The Commons: Philosophical riddles

Who will measure the savings achieved by cutting auditors’ jobs?

The Scene. Bob Rae called it deception. The government, he said, had promised during the election campaign to achieve necessary public service savings through employee attrition. Now, he noted, they were dismissing civil servants by the hundred.

“Why,” he asked, “did the government deceive the people of Canada before the election?”

Here the Prime Minister, like the Public Works Minister the day before, declined the opportunity to loudly champion his recent achievement in the pursuit of proudly held principles.

“Mr. Speaker, the Government of Canada employs hundreds of thousands of people,” he said. “When it is necessary to make adjustments to ensure that taxpayers’ dollars are well spent, we always make sure, wherever possible, that we do that through attrition or reassignment.”

It is in this case an odd quirk of the system —a philosophical riddle—that ensuring taxpayers’ dollars are well spent involves eliminating a department—Audit Services Canada—that was created for the expressed purpose of ensuring taxpayers’ dollars are well spent.

“In this case, we are cutting expenditures that are not necessary,” Mr. Harper assured. “They are duplicative, and will not affect the audit service of the Government of Canada.”

On this crisis of irony, the NDP’s Nycole Turmel next stood to wonder why the government was eliminating jobs at at time when it was explicitly committed to creating them and how an exercise in auditing public expenditures could involve eliminating 92 auditors. Summoning all the authority of his preposterously wordy title—”Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Works and Government Services, for Official Languages and for the Economic Development Agency for the Regions of Quebec”—Jacques Gourde informed the House that the government had been given a “clear” mandate to balance the federal books and that on that count it had gone about rooting out the “worst performing programs and priorities.”

And on that note we returned to the small matter of the G8 Legacy Fund.

It seems now that the RCMP are somehow to some extent involved. Or at least that three Mounties recently had a chat with Marlene Jennings, the former Liberal MP who wrote to the director of public prosecutions in April to suggest there might be something in these gazebos and public toilets worth investigating.

Perhaps something will come of this. Perhaps not. In the meantime, opposition MPs will be afforded the implied authority of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to justify their concerns.

“Mr. Speaker, it has been two weeks since the Treasury Board president was taken down to the Auditor General’s principal’s office and he has been hiding under his desk since. We now know why,” Charlie Angus posited. “There is a criminal investigation into how $50 million was diverted into his riding.”

From his seat, Tony Clement shook his head, apparently disappointed with Mr. Angus’ characterization or tone.

“I suggest the RCMP read the Auditor General’s report, which lays out in excruciating detail how the three amigos, the mayor, the hotel manager and the minister, diverted money for these dubious pork-barrel projects,” Mr. Angus continued. “I would ask the missing member for Muskoka if it is not time to come clean in this House.”

Expressed in the hypothetical, this was not quite a question. But then there could be no reasonable expectation that Mr. Clement would stand and respond anyway.

“Mr. Speaker, another day and another public relations stunt from the opposition,” John Baird sighed instead. “Let us look at what the Auditor General said in his report. I would remind you, Mr. Speaker, that the Auditor General is an independent officer of Parliament, mandated to report to this House. The report says, ‘…no evidence to suggest there was a deliberate attempt to mislead.’ It also says, ‘I am not aware of any specific law that was broken.’ ”

On these words does the government now apparently wish to stand. If the RCMP ends up declining to pursue the matter, a portrait of Tony Clement might be hung beside the bike racks in South River with that inscription engraved underneath.

“Mr. Speaker, I would like to quote the man who has disappeared in this House,” Mr. Angus offered with his supplementary, “who said yesterday in committee that it was factually incorrect to say that money was diverted, while page 37 in the Auditor General’s report clearly contradicts him. If he wants to take that up with the cops, I am sure it is going to go very well for him.”

Mr. Clement was once more moved to shake his head.

“I would like to say to this House,” Mr. Angus continued, “If he gets away with this $50 million scheme, then start counting your spoons and silverware dear public, because they’ve just given this man the keys to the Treasury Board.”

Mr. Angus was quite demonstrative here and there were great groans from the government side. Amid all the noise though no question mark had actually been tabled.

“Mr. Speaker, I have listened with great interest to the comment by the member opposite,” Mr. Baird said upon standing. “I did not hear a question.”

Indeed. And so we have a minister who won’t entertain questions and an opposition member who is done posing them. Just in time for summer break we have reached stalemate.

The Stats. Government spending, six questions. The G8 summit, five questions. Canada Post, four questions. Aboriginal affairs and the G20 summit, three questions each. Foreign investment, employment, credit cards, housing and asbestos, two questions each. The royal tour, fisheries, Lebanon, crime, Afghanistan, immigration, Syria and infrastructure, one question each.

Stephen Harper and John Baird, six answers each. Jacques Gourde, Jim Flaherty and Vic Toews, four answers each. John Duncan, Mike Lake, Maxime Bernier, Deepak Obhrai and Joe Oliver, two answers each. Keith Ashfield, James Moore, Gail Shea, Jason Kenney and Denis Lebel, one answer each.