The Commons: A wee battle

Smilin’ Jim Flaherty and Squeaky Omar Alghabra have at it in a rhetorical smackdown

The Scene. Perhaps because they are both barely tall enough to ride most roller coasters, the lively scrap this week between Liberal backbencher Omar Alghabra and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has largely escaped notice. Of course, there have been a few controversies to distract one’s mind.

“The world is being turned upside down,” thundered the Bloc’s Michel Guimond on Thursday. “This is through the looking glass.”

He was referring, apparently, to the government’s allegedly dodgy approach to election financing.

A moment later, Jack Layton was up. “It’s smelling like a recession soon,” he observed, raising any number of questions about what odour exactly an economic downturn generally emits.

Next, the Liberals were outlining all the ways in which this Prime Minister is exactly like Richard Nixon.

But let’s not again get off track.

This week’s top feud began savagely enough on Tuesday, when Alghabra engaged the Finance Minister with the following. “Mr. Speaker, Ontarians remember the failed policies of Mike Harris and that finance minister. Their policies gave Ontario a $5.6 billion hidden deficit, hospital closures, thousands of nurses fired, the Walkerton catastrophe, the Hydro mess, the heartless attacks on the homeless and Ipperwash. They even bungled meat inspections … Why is the minister determined to recycle policies that we know have failed in the past?”

Flaherty responded with due regard for Alghabra’s concerns. “I know, Mr. Speaker, Mike Harris was responsible for most of the snowstorms that fell each winter in Toronto and around the province of Ontario. I know he was responsible when the weather forecasts were inaccurate. Let me point out for the member opposite that in 1995 we inherited a rather dismal fiscal situation from the now Liberal member for Toronto Centre. I also point out that we achieved balanced budgets.”

Back, then, to Alghabra. “Mr. Speaker, that answer proves my point. The minister is delusional.”

Good stuff. Worthy enough of an encore, which came today with round two of this titanic clash between Omar “The Pint-Sized Pugilist” Alghabra and Smilin’ Jim.

First up, Squeaky Omar. “Mr. Speaker, my question is to the Minister of Finance, not to the Minister of Industry,” he began, attempting to keep Jim Prentice from protecting Flaherty, as the Industry Minister has done regularly of late. “This week the GM plant in Oshawa laid off another 900 workers. The job losses are just down the street from this minister’s office, but he does not bother to lift a finger to help. He is too busy giving his cronies untendered contracts. When will the minister at least act like he cared?”

Courageously, Prentice threw himself in front of this blow, but for his efforts was only soundly mocked for his choice of pants (seemingly golf slacks) by the Liberal wits.

Score that exchange for the Liberal then, if only by default.

“Mr. Speaker, Canadians are walking with their pink slips past the office of the Minister of Finance,” Alghabra began his next turn, appealing to whatever remained of Flaherty’s self respect, “so it is disappointing but not surprising that he is letting the minister from Calgary answer that question.”

This begged the Finance Minister to stand, and so he did. “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “it is pretty obvious that this Liberal member from the city of Toronto does not understand much about the car business.”

You see, those in Toronto don’t drive. They take public transportation. And that puts those elitist jerks out of touch with real working men like, er, the Finance Minister.

Anyway. At this point, John McCallum stepped in, the Liberal finance critic unwilling to let a good find go without his involvement.

“Actually,” McCallum first corrected, “he is from Mississauga.”

Then onward McCallum stepped, unleashing a veritable flurry of incrimination.

“The finance minister offers a veritable smorgasbord of ethical clouds: An illegal contract now under investigation by the Ethics Commissioner; an uneconomic train chugging through his riding; millions of taxpayers’ dollars wending their way to an organization extremely close to his wife.

“Can he at least guarantee to this House that today is the end of his ethical breaches?”

Now everyone was storming the ring, hooting and hollering and accusing the other of gross indecency. Flaherty was red-faced and furious. “You should be ashamed of yourself!” he yelled half a dozen times in McCallum’s direction. When called upon by the Speaker to offer an official response, the Finance Minister demanded his shadow critic apologize.

But McCallum would not. “The fact that he did not answer my question about future ethical clouds,” he posited, “is an incriminating non-answer.”

At this, the familiar grin returned to Flaherty’s face. And then he was up and yelling back at the heckles of Liberal house leader Ralph Goodale.

“The member for Wascana day after day barks on the other side. Relax for a minute. Let me answer the question,” the Finance Minister smirked. “You will make a great mayor in Regina some day.”

“Ouch!” cried a member of the Conservative side.

As if running the Queen City of the Prairies were such an ignoble fate.

The Stats. The economy, eight questions. Election financing, six questions. The auditor general, three questions. Elections Canada, the Prime Minister, employment, the Finance Minister, policing, Afghanistan and cluster bombs, two questions each. Crime, international aid, food prices, child care and Quebec media, one question each.

Peter Van Loan, nine answers. Pierre Poilievre, six answers. Maxime Bernier, four answers. Jim Prentice, Jim Flaherty and Monte Solberg, three answers each. Stockwell Day and Gary Lunn, two answers each. Rob Nicholson, Bev Oda, Christian Paradis and Josee Verner, one answer each.

Looking for more?

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