The Commons: Tony Clement’s bike racks, streetlights and boulevards

About the only thing the G8 legacy fund didn’t pay for was an antique steamboat

The Scene. By Thomas Mulcair’s reckoning this was a scandal—”Sponsorship scandal 2.0,” he dubbed it, perhaps hopefully.

The Prime Minister moved quickly to correct the NDP deputy. The Auditor General, Mr. Harper explained, had merely “suggested several recommendations to improve the process in the future.”

Mr. Mulcair was unpersuaded. “No accountability, no transparency, no justification of decisions,” he cried, reviewing the charges.

The Prime Minister stuck to his story. “As I said before,” he recounted, “the Auditor General suggested several recommendations to improve the approval process in the future and we will accept its recommendations.”

Mr. Mulcair fumed for a third time—Parliament kept in the dark, funds redirected, a restored steamboat, etc—but Mr. Harper only barely budged. “The Auditor General has suggested changes in the estimates process to improve transparency,” the Prime Minister allowed.

For sure, that is one way of putting it. Less charitably, one might say that Tony Clement stands accused of not only using public funds to spread trinkets around his riding, but of drawing those funds from an account approved by Parliament for the purposes of “border infrastructure” and of constructing a selection process that involved only Mr. Clement and several small town mayors and that left no paper trail.

The sort of thing, in other words, that would’ve driven a younger Stephen Harper and various members of the governing caucus—fun fact: the Conservative side includes not one, but now two former directors of the presumptuously named Canadian Taxpayers Federation—to fits of righteous indignation and principled outrage.

If the government would not express shame now, the NDP’s Charlie Angus moved to impose it upon them. “Mr. Speaker, the Auditor General revealed today that the Treasury Board allowed the former minister of industry to set up a $47 million slush fund for pork-barrel projects in his riding,” he recounted. “Here is how it went down: There was the minister, there was a mayor and there was a hotel manager who dished out the loot. There was no oversight. There was no documentation. There were no questions asked. This is just one step up from cash in a brown paper bag.”

There were groans and hisses from the Conservative benches.

“So,” Mr. Angus finally asked, “is this how the minister will plan to run the Treasury Board?”

Momentarily struck with the inability to stand and account for himself, Tony Clement was compelled to remain seated and let John Baird take this one. Mr. Baird was, understandably, besmirched. “Mr. Speaker,” he sighed, “so much for the civility that the leader of the opposition promised Canadians.”

“Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Angus shot back, “there is nothing civil about the abuse of taxpayers’ trust.”

So perplexing was the abuse that the New Democrat was now moved to explain it in old timey terms. “They told us that they were requesting money for border infrastructure and they fuddled it off for pork-barrel projects on gazebos and steamboats and everything else the minister could think of,” Mr. Angus proclaimed. “This is the kind of rum-bottle, pork-barrel politics that Canadians are fed up with.”

Mr. Baird was once more disappointed. “Mr. Speaker, my colleague opposite from Timmins—James Bay is making it up as he goes along,” he lamented. “In fact, not one of the 32 projects was a steamship.”

Indeed, we must be precise. We all surely owe Mr. Baird and Mr. Clement that much. So let it be noted here and noted by all that the antique steamboat was, in fact, funded through an entirely different envelope of public money and there is a difference between the funds that were used to restore the SS Bigwin and the funds—the G8 Legacy funds—that were used to build new public washrooms in Burk’s Falls (44km from the summit site), a new gazebo in Seguin (67km from the summit), new streetlights in Kearney (40km from the site), new paving stone boulevards in Parry Sound (100km from the summit) and the new town clock in Sundridge (63km from the site).

Mock the bike racks in South River (72km from the summit) if you must, but let us agree here and now that the Bigwin, that fine sailing ship, should not have its good name tarnished by association.

In the interests of drawing fine distinctions, Bob Rae next turned to one of the larger points here. “Mr. Speaker, to the Prime Minister, he cannot get around the fact that in November 2009, the supplementary estimates tabled in Parliament included a request for approval to spend $83 million for an item entitled: ‘border Infrastructure fund related to investments in infrastructure to reduce border congestion,’ ” the Liberal leader ventured. “The simple fact is, the government used that money for a completely different purpose. Huntsville is 300 miles away from the closest border in Niagara Falls. How does he explain this bait and switch?”

Turns out, the Prime Minister explains it quite easily. “Mr. Speaker, if the leader of the Liberal Party had looked at the border fund he would realize that it is frequently used for projects that are not in border communities,” Mr. Harper said.

In his days of minority government, Mr. Harper might’ve been expected to merely shrug away an accusation of wrongdoing (see his aforementioned exchange with Mr. Mulcair). But is the Prime Minister so relaxed now in the wake of majority victory that he is willing to confess to levels of looseness to which he was not even accused? There were guffaws from the Liberal corner at whatever this was meant to be.

A short while later, Judy Foote stood to ask how the government could justify spending on “fake lakes and gazeboes,” while cutting funds for search and rescue operations in Newfoundland. In response, Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield would assure the House that no one’s safety will be compromised, but not before first reminding everyone of what happened last month.

“Mr. Speaker,” he said, “we are acting on the strong mandate that we received from Canadians to implement our budget proposals and deficit reduction measures.” He might’ve stuck a period after “Canadians.” And the government side might as well make that the answer to every question for at least the next few years.

Coincidentally, Mr. Harper spent much of the rest of the hour sharing smiles and laughs with members of his frontbench. He seemed to be in a positively delightful mood.

The Stats. The G8 summit, nine questions. Aboriginal affairs, five questions. Libya, four questions. HIV, Canada Post, telecommunications, credit cards, shipbuilding and the environment, two questions each. The RCMP, veterans, fisheries, bilingualism, taxation, equality, seniors and the budget, one question each.

John Baird, seven answers. Stephen Harper, five answers. John Duncan, four answers. Jim Flaherty and Rona Ambrose, three answers each. Chris Alexander, Leona Aglukkaq, Christian Paradis and Peter Kent, two answers each. Rick Dykstra, Vic Toews, Lois Brown, Keith Ashfield, James Moore, Tony Clement, Lisa Raitt and Steven Fletcher, one answer each.