The Commons: Life under occupation

Quit your whining and show some gratitude, Canada!

Simon Hayter/Maclean's

The Scene. These are awkward times. Various people are marching in the streets and camping in the parks, shouting various things about various concerns. No one is quite sure what it means or if it means anything except to say that some people are somehow unhappy about something. And that they may have some cause to be somehow disenchanted.

Our elected leaders are thus put in variously awkward positions. And so increases the likelihood that they will say awkward things.

Witness Ted Menzies, affable-seeming minister of state for finance. Yesterday he was presented with the spectre of said protests and the suggestion that perhaps said protestors were on to something.

“Mr. Speaker, it is fortunate that all Canadians have the right to peacefully express their views,” he said, as if this were some kind of profound observation.

“Canada does not, by the way,” he continued, “have the degree of economic inequality that we are seeing in other countries that have perhaps started this movement.”

Two sentences in, Mr. Menzies had already gone wobbly. For while we can indeed boast a level of inequality less crushing than that of the United States, our gini coefficient is still on par with that of riotous Greece. Which is to say that the sea of troubles is lapping from inside the house.

The minister of state pressed on. “We have a very progressive tax system that favours the vulnerable in this country. We have a social system that supports the unemployed. We have universal health care,” he said, slipping momentarily into his Tommy Douglas impersonation. “There is a great deal of difference in what we put in front of Canadians and offer to Canadians that they should be thankful for.”

So there. Bill Clinton felt your pain. Ted Menzies feels you should count your blessings.

A moment later the NDP’s Peggy Nash was suggesting that the Conservatives, through their tax policies, “continue to give gifts to the wealthiest.” Here, Mr. Menzies apparently decided to try a little spontaneous wit.

“Mr. Speaker, the only gift that this government has given to Canadians,” he said, “is an opportunity that has provided 650,000 more jobs.”

For sure “gift” is an odd word to use when describing the allocation of funds collected from taxpayers for the benefit of taxpayers. Though perhaps a gift you don’t have to pay for is the greatest gift of all. Indeed, the term might also have a way of making the G8 Legacy Fund sound less like an abuse of public funds and parliamentary accountability and more like the generous offering of a modern day Santa Claus. Only if Santa Claus had sideburns instead of a full beard. And delivered gazebos and public toilets. And only to one of Canada’s 308 ridings.

In fairness to Mr. Menzies, his awkwardness seems minor when compared with the actual policies espoused by our political parties, each seeming mostly determined to drive economists to distraction with a variety of ideas that run from merely unhelpful to rather quite cynical, each chasing a populace that may not actually be prepared to deal honestly with reality or simply doesn’t care.

The result is something like a standoff.

“Mr. Speaker, instead of answering the concerns raised by the Occupy movement, the Conservatives are boasting that Canada’s level of inequality is better than others,” Nycole Turmel charged this afternoon. “However, the very conservative Conference Board has a different take: Canada has the highest increase of inequality of 16 peer nations, including the United States. Surely the Prime Minister is aware of this. Instead of bragging about its record, where is the plan to reduce inequality in Canada?”

Thankfully for Mr. Menzies, the Prime Minister was in the House this day to carry the rhetorical load.

“Mr. Speaker, as this government has said repeatedly, our focus is on jobs and growth,” he offered, “and I would take this opportunity to note the job creation figures last month, which means that Canada has now created over 650,000 jobs since the recession.”

Some degree of toing-and-froing proceeded en français. Ms. Turmel warned that government policy was shrinking the middle class. Mr. Harper lamented that Ms. Turmel’s side had failed to support the budgets that included the government’s tax cuts and restated his big-sounding number. Ms. Turmel said Mr. Harper’s big-sounding number disguised the fact the unemployment rate is still higher than it once was. Mr. Harper insisted on his math.

No doubt noting yesterday’s exchanges with the official opposition, the Prime Minister and his team of writers had apparently stayed up all night trying to devise the perfect one-liner for use on this third and final round with the interim NDP leader. So apparently delighted was Mr. Harper with the result that he switched back to English to deliver it.

“The NDP seems to misunderstand its role when it stands up and votes against job-creation measures,” he prefaced. “It is not supposed to just occupy the House, it is supposed to do something for the Canadian people.”

The Conservatives around him leapt up to salute their man’s withering wit.

A few minutes later, almost as postscript, Liberal leader Bob Rae stood with another of his side’s little ideas (of the sort, it should be noted, that the Prime Minister regularly makes a show of requesting). On previous days, to little obvious effect, it has suggested the government should cancel plans to increase EI premiums in the new year. Here, Mr. Rae offered another gift.

“One practical step that could be taken to deal with the lack of progressivity in the tax system, which, by the way, was referred to yesterday by the Minister of Finance as a big plus for Canada, would be to make the non-refundable tax credits refundable,” he ventured. “Those tax credits apply to kids who are taking piano lessons, kids who are on the margins. Their parents are so poor that they cannot pay taxes. Why will the Prime Minister not change the bill before the House and make sure that those kids can get those benefits?”

On this there was mostly laughter about how silly the Liberals are.

Those laying siege to our parks and public spaces best get comfortable. For while the good news is that your general angst is being noted, the bad news is that your elected leaders are not much more coherently organized than you are.

The Scene. The Canadian Wheat Board, six questions. The economy, five questions. Research and development, four questions. Air safety, the G8 Legacy Fund and crime, three questions each. Trade, the auditor general, bilingualism, democratic reform and salmon, two questions each. Canada Post, Iran, Saudi Arabia, poverty and veterans, one question each.

Stephen Harper, six answers. Gerry Ritz, five answers. Gary Goodyear and John Baird, four answers each. Denis Lebel, three answers. Gerald Keddy, James Moore, Keith Ashfield, Peter Van Loan and Rob Nicholson, two answers each. Tim Uppal, Steven Fletcher, Tony Clement, Vic Toews, Diane Ablonczy, Diane Finley and Steve Blaney, one answer each.

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