The Commons: Questions, assurances, innuendo and a man named Donald

Iggy asks why, Layton does some digging and Tony Clement takes a break

091104_slide_commonsThe Scene. Holding his notes in his right hand and gesturing with his left—and with the Prime Minister now physically present—Michael Ignatieff repeated his concerns of the day previous. Why, he wondered, were so many other countries faster to act on the H1N1 flu pandemic? Where, he asked, was the Prime Minister? How, he speculated, was the Prime Minister so quick to pose beside a new roadway, but so invisible now?

If only to give Tony Clement a much-needed day off, Stephen Harper stood to take this one himself. The government, he assured, was following the advise of the chief public health officer. The country’s vaccine supply, he boasted, was supple.

Mr. Ignatieff was quite ready for this. “Mr. Speaker, we keep hearing that the vaccine is available, so why are there shortages?” he mused aloud. “Why are clinics closing? Why are people waiting eight hours in line? There is a disconnect between what the Prime Minister is saying and the reality on the ground. Two weeks ago, the health minister said the vaccine would be available to all Canadians by November. Now it is pushed on until Christmas. Local authorities cannot plan because they cannot predict a reliable federal supply of this vaccine. When will the Prime Minister take his responsibilities and give provinces and territories the predictability they need, but also the resources?”

From the other end of the room, Leona Aglukkaq objected loudly to the Liberal leader’s insinuation.

“Mr. Speaker, on the contrary, the government has been very clear about when and how many doses will be rolled out,” ventured the Prime Minister in response. “Next week there will be an additional 1.8 million doses available. That will bring the total to 8.5 million doses. The provinces are in the process of distributing this. It is the largest and quickest mass vaccine program in Canadian history, and of course we will do everything necessary to support their efforts in this regard.”

Mr. Ignatieff changed tact slightly. “Mr. Speaker, the Auditor General reported yesterday that for four years, this government has failed to prepare an emergency preparedness program that would coordinate the activities of government in a time of national crisis, such as a national H1N1 pandemic,” he reported. “Does the Prime Minister agree with the Auditor General’s findings? Does he agree with those findings, and if so, when will the government present the plan that she requires and that it’s committed to provide?”

There was grumbling from the other side, but  Mr. Harper took the opportunity to clarify the government’s complex system for paperwork classification. “Mr. Speaker, of course the vaccination program is being run under the national pandemic plan, not under the emergency response plan,” he said, “so the leader of the opposition has his facts confused in this regard.”

Next came the Liberal clean-up hitter, Ralph Goodale wagging his large fist and wide, white shirt cuffs. “For $45 million, the Conservative government could hire 3,000 extra nurses, or double the number of vaccination sites, or extend the hours of operation to accelerate flu vaccinations. That is the priority, to get more people vaccinated faster,” he emphatically suggested. “Why are these Conservatives putting up to $45 million into partisan signs on everything from trains to doorknobs, $45 million for signs instead of helping people fight the flu?”

John Baird stood to plead the government’s case. “We have an important responsibility in these tough economic times,” he said, “to report back to Canadians on the great success and the number of jobs and opportunities that are being created from coast to coast to coast.”

Mr. Goodale persisted. The government side grumbled. Mr. Baird stood and spoke loudly, his Conservative colleagues hearing the loud noise and taking it to mean they should stand and applaud.

Next to this file was Jack Layton. The NDP leader tried first to reason with the Prime Minister. When that failed to win him a concession, he opted for innuendo.

“The exclusive 10 year contract for the vaccine was awarded to Shire Biologics by the federal Liberals in 2001,” Mr. Layton reported, “the same year that they received $57,000 from that company.”

“Ooooohh!” sang the Conservatives.

“Shire has since been sold to GlaxoSmithKline,” Detective Layton continued. “GSK’s lobbyist is Ken Boessenkool, a personal friend of the Prime Minister.”

“Ooooohh!” sang the Liberals.

“Was Ken Boessenkool,” Mr. Layton finally asked, “the person who convinced the government that there was no need to go outside the contract with GSK to get additional supplies of the vaccine?”

The Prime Minister chose to ignore this question entirely.

Shortly thereafter, it was Bonnie Crombie, the Liberal backbencher from Mississauga who sought to impart some relevancy on the discussion.

“Mr. Speaker, yesterday in my riding, Donald and his wife waited five hours at an H1N1 clinic,” she said.

There were groans from the government side.

“When Donald finally reached the front of the line, he was turned away because they were running short and needed to save doses for priority recipients. Donald is 56 years old and a diabetic, clearly in the high-risk category,” Crombie continued. “We keep hearing misleading slogans about six million doses and the highest per capital. Obviously, Donald and the millions like him do not make the grade. The government says it will have enough vaccine by Christmas, but the flu is here now. Where is the leadership?”

This was deemed a question for the Health Minister.

“Mr. Speaker, we are ahead of schedule in getting the vaccine to the provinces and the territories. Six million doses have been distributed, 1.8 million more, 225,000 for unadjuvanted vaccine to the provinces and territories,” she assured. “Territories and provinces are rolling out their campaigns, and we will continue to work with the provinces and territories in their roll-out. By next week, some jurisdictions will have completed their mass immunization campaign.”

And so it is that everything is, or soon will be, more or less fine. Unless, of course, it is not, or won’t be.

The Stats. H1N1, 13 questions. Employment, seven questions. Infrastructure, five questions. The environment, immigration, heritage buildings, toy safety and firearms, two questions each. Foreign aid, farmers and the seal hunt, one question each.

Stephen Harper, eight answers. John Baird, six answers. Leona Aglukkaq, five answers.  Jason Kenney, four answers. Jean-Pierre Blackburn and Peter Van Loan, three answers each. Jim Prentice and Rob Merrifield, two answers each. Peter MacKay, Josee Verner, Bev Oda, Gerry Ritz and Stockwell Day, one answer each.

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