The Commons: Speaking of redundancy

Cabinet ministers could be easily and cheaply replaced with some combination of Wikipedia, Twitter and Pinterest
Environment Minister Peter Kent stands in the House of Commons during question period in Ottawa Friday, March 30, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

The Scene. Kirsty Duncan rose and reminded the Environment Minister of what he had said three days ago.

“Mr. Speaker, last week the Minister of the Environment said of the Round Table on the Environment and the Economy: ‘It was created before the Internet when there were few such sources of domestic independent research and analysis on sustainable development.’ This is no longer the case. There are now any number of organizations and university-based services that provide those services.”

“Very well,” the Liberal MP said, pausing for a moment as if about to say something quite dramatic.

“Can the minister name these organizations and services?” she finally asked.

Peter Kent stood here, not to answer Ms. Duncan’s question, but instead to essentially repeat what Ms. Duncan had just said he said.

“Mr. Speaker, my colleague is quite correct in at least part of her quotation,” he said, though Ms. Duncan seems to have repeated his words nearly verbatim. “I have expressed our government’s appreciation and thanks to the round table for its service over the decades, but it was created a quarter century ago at a time, as my colleague reminded us, when there were very few and limited resources of policy advice on the environment, and in particular, those with regard to the environment and the economy.”

Though Ms. Duncan’s question will have to be left for another day (or at least another set of talking points), Mr. Kent’s point is surely one worth considering. For sure, technology has rendered many things obsolete. From typewriters to bookstores to 95 per cent of all firsthand human interaction, much of what we used to live with is now unnecessary. And with demographics set to place new and expensive pressures on society and government, it is right to think about how we might make do with less. Even if that means doing without some of the institutions and structures on which we are used to relying.

Why, for instance, do we have all these politicians? Do we still need them or could they be replaced with what technology now affords us?

The cabinet minister, for instance, was created long before email. For the price of setting up a gmail account and employing a 20-something intern to type and hit the send button, the day’s talking points could be much more efficiently transmitted. Setting up an iPhone equipped with Apple’s latest Siri technology, those emails could even be read aloud in the House, completely eliminating the need for numerous humans to attend daily to the traditional business of being accountable to Parliament. Julian Fantino, the beleaguered associate minister of defence who seems so very tired of reading the F-35 script every day, would no doubt appreciate this.

Just before asking the Environment Minister to explain himself, Ms. Duncan had stood and ventured a broader condemnation of the government’s approach.

“Mr. Speaker, the government has eliminated the Canadian Environmental Network and the national round table, muzzled scientists, gutted Environment Canada and eliminated the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences. Now it aims to quash dissent from environmental charities and seize control of the research agenda at universities,” she reported. “Does the Prime Minister think that it is appropriate in a democracy to eliminate the accountability that independent science brings and to silence dissent?”

Mr. Kent stood here with assurances.

“Mr. Speaker, this budget demonstrates the Government of Canada’s full commitment to a strong environmental agenda even as we take significant action to address fiscal issues and the deficit,” he explained. “We have renewed funding for a number of key environmental programs, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Species at Risk Act. We have renewed funding to clean up Lake Simcoe and Lake Winnipeg. Under this budget, EC continues to have all of the resources it needs to protect the Canadian environment.”

A simple exchange of emails and we might all have been spared these 60 precious seconds.

Stephen Harper’s ministry currently numbers 39, equal to the largest in this country’s history. How many could the Prime Minister get by with in the interests of fiscal responsibility? Six? Maybe just John Baird? Couldn’t all of the knowledge and opinion they bring to the discussion around the cabinet table be replaced with some combination of Wikipedia, Twitter and Pinterest? Eliminate 20 ministers and all 11 ministers of state and the government saves $2,133,327 in salary bonuses alone. Dump all 28 parliamentary secretaries and save an additional $443,352. Add in car allowances, office budgets and travel expenses—the perks that come with occupying an important seat in this place—and the savings grow.

According to the budget, eliminating the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy will save the government a total of $5.2 million. So, for the cost of 59 iPhones and and perhaps small honorariums for the interns, perhaps half of it could be reinstated.

The Stats. The budget, 10 questions. Old Age Security, four questions. Military procurement, search-and-rescue and ethics, three questions each. Ontario, health care, natural resources, the environment and consumer fees, two questions each. Science, Elections Canada, Lebanon, immigration, poverty and infrastructure, one question each.

Peter Van Loan, seven answers. Kellie Leitch, five answers. Christian Paradis, four answers. Jim Flaherty and Julian Fantino, three answers each. Leona Aglukkaq, Peter MacKay, Dave Anderson, Andrew Saxton and Peter Kent, two answers each. Tim Uppal, Maxime Bernier, Diane Ablonczy, Randy Kamp, Rick Dykstra, Lynne Yelich and Denis Lebel, one answer each.