The Commons: Retro Wednesday

The Scene. Ralph Goodale stood to applause and chants of his first name, a garish tie hanging from his neck. With Michael Ignatieff away, it was the Liberal house leader’s privilege to lead the official opposition’s interrogation of the government side.

Goodale is, in various ways, the epitome of a parliamentarian, or at least the living embodiment of the sort of politician many must imagine when they think of this place. First elected in 1974, three months shy of his 25th birthday, he was defeated in 1979, 1980 and 1988, only to return in 1993. Reelected another five times, his service now stands at some 7,445 days. He’s held seven ministerial portfolios and, for the past two years, possessed the title of house leader for Her Majesty’s opposition. He is a blustery, partisan, fast-talking Prairie boy from Wascana, a frequent heckler well-schooled in the ways and means of legislation and procedure and equipped by now with a long memory for otherwise forgotten votes and policies.

But if Mr. Ignatieff operates here with a scalpel, Mr. Goodale tends to prefer a sledgehammer. And so the absence of the former and prominence of the latter surely made what followed foreseeable and ultimately familiar.

“Mr. Speaker, this week’s employment insurance numbers are not good. More than 600,000 jobless Canadians had to seek benefits in February, but thousands of others remain ineligible. The Bank of Canada says this recession is intensifying, but the government has no contingency plan. The more the Conservatives remain in denial, the more this becomes their Conservative recession,” he began unsubtly. “Would the Prime Minister confirm that an economic update is coming in September to fix, among other things, the current EI rules that exclude too many jobless Canadians?”

This was, by most measures, a reasonably reasonable request. But the preface had rendered it moot.

“Mr. Speaker, once again, of course there will be an economic statement in the fall. There always is an economic statement in the fall. It would be too early to prejudge what will be in that statement, but I have to take some issue with the honourable member,” the Prime Minister responded. “Everybody knows we are part of a global recession. This government has responded with the largest stimulus package in Canadian history that we believe is having a good effect in the Canadian economy, but certainly no matter how hard the Liberal party pushes, we are not going to raise taxes as a solution to anything.”

Stephen Harper returned to his seat. A couple backbenchers stood to be seen approving.

Back came Goodale, surely ready for this: “Mr. Speaker, two and a half million Canadians remember that he said the same thing about income trusts.”

The Liberal side stood to cheer.

“The Prime Minister claims that 80 per cent of eligible unemployed Canadians get EI benefits, but that misses the point. The point is that those eligibility rules are too tight for today’s reality. They were designed at the beginning of an unprecedented surge in economic growth that lasted more than a decade, but the surge is over. The growth has stopped. The rules do not work anymore and the recession is on the Conservative watch,” Goodale continued. “Will there be a fiscal update and will they fix EI?”

“Mr. Speaker, I just answered the question,” responded the Prime Minister, perhaps seeking a new interpretation of the verb to answer. “In fact this government has already brought in important improvements to EI that make the system much more generous than the one we inherited. When it comes to taxes, Canadians know this government cut business taxes. This government cut the GST. This government cut personal income taxes.

“This government allowed income splitting for our pensioners and every single time, the party of taxation, the Liberal Party, voted against those measures.”

Another backbencher stood to have his support registered.

Now that Goodale was sufficiently warmed up, the words came fast and loud. “Mr. Speaker, this party cut taxes by more than $100 billion,” he fired. “The Prime Minister does not seem to realize that thousands of jobless families, the Canadians that he excludes from EI, are not getting the help they need during a recession that is intensifying, that the Conservatives now own. They own it because they will not help. They peddle stupid fiction about taxes.”

The Conservatives grumbled.

“They let CPP executives get big bonuses,” the Liberal continued. “They hand lucrative media contracts to George Bush lackeys in the U.S. Why are the Conservatives more concerned about helping themselves than helping jobless Canadian families?”

The Liberal side stood to applaud. Harper was up before they’d finished.

“Mr. Speaker, that is interesting coming from the Liberal Party. Talk about fiction on taxes and EI. The last time we had a recession, it cut employment insurance, raised taxes and cut transfers to the provinces for health and education,” he said, pointing furiously at the ground in front of him. “This government has done exactly the opposite, helping working Canadian families when times are tough.”

The whole government side jumped now, loud and proud. A gleeful Gary Goodyear used his hands to swing an imaginary bat, an apparent salute to his leader’s Ruthian prowess.

Liberal backbencher Lise Zarac went next, repeating Goodale’s concern for the public funds spent on American media consultants. “You gave an American professor your leader’s job,” Baird cried, laughing a moment later at his own wit. Up came the Prime Minister’s parliamentary secretary, Pierre Poilievre, to feign shock and hurt and seriousness.

Then it was Rodger Cuzner’s turn, the Liberal whip carrying on like an East Coast version of his house leader.

“Mr. Speaker, it is interesting that the Conservatives use the TV time to talk about the banking system,” he yelped in the Prime Minister’s direction. “The honourable member will separate his shoulder patting himself on the back about the banking system, when Canadians know it was successive Liberal governments that stood up for banks.

“Half of that front bench fought tooth and nail to deregulate the banks in this country. If we had listened to them, if they had their way, we would be in the same mess as the states are in. Why do they not quite playing politics and stand up for the people of this country?”

Across the way, Chuck Strahl scowled and mocked. Pierre Poilievre shook his head and then stood to moan. “Mr. Speaker, the Liberals want to blame us for everything that is going on in the economy and then take credit for everything that is going right,” he said. “We have defended our financial institutions. This party and both of its legacy parties opposed any merger of the bank. That is our record. We pressured them to back down from allowing those to go ahead, but more than anything, they are trying distract from what their Liberal leader said. He said, ‘We will have to raise taxes.’ Those were his words on April 14.”

The Prime Minister smiled, confident perhaps in his chances so long as the other side insists on a shouting match.

The Stats. The economy, five questions. Swine flu and employment, four questions each. The civil service, government funding and the environment, three questions each. Taxation, securities regulation, Omar Khadr, listeriosis, flag pins, fisheries and foreign affairs, two questions each. Ministerial expenses and electoral law, one question each.

Diane Finley, six answers. Stephen Harper and Jim Flaherty, five answers each. Gerry Ritz, three answers. Pierre Poilievre, Deepak Obhrai, Mark Warawa, James Moore, Gail Shea and Peter Kent, two answers each. Jason Kenney, Peter Van Loan, Lisa Raitt, Leona Aglukkaq, Lynne Yelich, Denis Lebel and Steven Fletcher, one answer each.

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