The Commons: There must be something here to disagree about

The opposition pounces on the “fairness” with which the government issued its shipbuilding contracts

The Scene. First, the unquestionably good news.

“Mr. Speaker, today, myself, the NDP shipbuilding critic from Sackville-Eastern Shore, and all New Democrats celebrate with the workers of Nova Scotia and British Columbia,” Nycole Turmel informed the House.

Alas, this is Question Period and so this much would not suffice.

“But for other workers,” Ms. Turmel continued, “yesterday’s announcement came up $2 billion short. Instead of announcing the full $35 billion in contracts, the government picked winners and losers. The Prime Minister left major shipyards like Davie vulnerable. Why?”

The NDP leader’s lament was not well received.

“This is your angle?” begged James Moore from the government frontbench.

“You’re the loser!” cried a voice from the near corner of the Conservative side.

Opposition is the NDP’s constitutional responsibility. Fifty-nine Quebec MPs is its political reality. So here we were. However much two shipyards won in yesterday’s procurement sweepstakes, one firm—in Quebec—lost. And however much the government rejects everything the NDP represents and champions, it is not above angling to use New Democrat agreement as confirmation of righteousness.

“Mr. Speaker,” explained the Prime Minister, “while the leader of the NDP has chosen at the last hour to criticize the process, the fact of the matter is this. The NDP member of Parliament for Louis-Hébert said, ‘We would like to ensure that all the processes are clear and transparent and we recognize that that is the case here.’ In the case of the NDP member for Sackville-Eastern Shore, he said, ‘We are very pleased and we congratulate the government on that process.’ ”

Alas, this did not quite convince Ms. Turmel to cease with her questions. “Mr. Speaker, yes, we agree and everyone agrees that the awarding of government contracts should not be a partisan process,” she allowed with her third opportunity. “This should be the case, for naval contracts, fighter aircraft and for the G8 gazebos. That said, it is the duty of government to implement a national strategy of development of the shipbuilding industry.”

As appeals for consistency go, this was a masterpiece. Either the shipbuilding industry should be given its own G8 Legacy Fund—seafaring gazebos for everyone!—or the G8 Legacy Fund should’ve been handled with the sort of discretion reserved for shipbuilding procurement.

Showing the resolve that has made him a three-term prime minister, Mr. Harper talked right past this conundrum. “The position on our side is, of course, completely clear,” he ventured. “These are great initiatives not just for the shipbuilding industry but for the Canadian economy. New Democrats have to get together and work out their policy on the other side. Meanwhile, we will get on with making sure that shipbuilding and the Canadian economy move forward.”

A moment later, the NDP’s Denis Blanchette suggested the government find some way to work with the Davie shipyard and Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose duly stood and noted that another 100 ships needed to be built and decades more of maintenance to be accounted for. This sounded something like the start of something that might eventually amount to a point of common cause. But before this could take hold, Bob Rae was up with another of this pesky inconsistencies.

“Just very simply, to the Prime Minister,” he pleaded. “If he can have a fairness officer rendering an opinion, if he can have a competition which is non-partisan, if he can have a process which is generally seen as being fair and objective when it comes to the shipbuilding contracts, why can the government not see the logic of doing the same thing with respect to the purchase of several billion dollars worth of new fighter jets for the country?”

Of course, however much he deplored the Liberal government and everything it ever did, the Prime Minister is not unwilling to credit it for decisions he doesn’t want to defend.

“The fact of the matter is, the previous Liberal government was part of an international process to select an aircraft company to develop the fifth generation fighter,” Mr. Harper posited. “That is obviously why this government is proceeding in that way.”

And if the Liberal side agreed even a little bit with this interpretation of history, we might’ve had the start of another agreement here too.

The Stats. Shipbuilding, seven questions. The economy and fisheries, four questions each. Military procurement and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, three questions each. The Canadian Wheat Board, Canada Post, taxation, veterans and the G8 Legacy Fund, two questions each. Salmon, supply management, the environment, Africa, health care, sports, gay rights and crime, one question each.

Stephen Harper, six answers. Keith Ashfield, five answers. Rona Ambrose and Jim Flaherty, four answers each. Gerry Ritz, John Baird and Bernard Valcourt, three answers each. Julian Fantino, Steven Blaney and Steven Fletcher, two answers each. Michelle Rempel, Bev Oda, Leona Aglukkaq and Rob Nicholson, one answer each.

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