The Commons: How big is your budget?

Halloween in the Commons: Time to shame the committee chairs

<p>NDP leader Thomas Mulcair speaks to party caucus members on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, ON Wednesday September 19, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld</p>

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair speaks to party caucus members on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, ON Wednesday September 19, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Adrian Wyld/CP Images

The Scene. Of all the festive games to be played on Halloween, shaming committee chairs is somewhat less messy than leaving a bag of flaming dog poop on a neighbour’s doorstep, but decidedly less fun than bobbing for apples. Alas, under the stodgy rules of parliamentary decorum, it was the best the NDP could offer this afternoon.

The New Democrats have been occupying themselves these days with attempting to convince various committees to take up study of C-45, the government’s latest budget bill. The Conservatives, soon after tabling the bill in the House, had said that they would allow the bill to be studied at 10 committees. The Conservatives vowed they would move a motion at the finance committee to do just that. But the New Democrats were apparently keen to see those studies commence post haste and so have been proposing motions hither and yon. Each of those efforts seems to have been stymied. And so now the New Democrats get to claim great umbrage.

“Mr. Speaker, this is simple,” Megan Leslie explained this afternoon. “A motion was proposed, we went in camera, and the motion never came out again.”

Ms. Leslie wondered if the chair of the environment committee—Conservative MP Mark Warawa—might stand and confirm that he was going to be scheduling hearings on C-45. To respond though stood Transport Minister Denis Lebel, who assured Ms. Leslie of the validity of the budget’s changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act.

Jean Crowder tried her luck, wondering if the chair of the aboriginal affairs committee—Conservative MP Chris Warkentin—would endorse a study of budget bill amendments to the Indian Act. To respond stood Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan. Phil Toone asked to hear from the chair of the fisheries committee—Conservative MP Rodney Weston—but instead heard from Mr. Lebel.

Finally, when the NDP’s Rosane Doré Lefebrve asked to hear from the chair of the public safety committee, Government House leader Peter Van Loan decided he had enough of this game. Standing with a significant stack of papers in his hand, Mr. Van Loan attempted to pronounce shame on the official opposition.

“Mr. Speaker, the government is asking several committees to scrutinize the legislation, but I always find it interesting when the NDP members say, ‘Do as we say, not as we do.’ They complain that this bill is too big, but when the NDP does budget bills in Manitoba, they are omnibus bills,” he protested.

There were chuckles from the New Democrats.

“When the Leader of the Opposition was a member of the government in Quebec, they had a budget implementation bill 468 sections long, 383 pages,” he continued.

“Woah!” sang various Conservatives in mock shock.

“The Leader of the Opposition says, ‘Do as I say, not as I do,’ ” Mr. Van Loan concluded.

In Mr. Mulcair’s defence, one member of a legislature cannot possibly be expected to make a difference in the composition of the budget.

While the Conservatives heckled, the New Democrats insisted on continuing with their chosen game. Robert Aubin asked to hear from the chair of the transport committee. In response, Mr. Lebel stood and invoked a carbon tax.

When Sadia Groguhé stood and asked for a response from the chair of the immigration committee, Mr. Van Loan pointed down the government’s front row at Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. Mr. Kenney, though, pointed back across the room at committee chair David Tilson. Apparently by the rules of ministerial precedence in pointing, Mr. Tilson was now compelled to stand. “Mr. Speaker, surely the member is not asking me to overrule the decision of the committee,” Mr. Tilson protested. “If that is what she is asking me to do, the answer is no. The committee spoke, and that is the answer.”

Charlie Angus stood then to make the final move, suggesting that the Conservatives were attempting to protect Tony Clement from questions about the navigable waters around his riding. Here though it was Mr. Van Loan who stood, with an urgent bulletin in hand.

“Mr. Speaker, while the opposition continues to complain about the size of the bill, I do have to get up and correct myself,” the House leader explained. “I earlier quoted the length of a Quebec budget implementation bill as 383 pages. Unfortunately, that is only the English version of the budget bill of the Leader of the Opposition when he was in the Quebec government. When we have it bilingual, as ours is, it is actually 778 pages long, far longer than any budget bill from this government.”

“Woah!” the Conservatives cried, even louder this time.

By the rules of Mr. Van Loan’s game—whereby one’s guilt is rendered moot when similar guilt is pronounced on one’s opponent—this was apparently supposed to count as a win.

Unfortunately for Mr. Van Loan, a budget bill of 778 pages would measure as only the second largest on his government’s record—more than a hundred pages shorter than the 904-page budget implementation act that received royal assent in 2010.

Perhaps if Mr. Mulcair promises to keep any NDP budget under that page length he can claim ultimate victory.

The Stats. The budget, 10 questions. Foreign investment and veterans, six questions. The Navigable Waters Protection Act, three questions. Employment insurance, ACOA, immigration and fisheries, two questions each. Ethics, the military, trade, the census, the economy and the aluminum industry, one question each.

Stephen Harper, Denis Lebel and Steven Blaney, six responses each. Jim Flaherty and Diane Finley, three responses each. Peter Van Loan, Bernard Valcourt, Gail Shea and Jason Kenney, two responses each. John Duncan, David Tilson, Kerry-Lynne Findlay, Ed Fast, Christian Paradis and Maxime Bernier, one response each.