The Commons: Abbott & Costello fix the economy

Who was away this day. Absent too was What.

The Scene. Michael Ignatieff, perhaps the best-schooled leader of the opposition since at least the last one, opened the proceedings with reference to the American philosophers, William Abbott and Louis Costello.

“Mr. Speaker, 129,000 jobs were lost in January. Personal bankruptcies increased by more than 50 per cent in December,” he said. “On Friday, the Prime Minister said that there will be no more help for Canadians even if the economy continues to worsen. Then, his Minister of Finance said exactly the opposite. So who is on first?”

Who was away this day. Absent too was What. So it fell to Ted Menzies (I Don’t Give A Darn in this analogy) to table the government’s official response. “Mr. Speaker, it is a very plain and simple message that the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance delivered,” Menzies said. “It is as simple as this: The finance minister has said that if the economy continues to decline, this government will not abandon Canadians. The Prime Minister was referring to the fact that he will not accept any amendments to this budget.”

Despite this reassurance that Canadians would be neither abandoned, nor have Parliamentary democracy imposed upon them, the Liberal leader continued with his casting of doubt. Mr. Menzies, easily distracted, responded with complaint about the lack of deference shown his government by the Bloc Quebecois and NDP.

“The only contradiction in this House of Commons is the fact that we have two parties, the Bloc and the NDP, that are refusing to work with the majority representation of Canadians that want to get people back to work and stem the job loss,” he said. “We have the Bloc and the NDP who, before they even read the budget, said they did not care about Canadians losing their jobs.”

A moment later, Mr. Menzies, besmirched apparently by the sound of his own voice, was declaring that now is a not a time to be “playing politics.”

But Ignatieff had by then moved on to a new game—something the American commentator Stephen T. Colbert might call Better Know A Small, Single-Industry, Canadian Town That Will Soon Be Crushed As A Result Of This Government’s Inability To Deal With The Global Economic Crisis.

“Mr. Speaker, let us bring this crisis down to a single community: Mackenzie, British Columbia,” he began. “Four thousand people. Four sawmills, all shut. Nearly 100 per cent unemployment. Not just pulp mill workers, but loggers, truckers and everyone down the line. Everybody there are single-industry towns like this all across Canada. Federal help was promised to Mackenzie last year but it did not work. So what now? Is this government going to let Mackenzie die?”

Menzies would not let this challenge pass without half an answer. “Mr. Speaker, the honourable member who represents the town of Mackenzie has raised that issue many times,” he said.

“Well,” chirped Ralph Goodale, the endlessly helpful Liberal house leader, “listen to him then!”

Liberal Marlene Jennings stood and suggested that various economists were expressing doubt about the government’s economic policy.

“Mr. Speaker,” responded Menzies, “there is an awful lot of experts calling themselves economists.”

Indeed. Self-styled economists abound these days.

One day after Jim Flaherty presented the government’s budget and emergency stimulus measures, something calling itself the “International Monetary Fund” claimed that Canada’s projections had been wildly overstated. Kevin Page, a man believing himself to be the Parliamentary Budget Officer, recently told a parliamentary committee that Mr. Flaherty had over-estimated his stimulus package by at least $8 billion and the expected boost to employment by about 70,000 jobs. A small Toronto-based bank then declared that, based on its calculations, said stimulus would amount to 0.5 per cent of GDP, not the 1.9 per cent promised by Mr. Flaherty.

To these amateur assessments, Mr. Menzies had a rejoinder.

“Let me quote Dale Orr of Global Insight, a very respected economist,” he said. “‘The budget overall was a pretty reasonable compromise.'”

High praise, for sure. Especially when compared with what else Mr. Orr has had to say about the federal budget being overly optimistic and poorly justified.

Unpersuaded by this objective testimony to the government’s approximate reasonableness, the opposition parties kept at Mr. Menzies. The Bloc members were unhappy with various policies of corporate taxation. The NDP’s Jack Layton was just generally unhappy.

“Will the Prime Minister finally admit that the stimulus package that has been put together is not going to do near enough for the vulnerable who are being left behind, to protect the jobs of today and to create the ones we need for tomorrow?” Layton asked, having long since given up hope of receiving an answer.

Under questioning from John McCallum, Menzies finally made a concession of sorts. “As much as members of the opposition would like to suggest that they knew what was coming,” he said, “they knew nothing more about what was coming than anybody did.”

Never mind who’s on first then. This government has clearly settled on a game they think they can win: Who’s least hapless?

The Stats. The economy, 22 questions. Omar Khadr, three questions. Taxation, food safety, mining and the environment, two questions each. Science, women’s rights, Sri Lanka, sports, Chuck Cadman and health care, one question each.

Ted Menzies, 12 answers. Tony Clement, seven answers. Diane Finley, six answers. Lawrence Cannon, four answers. Jean-Pierre Blackburn and Pierre Lemieux, two answers each. Vic Toews, Jim Prentice, Gary Lunn, Josee Verner, Pierre Poilievre and Leona Aglukkaq, one answer each.