The Commons: The Finance Minister goes rogue

'We need advice from the outside'

The Scene. Bob Rae was making fun—pointedly, but sarcastically, mocking the government’s decision to spend $20 million for advice on how to reduce spending. It was, if nothing else, a decent bit of amusement for a Wednesday afternoon.

“Mr. Speaker, a review of public accounts show that the government spending on professional and special services, including the use of consultants, has gone up from $7.24 billion to well over $10 billion, a cumulative increase of over $7 billion,” the Liberal leader informed the House. “I’d like to ask the minister of finance, what does he think the chances are that the $20-million consultants he’s just hired are going to come back and say, ‘You know what a good way is to save money, cut the use of consultants?'”

Here Mr. Rae returned to his seat and here the Finance Minister stood. And here—after some superfluous mocking of Mr. Rae’s time as premier of Ontario—are the altogether remarkable sentences that Jim Flaherty offered in response.

“Yes, we are having experts from outside look at government spending. Yes, we should. Government should not be the sole judge of the way it’s run. We need advice from the outside.”

Had he mispoken? Had he momentarily lost control of his mouth? Did he realize people could hear him saying these things?

Apparently not, because a a few moments later he was saying such things again.

“We should get advice from expertise from the private sector,” he explained for the benefit of the NDP’s Jean Crowder.

Indeed, having said this twice, he was apparently emboldened to then up the philosophical ante.

“Certainly it’s the obligation of government to get the best advice we can,” he told the NDP’s Irene Mathyssen.

The obligation? Of government? Since when? And who says? (Aside, apparently, from the Finance Minister.)

If we were to place any import—if only this once, if only to pass the time—on what the cabinet ministers of this government say out loud, this would seem to categorically contradict much of how this government has chosen to operate. It would seem, in fact, to suggest that Mr. Flaherty has suddenly gone rogue.

Three years ago, for instance, the Prime Minister, who was not present today to hear Mr. Flaherty’s maverick musings, ventured that combatting crime was “maybe the most fundamental reason … the government exists.” And on that note, he sneered at the “the ivory tower experts,” “the tut-tutting commentators” and “the out-of-touch politicians” who do not support his approach to justice policy. Indeed, as the Justice Minister has repeatedly boasted, this government does not govern on the basis of statistics. It does not even attempt to buttress its approach to crime with anything like evidence. It operates, in fact, in direct opposition to the expertise and advice that Jim Flaherty seems to think a government should be obligated to seek.

Perhaps Mr. Flaherty meant only to imply that this standard exists for some of the government’s less-fundamental responsibilities—like budgetary policy and ensuring the judicious and efficient use of public funds. And perhaps only then when a more fundamental responsibility does not take precedence. (This will surely be how he explains it tomorrow when he is forced to retreat from today’s shocking assertions.)

Later this day, for example, the NDP’s Joe Comartin stood to ask if the government might table figures on the estimated costs to the public treasury of the amendments and measures outlined in the government’s omnibus crime bill. It is generally in the government’s contention that such costs are mostly besides the point and the perpetually peeved Mr. Nicholson was predictably unimpressed with the NDP critic’s suggestion.

“Why do those members not stand up for victims of crime for a change?” he asked. “Why not make that a priority?”

Mr. Comartin tried again, this time en francais. Mr. Nicholson duly made a great show of pumping his fist and thrusting his index finger this way and that.

“If that individual wants to get onboard with this,” the Justice Minister ventured, “he should start standing up for victims, people who are the victims of sexual exploitation, do something about drug trafficking in this country, get behind this bill and support it right now.”

If there is a place for expert advice and objective assessment, this was apparently not it.

The Stats. Government spending, nine questions. The economy, six questions. Aboriginal affairs, crime and the environment, four questions each. Trade, the Canada Revenue Agency and the G8 Legacy Fund, two questions each. The G20 summit, equality, transport, immigration, science and Angelo Persichilli, one question each.

Jim Flaherty, nine answers. Peter Kent, four answers. Christian Paradis, Rona Ambrose, Diane Finley and Deepak Obhrai, three answers each. Ed Fast, Gail Shea, Rob Nicholson, Vic Toews and John Duncan, two answers each. Dean Del Mastro, Denis Lebel, Rick Dykstra and Gary Goodyear, one answer each.

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