The Scene. Shortly before 2 o’clock, in the midst of the capital’s first truly sweltering afternoon this year, a man in a dark suit and plastic animal mask—depicting a sheep, it seems—stood outside the Centre Block entrance reserved for Members of Parliament, handing out copies of former MP Garth Turner’s new book. Said book, as the animal mask was apparently intended to relate, is entitled Sheeple, a term apparently applied to people who often take on the characteristics—curly white hair covering most of the body, fondness for grazing, tendency to do as told—of sheep.
This was conceivably done to make some point. Or poke fun. Or sell a few books. Or some combination thereof. And, for sure, there should be nothing to prohibit anyone from making points, poking fun, or selling books about all that is obvious and absurd and obviously absurd about this place.
But then, in fairness, so much has changed in the six months or so since Mr. Turner was unceremoniously voted out of office. For one, the party to which he was most recently a member has found a new leader, this one fluent in all sorts of English verbs and tenses. For another, that leader has insisted on Question Period being something other than an opportunity to try and convict one’s rivals of various moral crimes.
Today’s session, for instance and as coincidence would have it, began with several fine and reasoned exchanges of inquiry and information. For perhaps a full half hour—with a man in a suit and an animal mask sweating away outside—the proceedings were both graceful and informative, genteel and respectful.
Oh, and boring. Dreadfully, dreadfully boring.
Michael Ignatieff rose first to request more information on the progress of swine flu in Canada. “Mr. Speaker, Canadians are concerned about the swine flu. There are six confirmed cases in Canada, four in Nova Scotia, two in British Columbia. Two Quebecers may have contracted the virus and other cases could be confirmed shortly,” he said. “What measures does the government therefore propose to address this situation?”
Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, the rookie suddenly tasked with managing a global pandemic, stood, expressed her concern for the victims of today’s earthquake in Mexico and proceeded to update the House on her conversations with international, national and provincial officials these last few days.
“Mr. Speaker,” responded Ignatieff, “I thank the health minister for the information she has given us.”
The Liberal leader asked about an international travel advisory, the Health Minister assured him of a multi-department response by her government. Ignatieff then wondered how the situation might effect the travel of seasonal workers.
“Mr. Speaker,” replied Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, “I thank the member for his important question.”
A short while later, it was Carolyn Bennett’s turn, the Liberal health critic rising to question the Health Minister.
“Mr. Speaker,” she said. “I would like to thank the Minister of Health for her call yesterday. After a quick reading of the main estimates, it appears that there is $12 million less this year for emergency preparedness response than last year in the Public Health Agency of Canada’s budget, which includes pandemic preparedness and response. Will the Minister of Health unequivocally assure this House that there will be adequate resources available to respond to this threat of a flu pandemic, and ensure an adequate supply of antivirals?”
Aglukkaq assured her there was.
Then it was Kirsty Duncan, the Liberal rookie and science professor. “Mr. Speaker, I would first like to thank the minister for the briefing this morning,” she began. “We were told that there are 55 million doses in the antiviral stockpile. I understand that the chief public health officer and the CFO of the Public Health Agency are in negotiations with Treasury Board to buy more. Will the minister assure Canadians that sufficient money will be provided for whatever the agency officials deem necessary to protect Canadians?”
“Mr. Speaker,” responded Aglukkaq, “the answer is yes.”
Aside from a couple outbursts—Bob Rae and Deepak Obhrai sparring on the appropriateness of Canada’s response to the situation in Sri Lanka, Pierre Poilievre using a question about the Parliamentary Budget Officer to direct scrutiny on the Speaker, Jack Layton and Michael Ignatieff—there was, for awhile, a general sense of coherence and utility to the proceedings. Even Layton, who has often struggled to find the right tone and volume of voice in this new era of reasonableness, managed to pose at least one question in a non-hysterical manner.
Not until Carol Lavallee, the persistent Bloc MP, started hectoring the government about federal jurisdiction did that familiar noise return. Soon enough, Tony Clement was up waving his arms, conducting the imaginary orchestra in his head. Then John Baird was heckling Ujjal Dosanjh. Then Marlene Jennings was chirping at Peter Van Loan. And Baird was screaming at Jean Crowder. And Irene Mathyssen was calling across the aisle to Jason Kenney.
Then, with the second last question of the day, the Conservatives sent up Jeff Watson, the giddy backbencher who’d wandered into the House earlier with a pair of sunglasses perched atop his head. “Mr. Speaker, on April 14 the Liberal leader said, and I quote, ‘We will have to raise taxes,’” he said, expending great energy to seem serious. “Does the government agree with the Liberal leader when he says, and I quote, ‘We will have to raise taxes,’ and should Canadians take him at his word?”
The Liberals groaned, then moaned as the government sent up Pierre Poilievre to answer. At the sight of the Prime Minister’s parliamentary secretary, Ignatieff decided the proceedings moot, packed up his papers and left the House, the Conservatives calling after him to stay.
“Words, Mr. Speaker,” Poilievre began. “As an academic, a journalist and author, the Liberal leader has built his entire career on words. Surely, he cannot tell us that his words mean nothing. If his words mean nothing, then he means nothing.”
Poilievre invited Ignatieff to return and answer whatever it was he was asking, then returned to his seat and shared a laugh with Tom Lukiwski. Watson smiled too. Chuck Strahl laughed uproariously. John Baird applauded.
For a moment, surely, the man in the animal mask felt a little bit redeemed.
The Stats. Swine flu, eight questions. Taxation and the auto industry, three questions each. Sri Lanka, forestry, arts funding, Quebec, the RCMP, Omar Khadr, crime, border security and Afghanistan, two questions each. Government appointments, flag pins, Canada Day, Chalk River, ministerial expenses, Pakistan and listeriosis, one question each.
Leona Aglukkaq and Denis Lebel, six answers each. Peter Van Loan, five answers. Deepak Obhrai and James Moore, four answers each. Jason Kenney, three answers. Jim Flaherty, Tony Clement, Peter MacKay and Pierre Poilievre, two answers each. Ed Komarnicki, Dave Anderson and Gerry Ritz, one answer each.