Rob Oliphant is a slight, unimposing man, one of the rookie Liberals who fill the back row of the opposition side. His is a united church minister with a degree in commerce. He was an advisor to David Peterson’s government in Ontario and Michael Ignatieff’s campaign for the Liberal leadership in 2006. He currently represents the riding vacated by John Godfrey, another slight, unimposing man.
In the moments before Jim Flaherty delivered the government’s economic and fiscal statement, the House was going through the motions of debating the speech from the throne. Oliphant was the last member of parliament to speak in full before the Speaker called on the finance minister. The government benches had been filling as he spoke and were full by the time he finished, but save for a few Liberals in Oliphant’s immediate vicinity, almost no one seemed to notice his remarks. Everything that has transpired since has, of course, reduced him to the stuff of footnote.
But if we are in the final days of Stephen Harper’s government, here was a crushing, if inadvertent, eulogy.
It was not, in the straightforward sense, a complete harangue. “It might surprise the honourable members opposite and perhaps some of the honourable members on this side of the House that I found a number of laudable elements in the speech as it was read. In fact, it was much less brutal than one might have expected following the heated rhetoric of the last campaign,” he said. “Specifically, I was impressed that the government seemed to indicate that, despite all evidence to the contrary, it might actually believe that government can and should be a force for good in people’s lives, and that it is appropriate for government to intervene, act and ensure that our future, particularly our economic future, is protected.”
Though it was a bit of a harangue. “What surprises me about this recognition is that it is simply not even close to what the honourable members on the other side of the House were telling voters during the election, week after week in the recent campaign,” he said. “In fact, during the campaign, the Conservatives ran against incurring deficits and un-budgeted spending while continually denying that Canada was heading toward a recession.”
He continued. “There are two possibilities as to why the government has so radically shifted its position with respect to the economy, and neither of them, frankly, is pretty. First, it is possible that it completely misread the international economic indicators visible to most of us. Second, it is possible that it failed to see that the domestic economic policies followed in their first mandate, policies of irresponsible tax cuts and bloated government spending, have left the government completely incapable of responding quickly or well to the situation. I am talking about incompetence of the highest order.”
He recited some of Mr. Harper’s claims about Canada’s escape from both recession and deficit. “If this was done truthfully but naively, it smacks of utter and complete incompetence,” he figured. “If it is not incompetence, ineptitude or mismanagement, I fear it may be a far more serious problem for the government. If it is not incompetence, it is deception or misrepresentation. The campaign run by the Conservatives was disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst.”
And then he got specific. “Voter apathy, civic cynicism and outright disgust with politicians is based on political leaders refusing to say what they mean and, even worse, failing continually to do what they say. Voters are increasingly savvy and are simply tired of politicians telling them what they think they want to hear and then turning 180 degrees and doing something completely different,” he said. “At the core of the Speech from the Throne lies bear the ethical reality that shapes the government. It is a government that will say anything, do anything, promise anything to get elected and simply cannot and will not be trusted by Canadians. The throne speech reveals at its core that the government is morally bankrupt. It has lost its moral compass.”
The denouement was a series of questions. About poverty and affordable housing, arts and education, immigration and diplomacy, soldiers and veterans. Questions, he said, his constituents wanted answered.
“Where is the imagination that is going to help the poor and those who will be displaced by today’s economic reality as it descends upon us,” he asked, “just as the government has emptied the cupboard?”
Moments after, he and everyone else learned just how imaginative this government was willing to get.