The Commons: John Baird and Thomas Mulcair haggle over segues

RhetoricalIy speaking, it was a dazzling duel

The Scene. Ted Opitz, he who may or may not end up being the duly elected MP for Etobicoke Centre, had just finished doing his partisan duty, standing up to deliver the day’s harangue of the official opposition (“Ill-informed! Foolish! Dangerous!”) and Thomas Mulcair thought he spotted a segue.

“Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Mulcair offered in English before proceeding en francais, “let us talk about unemployment insurance, something that will become important for the member very soon.”

There were groans and grumbles from the government side, the Conservatives in attendance apparently finding this to be poor form. Profoundly saddened, John Baird stood and shed a single tear. “Mr. Speaker, what is most interesting is when this gentleman became Leader of the Official Opposition he said he would bring a new civility and raise the tone of debate,” the Foreign Affairs Minister sighed. “I guess not two months after his election, they have thrown that to the side.”With that, Mr. Baird turned to the script on his desk. “We are facing unprecedented labour and skills shortages in the country. It is tremendously important that the employment insurance program is working most effectively for Canada and for Canadians,” he explained. “That is why we are working to better connect Canadians with available jobs in their local area and to their appropriate qualifications and to ensure that they understand the responsibilities that they have while collecting EI.”

None of which did anything to either shame or soothe the leader of the opposition.

“Mr. Speaker, nobody should be surprised at the attitude of the Conservatives: it is their prime minister who said that the people of the Atlantic had a culture of defeat, that they are dependent on employment insurance,” he ventured. “And, for the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, employment insurance is attractive, it is even profitable. A lovely gift for the lazy who live by fishing, agriculture and forestry. How can they justify Conservative policies that target the unemployed, workers attacked unfairly and force people to lose a third of their salary or their employment insurance check?”

Mr. Baird again attempted reassurance. “Mr. Speaker, what we want for Canadians is what Canadians want for themselves,” he declared. “We want a Canada with a growing economy, with more jobs, with more hope and with more opportunity. That is exactly what we are doing with these changes to unemployment insurance.”

Here though—drawing a line from one morning headline to another—Mr. Mulcair had another segue. “Mr. Speaker, the unemployed are expected to abandon the careers they have trained for, commute up to two hours a day, take a permanent 30% pay cut, get a McJob or work in the mines, like their ministers have said, even when it is not related to their skills,” Mr. Mulcair reviewed. “However, failed Conservative candidates do not end up at MacDonalds or in the mines, do they?

The New Democrats chuckled.

“No, they get nice, cushy jobs in Paris, they end up on government boards racking up expense accounts,” Mr. Mulcair continued. “Meanwhile, hard-working Canadians are told that they are lazy and defeatist.”

When the NDP leader finished with his question, his caucus stood to cheer.

Mr. Baird was thus challenged to meet the moment, a rhetorical magician asked to escape a seemingly daunting trap. But how? How to both dismiss the charge and impugn the charger? How to turn the trapper, Mr. Mulcair in this case, into the trapped?

“Mr. Speaker, the individual he speaks of who was appointed ambassador in Paris I believe served in the Liberal cabinet, a cabinet that he served in at one point,” Mr. Baird, usually good at this, tried.

The Foreign Affairs Minister was apparently referring to Lawrence Cannon, the newly appointed ambassador to France who was defeated in the riding of Pontiac last Spring. Across the aisle, Mr. Mulcair shook his head. (Though they were both once cabinet ministers in Quebec, Messrs. Cannon and Mulcair served more than a decade apart.) Mr. Baird, perhaps seeing this, seemed to realize he was getting nowhere with this.

“Although,” Mr. Baird continued, “I think it was a bit before his time.”

Having thoroughly wasted 39 words, Mr. Baird returned to his reassurances.

The Stats. Employment, 16 questions. Labour, four questions. Search-and-rescue, three questions. The budget, fisheries, military procurement, the Canada Revenue Agency and arts funding, two questions each. Mexico, veterans, the environment, Syria and nuclear weapons, one question each.

Diane Finley, 12 responses. John Baird, seven responses. Keith Ashfield, five responses. Lisa Raitt, four responses. Ted Menzies, James Moore, Gail Shea and Andrew Saxton, two responses each. Diane Ablonczy, Peter MacKay and Joe Oliver, one response each.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.