The Commons: Say everything

With a sea of troubles lapping at our shores, the government opts to appease every possibility

The Scene. A day after the Prime Minister’s Office delighted in demonstrating their man’s eagerness to meet with the Governor of the Bank of Canada and the Finance Minister—both of them, at the same time—the leader of the opposition stood and asked if Mr. Harper might tell the House what the three men had talked about and what plans they had made. Here is how the Prime Minister responded.

“Mr. Speaker, as I have said many times, we have an economic action plan. That’s why we received a mandate from Canadians. Obviously, we are concerned about developments in Europe and elsewhere, but at the same time, the Canadian economy has created more than 600,000 jobs. This is one of the best records throughout the industrialized world. We will continue to do so.”

Apparently this much was news to Mr. Carney and Mr. Flaherty. (Later, the Finance Minister would say he could not comment on the contents of these discussions because the meeting in question was “private.” Which is a funny adjective to apply to anything that is announced with a news release, then videotaped and photographed for public distribution.)

On matters of the economy, the Prime Minister has mostly settled on two responses: say nothing or say everything. Here, obviously, he had chosen to go with the former. It most other cases these last few weeks, the government has gone with the latter.

At present, we are given to understand, the government is committed to “stay the course.” At the same time, it promises to be “flexible and pragmatic.” And while last week the Conservatives clapped and cheered as David Cameron sang a song of austerity, this week the government has taken to referring regularly and repeatedly to its own “expansionary” fiscal policy.

It is easy to understand why the government presently comports itself with such prudence.

Running for re-election a few years ago, Prime Minister both dismissed the possibility of a recession and swore never to go into a deficit. A few days after the vote, Mr. Harper conceded that predicting the future was a fraught exercise, but a few months later his government went ahead anyway and projected budgetary surpluses through fiscal year 2013-2014.

A few months after that, the government decided it would have to run deficits to a cumulative total of $84.9 billion, with a return to surplus in 2013-2014.

A year after that, it was $164 billion in debt, with deficits through 2014-2015.

A year after that, it was a mere $159 billion in debt, with a return to surplus in 2015-2016, except that 17 days later—and by then thrust into an election campaign—the government decided it would be back into surplus in 2014-2015.

Thus on its third return-to-surplus projection in as many years—with varying sizes of deficit spending in between—a careful approach to public pronouncements is no doubt wise. And so now, with the proverbial sea of troubles loudly lapping at our shores, the government opts to appease every possibility. Think the government should be prepared to step up and stimulate the economy? The Harper government promises to do what is necessary. Believe the government should be reigning in spending? The Harper government concurs. Worried about government debt in the worldwide context? The Harper government is too. Concerned that moving to austerity too soon could precipitate a depression? Rest assured, the government is only too proud to presently spend more than it takes in.

“Mr. Speaker, the government continues to run a significant deficit,” the Prime Minister informed the House this afternoon, “as is appropriate at these times, but we are taking steps to ensure the budget will balance as the economy grows.”

This is not to say that anyone else can have it both ways, mind. Nycole Turmel, for instance, lamented today both that the government’s push for austerity was endangering the economy and that it had created a structural deficit. Mr. Harper dismissed this entirely. “Mr. Speaker, that question is incomprehensible,” he protested.

A moment later, Bob Rae was on his feet, reading the Prime Minister’s own words back to him.

“Mr. Speaker, speaking in Lima, Peru, in November 2009, the Prime Minister told that gathering that Canada was not going to make the mistake of balancing the books at all costs, even if it meant raising taxes and slashing public spending. These were the mistakes that led to the Great Depression, he told the gathering,” Mr. Rae recounted.

In his seat, Mr. Harper nodded along with himself.

“I would like to ask the Prime Minister, if those words are correct, and I think most economists around the world would say that they are correct, does he not now recognize that circumstances have changed once again?” he asked. “The world is on the brink of a major recession, slowdown is all around us. What will it take for the government to change course, one again?”

Mr. Harper took this opportunity to criticize Mr. Rae’s record as premier of Ontario in the early 1990s. Mr. Rae was ready for the fight. “Mr. Speaker, over the last five years, the government raised spending, on average, by 18%, by $70 billion. The Prime Minister is in absolutely no position to lecture anyone in Canada on the subject of finances or anything else,” he shot back, wagging his finger.

Here Mr. Rae arrived at the question he’d been setting up.

“The question the Prime Minister has to answer is, what is he going to do when the circumstances change? A payroll tax increase of $1.1 billion is now planned for January 2012,” he reminded everyone. “Would he at the very least cancel that payroll tax?”

Here the Prime Minister had the makings of a conundrum. He is, for the record, staunchly opposed to the NDP’s view that planned reductions to the corporate tax rate should be cancelled. Could he both support a tax cut and a tax increase? Alas, an answer was not forthcoming.

“Mr. Speaker, the member gets on his feet to say, ‘You’re spending too much money. Why don’t you spend more?’ That is the kind of position we have come to anticipate from the member,” he sighed. “Of course, this government’s economic record has been mandated by the Canadian people and praised by analysts around the world. Frankly, everybody in this country has the right to lecture the honourable member about how he managed the Ontario economy.”

This would seem to count as both saying everything and saying nothing at all.

The Stats. The economy, nine questions. The G8 Legacy Fund, eight questions. Peter MacKay, six questions. Crime, five questions. Aboriginal affairs and the RCMP, two questions each. Saudia Arabia, abortion, the flag, veterans, foreign affairs, Ukraine and the Air and Space Museum, one question each.

John Baird, eight answers. Stephen Harper, seven answers. Rob Nicholson, five answers. Jim Flaherty and Peter MacKay, four answers each. John Duncan and Vic Toews, two answers each. Kellie Leitch, Keith Ashfield, Bev Oda, James Moore, Steven Blaney, Diane Ablonczy and Rona Ambrose, one answer each.

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