The Commons: Thomas Mulcair and Stephen Harper play charades

The Scene. What does it mean to act? What is change? What does one do when one takes something and makes it somehow smaller? How should one describe such action?

For all the regular moaning about the rote thuggery of partisanship, this place is periodically like an undergraduate philosophy class. Or at least a game of charades played by men in suits.

“The Auditor General has just revealed that last spring Conservatives hid the cost of their cuts to Old Age Security pensions. According to the AG, the Department of Finance had in fact internally, and I quote: ‘Estimated the gross of net savings of raising the OAS eligibility age,’ ” Thomas Mulcair posited this afternoon. “The NDP had asked time and again but the Conservatives refused to give an answer. Why did the Prime Minister try to hide this $10 billion cut from Canadian seniors?”

“Woah!” called a voice from the opposition side at this apparent revelation.

The news here though is not entirely new. At least to loyal readers of this space.

On May 18 of this year, the Finance Department disclosed that the cost of Old Age Security for the Government of Canada through 2030 was now projected to be $10.8 billion less than it would have been if the Harper government hadn’t changed the eligibility age. Ten days after that, the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions acknowledged that the Office of the Chief Actuary had provided that estimate to the department of Human Resources and Skills Development before the Finance Minister tabled his budget on March 29.

The problem then was the same as it is now: despite seeming to know what changes to OAS would do, the Harper government seemed not particularly eager to be forthcoming. On May 15, Jim Flaherty told reporters that he’d heard the savings could be something like $10 billion or $12 billion. But a day later, when asked for whence those numbers had been heard, the Finance Minister said he’d heard as much from the media. Two days later, as noted above, Mr. Flaherty’s department acknowledged that the number it had was something like the number the Finance Minister had heard.

And the issue then was perhaps the same as it was today: in asking about the matter, opposition MPs had failed to use the proper combination of words.

“Mr. Speaker, of course, what the Leader of the Opposition has just said is completely inaccurate,” the Prime Minister lamented of Mr. Mulcair this afternoon. “There is no cut to Old Age Security in the government’s budget. Seniors will continue to receive the benefits they are expecting to receive.”

The mystery word, you see, was not “cuts,” it was “changes.”

“In the future, there are changes to the program that will result in slower growth to the program, but over the next generation, the program will continue to grow,” Mr. Harper continued. “Although, the changes we have made ensure that it will be sustainable for the generations to come.”

Mr. Mulcair was not convinced that the Prime Minister was playing fair.

“Mr. Speaker, I see, it is not cuts but changes,” he mocked, “but the changes are cuts.”

The English language is rich and mysterious. Misunderstandings are inevitable. And one adds math to the debate, there is the possibility for profound confusion.

“Mr. Speaker, the Auditor General said that the Conservatives have failed to report on long-term fiscal sustainability,” the NDP’s Linda Duncan reported a few minutes later. “He gave them a failing grade on fiscal transparency. He said neither MPs nor Canadians have the relevant information to fully understand the long-term implications of budgets. According to the AG, even the Minister of Finance is not fully informed of the true costs before his budget is tabled and voted on. When does the government plan to deliver its promised report on long-term fiscal sustainability?”

Mr. Flaherty stood, hands folded politely at his waist in front of him, and pleaded something like innocence.

“Mr. Speaker, the Auditor General actually said that he agrees that government finances are sustainable over the long term,” he informed the House. “With respect to his recommendations, we accept them. We have acted and will act in response. The Auditor General agrees we have taken action necessary to ensure long-term sustainable finances and jobs and economic growth over the long term.”

The NDP’s Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe was unimpressed with this offering and wagged her finger at Mr. Flaherty. “Mr. Speaker, the minister does not answer the question at all,” she protested. “It’s easy to take the words of the Auditor General.”

Indeed, she did so herself just then, reading aloud from the bit where the auditor noted the government had failed to make good on a 2007 commitment to produce a report on the long-term sustainability of the government’s finances. “Why did they hide the information?” she asked. “The question is simple.”

Though perhaps not answering the question asked, Mr. Flaherty was relatively straightforward in response. “The report will be available on the finance website this afternoon,” he said.

So apparently all that was required was for the auditor general to guess the magic word.

The Stats. National security, seven questions. The budget, six questions. Foreign investment, five questions. Veterans, four questions. The F-35, three questions. The Navigable Waters Protection Act, ethics, government contracts and food safety, two questions each. Prisons, crime, infrastructure, mortgages and the disabled, one question each.

Stephen Harper, seven responses. Tony Clement and Peter MacKay, four responses. Jim Flaherty, Rona Ambrose, Ed Fast, Denis Lebel and John Baird, three responses each. Vic Toews, Christian Paradis and Gerry Ritz, two responses each. Lisa Raitt, Steven Blaney and Rob Nicholson, one response each.

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