The Commons: In praise of the simple question

A dull day in the House is not entirely wasted

The Scene. Thomas Mulcair charged into the afternoon with a litany of concerns.

“Mr. Speaker, last quarter, Canadian economic growth slowed to a rate of just six-tenths of one per cent,” he reported. “Conservatives have now missed their own economic growth targets three quarters in a row. They have had to downgrade their economic growth forecast for 2012 by nearly a third and it is now widely expected that the Bank of Canada will have to downgrade its own economic forecast as well. The Minister of Finance announced new economic numbers just three weeks ago. Does the minister still stand by those numbers today, or will we have to downgrade his economic projections yet again?”

The Minister of Finance was not in the House, so John Baird stood to handle this one. But first, a nod to the expectant royal couple.

“Mr. Speaker, I would be remiss if I did not first stand up and extend our congratulations to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the announcement coming from Burn’s House earlier today,” enthused the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The Conservatives duly applauded.

At the far end of the room, Bob Rae leaned forward and put his head in his hands. Ralph Goodale patted him on the shoulder.

A mostly—particularly—dull and witless afternoon proceeded with little or no progress to report on much of anything. There was though at least one reasonable question.

“Mr. Speaker, one thing we do know is that with slower growth, inequality is only going to be increasing in the country,” Bob Rae prefaced after Peter Julian and Christian Paradis had finished condemning each other. “It poses a very serious challenge, particularly to those who are disabled.”

It being the United Nations’ International Day of Persons with Disabilities, this seemed on topic.

“I have a very simple question for the government,” Mr. Rae explained. “The government has a disability tax credit, but it only applies to those people who are disabled and who have income. I wonder, would the government consider making this income tax credit refundable?”

This seemed not entirely rhetorical: a question that might, presumably, be answered, or at least responded to, in an equally straightforward manner. Alas, Mr. Baird seemed not to have been provided with such an answer.

“Mr. Speaker, this government has taken substantial efforts to encourage economic growth and substantial efforts to help those Canadians with a disability,” he enthused.

What the minister did have was a white piece of paper on which were scribbled some things about inequality.

“For example, just with respect to inequality, this government has an EI hiring tax credit, the third quarter project, a youth employment strategy, an apprenticeship incentive grant,” he explained.

As well, Mr. Baird noted, Diane Finley was doing some things and would soon be reading some things.

“The Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development has a substantial amount of work going on,” Mr. Baird continued. “A report on Canadians with disabilities will be coming to her in very short order. We are certainly prepared to continuously do more to help Canadians with disabilities.”

Mr. Rae, believing that his question had not received a response, tried it again, this time en francais. Mr. Baird stood and mostly repeated himself.

The interim Liberal now dared broaden his appeal slightly. “Mr. Speaker, it is a very simple fact that most of the tax credits that the government has introduced for all kinds of things—for sports equipment, piano lessons, whatever it may be—do not apply, are not refundable for people who do not have taxable income. There are millions of people who do not have taxable income, 9 million families,” he explained. “Why not make these tax credits refundable? In particular, why not make the tax credits refundable for those people with disabilities?”

He jabbed the air a bit here with a pointy finger and then held his hands aloft as if to plead for mercy or beg for reason or beseech the government side to see the simplicity (or some combination thereof).

“It is a very simple and basic change,” he concluded, “and a very simple question.”

Alas, again, Mr. Baird was unwilling or unprepared to answer as simply. “Mr. Speaker, this government has brought forward a substantial number of tax reductions that help all Canadians, including those Canadians with a disability. Just before Parliament we have measures to improve registered disability savings plans. The Liberals are trying to delay those initiatives from being tackled,” he ventured. “This government has brought forward the working income tax benefits. This government has brought forward substantial tax reductions. This government cuts taxes for Canadians who pay taxes, and that is, I guess, a fundamental difference from the Liberal Party.”

Of course, the magic of the simple question is that in not answering it, one only raises further questions.

The Stats. The disabled, five questions. Employment insurance, immigration and the environment, four questions. The economy, ethics and aboriginal affairs, three questions each. Pharmaceuticals and health care, two questions each. The Middle East, land mines, taxation, shipping, research, arts funding and natural resources, one question each.

John Baird, seven responses. Diane Finley, six responses. Christian Paradis, five responses. Jason Kenney and Michelle Rempel, four responses each. Pierre Poilievre and John Duncan, three responses each. Leona Aglukkaq, two responses. Tim Uppal, Ted Menzies, Denis Lebel, James Moore and Joe Oliver, one response each.