The Commons: The prudence of pessimism

The Scene. Thomas Mulcair had tried to reason with the government.

“According to StatsCan, of the 300,000 people who have lost their jobs since the election, only four out of 10 workers have qualified for EI. Parliament has spoken and called upon the government to reform employment insurance. Today, the conference board repeated that,” he said. “Why is it doing nothing to help?”

“Mr. Speaker, let us not quibble about the statistics that he is citing,” sighed Diane Finley, accusing Mulcair of misconstruing the situation and “playing petty partisan politics with the futures of real people.”

Now, the NDP deputy leader was merely mad, yelling and pointing across the aisle. “Mr. Speaker, in September, the Conservatives were saying there would be no recession and no deficit. In November, it was a technical recession and small surplus. In January, it was a recession and some deficit. In the past 24 hours, both the parliamentary budget officer and the TD Bank are predicting record deficits and a long recession,” he reported. “What purpose is served by continuing to misstate the facts as she just did on the deficit, the recession and unemployment? Start telling the truth to Canadians. Start respecting the votes in the House and we can start implementing resolutions like the EI proposals adopted two weeks ago. Start helping Canadians and stop lying.”

The Conservative side howled at the allegation. The Speaker reprimanded Mulcair. And Jim Flaherty stood to offer a rare response.

“Mr. Speaker, the budget that we presented only weeks ago in this House made economic assumptions that were more pessimistic than the average of the private-sector forecasters,” he said for the sake of self-congratulation. “We are going to have a lot of opinions about the recession and about the rate of negative growth this year. Having said that, all of the economists say they did not see the recession coming. None of them saw the recession coming and that is why we have made assumptions below the predictions of the private sector economists. I understand the member opposite is not familiar with that because he did not read the—”

The Speaker cut him off there, the Finance Minister’s time having expired.

On the matter of what the economists knew and when, Flaherty was at least half right. Indeed, on October 6, 2008—a week before the federal election—Canadian Press reported that the country’s leading banks were predicting not a recession, but “something worse than a recession.”

And, in fairness, not all those identifying themselves as economists were so pessimistic.

On Sept. 15, Stephen Harper had surmised that, “if we were going to have some kind of big crash or recession, we probably would have had it by now.”

Eleven days later, and just one day after TD Bank had warned that the global economy was headed for a “mild recession,” Harper amended his prediction to warn that only Stephane Dion would bring on such a downturn here. “The only way there is going to be a recession is if they’re elected,” he said of the Liberals during a campaign stop in Alberta.

By election day, the Prime Minister was limiting his predictions to that which he could seemingly control. “We’ll never go back into deficit,” he wrote in an op-ed for the Toronto Star.

Little wonder perhaps that Flaherty and the Finance Department were reluctant to trust the more optimistic projections of the so-called economists when writing the budget. But then pessimism is hardly an answer either.

With Kevin Page, the independent officer of Parliament assigned to scrutinize the government’s accounting, was telling a committee yesterday that Flaherty’s projections weren’t gloomy enough—the deficit over the next two years now projected to be a little over $70-billion—Conservative Mike Wallace appealed to the intrinsic hope of humanity. “I believe part of the issue facing Canada and the world is we need some of the positive stuff,” he said. “And when the positive stuff does come out it tends to get discounted immediately.”

As an example, he cited his own life. “I myself purchased two cars these past two weeks. I am doing my share,” he said. “I think there’s some good news stories. It’s not great news, don’t get me wrong.”

The Liberals were apparently unpersuaded by this testimonial. Yesterday they had raised the case of Ted, a father of four with a wife on disability who didn’t meet employment insurance requirements and was now set to lose his home. Today, they came back with other such tales.

Judy Foote raised the matter of Roger from Harbour Breton, who had waited 70 days to hear back from the government on his EI claim. “I ask the minister this,” Foote said to Finley, “how does she respond to her constituents when they tell her they do not have money to buy medication, pay their bills, or put food on the table for their children?”

Scott Andrews raised the matter of Donald, who waited 16 weeks before money arrived. “I ask the minister this,” Andrew said to Finley, “what do Conservatives say to people like Donald when they are forced by the government to suffer through this ordeal?”

Next to stand was Andrew Kania. “Mr. Speaker, in the Toronto area alone there 207,000 unemployed Canadians not receiving EI benefits. One of those many Canadians is my constituent Dan Troda. He is a 41-year-old disabled Canadian with spinal stenosis. He has three young children, a mortgage, numerous financial obligations. He and his family are very afraid. He has EI approved to him only for re-education funding, not benefits,” Kania explained.

“On behalf of Mr. Troda and all unemployed Canadians, why will the Conservatives not provide the help that is needed now? Mr. Troda is watching right now,” he finished, pointing to a television camera at the other side of the room. “He deserves an answer.”

Finley offered what she could. “Mr. Speaker, we know that these are very trying times for too many people. It is very unfortunate, and unfortunately it is going to continue for a while longer,” she said. “That is why we are investing in additional programs, even for those like Mr. Troda, so that they can get the skills and training they need to get the jobs that will let them take care of their families in the future for many years to come, so that they do not have to rely on the EI system. They will be able to take care of themselves.”

Mr. Troda is invited to drop me an email and let me know if that helped any.

Near the end of Question Period, the government tried to counter all this, and assuage Mr. Wallace, with a question of their own.

“Mr. Speaker, we are all sensitive to the job losses occurring across Canada, but I am hearing from companies in my riding that are hiring,” reported Harold Albrecht, a Conservative from Kitchener. “Could the Minister of Industry please tell us if he has any examples of Canadian companies that are in fact expanding?”

Up came Tony Clement with some happy news.

“Mr. Speaker, over the last months we have had examples of companies expanding throughout the country,” he said. “Just yesterday Associated Packaging Technologies announced it is investing millions into its food packaging plant in Cambridge, which currently employs 130 Canadians and will be considering hiring additional workers. Earlier this month Bombardier announced Lufthansa will be purchasing 30 C series aircraft, with a possible purchase of an additional 30. The contract is for $1.5 billion. Yesterday the city of Timmins confirmed that online services will build a new centre, saving 200 jobs and possibly creating 200 more. Despite the world economic downturn, we are acting and so are—”

The speaker cut him off there, his time had expired. But to the pessimism everywhere else, here was the optimism. The search for realism continues.

The Stats. The CBC and employment, nine questions each. Listeriosis, four questions. Parliamentary budget officer, three questions. The economy, government contracts, forestry and immigration, two questions each. Crime, seniors, tasers, high-speed rail, election financing and the environment, one question each.

James Moore and Diane Finley, nine answers each. Gerry Ritz, four answers. Jim Flaherty, Jacques Gourde, Gerald Keddy and Jason Kenney, two answers each. Rob Nicholson, Peter Van Loan, Keith Ashfield, Jay Hill, Tony Clement and Jim Prentice, one answer each.

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