

The Scene. The Finance Minister should at least feel chuffed that the Leader of the Opposition feels it important to pay very close attention to what he has to say.

“Mr. Speaker, yesterday the Finance Minister said that Canada is ‘not in need of a contingency plan’ to deal with the threats facing our economy,” Thomas Mulcair recounted this afternoon. “That was quite a surprise because just two weeks ago the same finance minister said, ‘we have contingency plans not only with respect to the fiscal cliff, but with respect to the European situation.’ Which is it? Facing the real threat of another recession, do the Conservatives have a contingency plan or not? Canadians deserve a straight answer.”

Perhaps Jim Flaherty was merely a bit too cute with his response yesterday. But he surely couldn’t say so now. And anyway, he was elsewhere, so here came Jason Kenney to offer the government side’s official explanation.

“Mr. Speaker, of course, this government is and will continue to be prudent in our fiscal and economic planning,” Mr. Kenney explained. “That is why we have the best fiscal position in the G7. It is why we have the best job creation record among the major developed economies. It is why the OECD says we will have the best economic growth for many years to come.”

With that much sort of clarified, Mr. Kenney moved to segue.

“Mr. Speaker, I will tell you about contingencies,” he offered. “If we ever had an NDP government, we would need a contingency for massive, out-of-control spending, at least $56 billion in unbudgeted new spending committed by that party, in part to be financed by a $21-billion carbon tax.”

The $56-billion figure would seem to be based on a Conservative party estimate of the cost of proposals contained in an NDP submission to the finance committee. (Although presumably once the stated cap-and-trade proposal was implemented and the country consequently destroyed, there would be no functioning government capable of spending any money.)

Mr. Mulcair seemed to think the precise nature of the problem he was trying to explain had been missed. “Here is the problem, Mr. Speaker,” he clarified. “First, the Finance Minister claims he has a contingency plan. Then the same Finance Minister says he does not need a contingency plan. Now Conservatives are saying that maybe they do have a contingency plan after all, but they pretend to know something different from the Finance Minister, who claims that he does not need a contingency plan. Canadians deserve better than this. The Prime Minister and his Minister of Finance cannot get their stories straight.”

As much fun as it is to say the word “contingency” a bunch of times in quick succession, Mr. Mulcair was vaguely required by the vague rules of this place to present a question and so he did.

“If the contingency plan exists, will they stand up and table it in the House, instead of doing like that minister and trying to avoid the issue?” he wondered.

It is perhaps a bit odd to ask that a contingency plan be presented before the applicable event has occurred. One imagines this sort of expectation, were it to be officially adopted, could result in the government having to present dozens of plans to the House to account for nearly limitless possibilities—from a debt crisis in Europe and a leap over the fiscal cliff in the United States to the possibility that California’s recent auction of carbon credits will trigger a zombie apocalypse.

“Mr. Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition has once again confirmed that New Democrats tend not to even read the budget before they decide how they are going to vote on it,” Mr. Kenney lamented in response, “because if he were to read the last budget or any of the last five budgets, he would see that there is a line in each one of those budgets for any unexpected emergencies.”

A general purpose zombie apocalypse fund probably makes more sense. But even if the New Democrats had apparently skipped over this line, they’d apparently taken note of the numbers on budget balance. “Mr. Speaker, this is a tough week for the Minister of Finance,” Peggy Nash ventured after Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Kenney had finished their three rounds. “Yesterday, he was mistaken when he said that the Conservatives would keep their promises about balancing the budget. Their election platform included a surplus of $2.8 billion in 2014, but during his economic update, the Finance Minister said there would be a deficit of $8.6 billion, a difference of more $11 billion.

What services, Ms. Nash wondered, would the Conservatives be cutting to meet their 2011 promise.

Ted Menzies, as is his habit, attempted a segue. “Mr. Speaker,” he declared, “the first thing we would cut would be a $21-billion tax that is purported to be the only NDP solution it has to getting back to balance.”

It is a general rule of proper accounting, that misnamed future hypotheticals are the easiest things to cut.

“All of our budgets have kept us on track,” Mr. Menzies continued. “Our plan is working. We will get back to balance in the medium term. In fact, we expect to get back to balance in this Parliament.”

Ms. Nash was unpersuaded. And apparently moved to something like poetry.

“Mr. Speaker, the Conservative platform seems to have gone the way of the minister’s contingency plan: out the door to be forgotten forevermore,” she mused.

Now then, some numbers.

“However, the reality is compared to the Conservatives’ platform,” Ms. Nash continued. “They are off by $5.9 billion next year; $8.8 billion the year after that; $11.4 billion off the next year; and finally, $6.9 billion the year after that. Does the minister really consider this massive $33 billion in cumulative bad projections to be a small sum of money?”

Mr. Menzies attempted to segue to the bright side. “Mr. Speaker, the number she just referred to is actually quite small,” he explained, “compared to the $56 billion that the New Democrats have suggested they would take out of Canadians’ pockets in all of their plans.”

The Stats. Ethics, six questions. The Middle East, four questions. The economy, the environment, crime and pharmaceuticals, three questions each. The budget, the F-35, government spending, foreign investment and Atlantic Canada, two questions each. Aboriginal affairs, border security, credit cards, small business and pyrrhotite, one question each.

John Baird, four responses. Jason Kenney, Ted Menzies, Peter Van Loan, Peter Kent, Pierre Poilievre, Tony Clement, Christian Paradis and Rob Nicholson, three responses each. Peter MacKay, Rona Ambrose, Kellie Leitch and Leona Aglukkaq, two responses each. John Duncan, Candice Bergen and Maxime Bernier, one response each.

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