The Commons: Yelling with purpose

The opposition takes on Canada's oil drilling regulations. Would we be ready for an oil spill?

The Scene. It was a full 25 questions today before anyone referred to Helena Guergis, before any of Pat Martin or John Baird or, sometime later, Marlene Jennings got involved. And then, yes, there was a reference, from the aforementioned Mr. Martin, to crucifixion. But that there had been a full 25 questions before we came to this point, surely counts for something.

This was indeed, in various small ways, a remarkable day. Daniel Paille and Jim Flaherty entertainingly sparred over securities regulation. Mr. Flaherty and John McCallum very nearly yelled each other hoarse over taxation policy. There were two questions about the potential for train traffic through downtown Toronto.

That it all began with David McGuinty, the booming Liberal backbencher, might not have particularly bode well. But then he seemed to have a question of some relevance.

He wanted specifically to know about the nation’s oil drilling regulations and whether we were sufficiently prepared to deal with the sort of disaster now making a mess of the Gulf of Mexico. For whatever reason, the Prime Minister didn’t feel like taking this one, so he passed to Environment Minister Jim Prentice. Mr. Prentice stood and assured Mr. McGuinty that everything was quite all right. Mr. McGuinty was unconvinced.

“Mr. Speaker, in December offshore drilling regulations were deliberately weakened to allow oil companies to set their own environmental protection goals and safety standards,” he shot back.

The Conservative side did not like this much and groaned.

“In contrast to the United States, using a strict and prescriptive approach for every offshore platform, these Conservatives do not even require safety valves and blow-up preventers,” Mr. McGuinty continued. “What this really means is that the Conservatives are asking industry to put the public interest ahead of their self-interest and shareholder profits. Will the government reinstate tough regulations that hold oil companies to the highest standards or not?”

Mr. Prentice then passed to Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis, who similarly attempted reassurance. “Mr. Speaker, nothing is further from the truth. Canadian regulations require companies to prove they can operate safely in specific situations using the most advanced technology tailored to their circumstances,” he said. “We have stringent regulations that put the onus on industry to prove to regulators that they can protect their workers, the public and the environment. No drilling will proceed unless the government is convinced. Canadians expect nothing less.”

Larry Bagnell, the Liberal for Yukon, expected more. “Mr. Speaker, instead of reading his notes why did the minister not explain why the government weakened the requirements?” he sniped.

The Conservatives then howled as Mr. Bagnell proceeded to read from his own notes. And then Mr. Paradis mocked Mr. Bagnell for reading his notes instead of listening. And then the Liberals mocked Mr. Paradis for, once more, turning to his script.

The day did not then, though, spin out of control. Liberal Joyce Murray asked about a moratorium on oil tanker traffic off the B.C. coast. Liberal Gerry Byrne asked about the possibility of disaster and the government’s ability to respond. And then, after an interlude to debate the feasibility of a national securities regulator, Jack Layton picked up the oil inquiry with a series of questions about what the Prime Minister had done since the Gulf of Mexico spill to ensure Canada was sufficiently safeguarded.

Asked in French, the Prime Minister began his response en francais, but then switched to English, apparently to swing back in the opposition’s general direction.

“Quite frankly,” he testified, “I am shocked to hear some of the opposition members suggesting we would copy American regulations.”

Jack Layton was now compelled to yell back, his voice even cracking in the ensuing excitement. “Let us look at the National Energy Board for a minute,” he offered, waving his right hand all about. “This is an industry-friendly body that very recently gave in to pressure from the big oil companies to relax the regulations, to loosen the regulations on drilling in the Beaufort Sea. So that essentially the companies now get to decide what technologies they use, what systems they bring forward, what plans that they have. There is no regulation of any serious nature left. Can the Prime Minister explain to Canadians what the Conservatives are going to toughen up the rules, not loosen them?”

Now over to Mr. Harper, raising his voice and jabbing his finger and attempting to approximate besmirchment. “Mr. Speaker, once again, I am fascinated that a series of disgraceful events in the United States are used as a platform to attack a Canadian regulator,” he moaned. “A Canadian regulator which has an excellent record. A Canadian regulator which responds to these situations, which will continue to improve the situation here in Canada. We are very proud of the job that our regulator and that this country is doing. We have nothing to learn from the United States.”

Now Mr. Layton was waving both hands and demanding to know how we could know that a project off the coast of Newfoundland was sufficiently safe and then Mr. Harper was lamenting all of these attacks on Canada’s good name.

And indeed there was great sound and fury, but at least the noise seemed directed in someway. At least we were yelling about something.

The Stats. The oil industry, eight questions. Securities regulation, crime and Helena Guergis, four questions each. Pensions, taxation, abortion, the Supreme Court, mortgage fraud, forestry, Internet access and transport, two questions each. Tourism, product safety and space exploration, one question each.

John Baird, six answers. Stephen Harper and Jim Flaherty, five answers each. Tony Clement, Vic Toews and Rob Nicholson, four answers each. Christian Paradis, three answers. Jim Prentice, Bev Oda and Denis Lebel, two answers each. James Moore and Leona Aglukkaq, one answer each.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.