In keeping with tradition, the Finance Minister was applauded simply for showing up. Jim Flaherty arrived two minutes after four and, upon realizing his existence, the Conservatives stood and cheered. Poor Peter Stoffer, attempting to contribute to a debate on the Strengthening Military Justice in the Defence of Canada Act, was drowned out entirely.
With Mr. Flaherty in the room, the Speaker announced that the House would be moving on to government orders. The minister stood and his Conservative colleagues treated him to a second standing ovation. He proceeded with the procedural niceties required to table the budget documents and when he was finished there was more applause.
“Looking ahead,” he said when he’d finally begun, “Canadians have every reason to be confident.”
Twasn’t it ever thus? Has a Finance Minister ever stood in this place and tabled anything other than a prudent, forward-thinking masterstroke that cast us ahead to a more brilliant future? Is it possible that Archibald McLelan and Edgar Nelson Rhodes or another of Mr. Flaherty’s predecessors once rose and pleaded for the House’s mercy or confessed that he was only vaguely sure of the numbers?
Likely not. Indeed, within a few paragraphs, Mr. Flaherty was referencing the hopeful words of Sir George Eulas Foster, our eighth finance minister.
“His words are more compelling now than he could have imagined,” Mr. Flaherty mused. ” ‘There is especial need just now for long vision and the fine courage of statesmanship, and the warm fires of national imagination. Let us summon them all to our aid. We should not be thinking overmuch of what we are now, but more of what we may be fifty or a hundred years hence. Let us climb the heights and take the long forward look.’ ”
Mr. Flaherty confessed here that this government has been taking its inspiration from Sir George all along. “Since 2006 our government has taken that long forward look,” the Finance Minister explained.
So how then did we get here? How did the federal balance end up in deficit?
“Let us review the record,” Mr. Flaherty proposed. He proceeded then to list eight different tax breaks.
It was around this time that a woman in the west gallery stood and said she was a student. Another woman then stood and announced, “I am a senior.” Then there was someone shouting in the north gallery. And then there were a couple dozen on their feet, chanting, “This is not our budget” and “Where are we in your budget?” Some of them disrobed enough to display a t-shirt bearing that slogan. Within a few minutes the House security staff had coaxed the protesters to the exits.
Mr. Flaherty sat and waited. With the disruption quelled, he stood and his colleagues treated him to another standing ovation.
Returning to his text, Mr. Flaherty congratulated himself on the stimulus package his government eventually offered in January 2009. He saluted the country’s relative success. He warned of unnamed forces who would seek to “kill jobs, impose crushing deficits, and cripple our economy.” Those who would “squander Canada’s advantage.” Those who would turn us into Greece.
“Our government will not allow that to happen,” he assured.
So about that deficit. “We are on track,” Mr. Flaherty said. “In less than two years, we have already cut the deficit in half.” But he would not rest on such laurels. “In this budget we will take the next steps,” he continued. “We will implement moderate restraint in government spending.”
The same party that promised never to run a deficit now celebrates the fact that the deficit it is currently running is only half as large as the deficit it was running a couple years ago. The same party that condoned the G8 Legacy Fund now preaches restraint. (Awhile later, Mr. Flaherty would actually announce “new funding to improve border infrastructure.” Somewhere in Muskoka, a smalltown mayor surely made a note of this.)
The road back to black is apparently paved in the copper of our obsolete coinage.
“The vast majority of the savings will come from eliminating waste in the internal operations of government, making it leaner and more efficient,” Mr. Flaherty explained. “For example, our government will do what everyone agrees should have been done long ago. We will eliminate the penny.”
This was apparently a big deal. The top item on Mr. Flaherty’s list of fiscal prudence. The great realization of Sir George’s dream.
“Pennies take up too much space on our dressers at home,” Mr. Flaherty complained. “They take up far too much time for small businesses trying to grow and create jobs.”
The burden of sorting and rolling would now be lifted. Mr. Flaherty’s legacy was now assured. And yet, there was still more. Public servants would now be asked to participate in more video conferences. And large government documents would no longer be printed on paper.
Various smart alecks on the opposition held aloft the brick sized budget books that the House pages had handed out to every MP.
The rest was all denouement. A series of oh-by-the-way footnotes about reforms to Old Age Security, public service pensions, immigration, innovation policy and the regulation of natural resources development. Left unmentioned was the 19,200 public service positions that will apparently be eliminated.
“Mr. Speaker, I’ve gone on almost as long as it seems,” Mr. Flaherty quipped around 4:30pm.
He proceeded finally to loftiness, his speechwriters starting six consecutive sentences with the phrase “we see” as Mr. Flaherty waxed poetic about all the serenity ahead. “We see Canada for what it is and what it can be—a great, good nation, on top of the world, the True North strong and free,” he said, somewhat confusingly. “Our government has been inspired by this vision from the beginning. Today we step forward boldly, to realize it fully—hope for our children and grandchildren; opportunity for all Canadians; a prosperous future for our beloved country.”
Here, then, a fourth standing ovation.
The NDP’s Peter Julian stood waiting for the cheering to subside. When it had he immediately offered the line he’d no doubt been waiting hours to deliver.
“All we can say,” he said, “is this budget is a penny wise and a pound foolish.”