The Commons: Gaming the system

by Aaron Wherry

 Gaming the system

The Scene. No recession. No deficit. No need to worry. Just support the troops and buy more stock. In the midst of an election campaign, it was easy. Win the news cycle, win the day, win the week, just get to the end.

Then October 15 came.

The recession set in. A deficit became unavoidable. Job losses piled up. The stock market fell hundreds of points more. The extent of our losses in Afghanistan became clearer. And after a few days of relative calm, this government’s critics in the House of Commons began to howl.

Unable to manage such realities, Stephen Harper’s government has apparently now decided the best thing to do—perhaps the only thing it can do—is bankrupt its opposition.

“The greatest histories,” Jim Flaherty mused about a half hour into explaining the state of the national economy, “are written in the toughest times.”

Shortly thereafter, he was finished. And shortly after his final words, he and the Prime Minister took their leave, long gone by the time Scott Brison, Gilles Duceppe, Jack Layton and Thomas Mulcair got round to blistering the Commons paint with indictments of the story just told.

In the thirty minutes preceding, Flaherty had explained, in the most ominous of adjectives, the depth and breadth of the crisis that now faces us. Unprecedented. Sudden. Devastating. Historic. “Canada,” he said, “has not faced such severe challenges in a generation.”

Perhaps hoping to assist those of us who traffic in symbolism, an infant wailed from the gallery.

The Finance Minister’s response was simple enough. “We cannot ask Canadians to tighten their belts,” he said, “without looking in the mirror.”

The United States has committed $1.5-trillon to its wobbly economy. China, $600-billion. Britain, $418-billion. Japan, $275-billion. Germany, $213-billion. Canada’s government has looked in the mirror and decided to do away with the subsidy that sees political parties receive a couple dollars for each vote it receives. By our government’s count, doing away with this subsidy will save the national treasury approximately $30-million. A bit more than 89-cents for every Canadian man, woman and child.

There might yet be more. The government promises to get back to us. Perhaps next spring.

In the meantime, there were only cross words.

“Mr. Speaker, this is truly a dark day for Canada,” Stephane Dion had mourned at the start of Question Period.

Snickers and catcalls coming at him from the government side.

“We are facing an out-of-touch Prime Minister who has driven Canada into deficit, a Prime Minister who is paralyzed in the face of an economic crisis, a Prime Minister with no plan to get our economy back on track,” he continued. “Is the Prime Minister even able to move beyond cheap political games to do anything about what matters to Canadians, the economy and their jobs?”

If the leader of the opposition misspoke, it was only in his use of the word “cheap.”

Upon arrival in the capital, any newcomer to Ottawa must realize the extent to which everything that happens here is understood through The Game. Every policy, pronouncement, initiative, legislative proposal, spoken and written word interpreted in terms of which team has won, which team has lost, which side is advantaged, which angle is being pursued and whose partisan interests are advanced. The Game is everything—every politician, every aide, every government official, every reporter, every interested bystander viewing the business of government through this paradigm. Some liken it to chess, but that probably flatters the proceedings.

For sure, it leads to a certain coherence, clarifying and simplifying what happens here. But it also diminishes. It makes it possible to live day-to-day without the crushing realization of what consequences may result from the decisions made and actions followed. It keeps the players sane (relatively speaking) and good-humoured. But it demeans all else. And, implicitly, insults all who are not of this place.

Meanwhile, in parts unknown, the world resolutely carries on.

Another eight Canadian soldiers were wounded last week when their vehicle ran over an improvised explosive device north of Kandahar city. Just last night, a suicide bomber killed four people, and wounded another 17, near the U.S. embassy in Kabul. Meanwhile, half a dozen Canadians are feared to be among the hostages in Mumbai, several others harmed in the attacks. Wider war may be next.

Nearer to here, British Columbia’s mining industry is poised to layoff perhaps as many as 500 workers. U.S. Steel in Hamilton is expected to layoff 150. Nortel, 1,300 layoffs. Magna, 850 layoffs. In Oshawa, employment insurance claims have increased 96.4% over last year. Claims are up 30.4% in Windsor. From January 1 to the present, the Toronto Stock Exchange has dropped 5,000 points.

What was proposed today addresses none of the above. Helps no one. Amounts to nothing. But it is exactly what Stephen Harper would like us to be talking about.

For a day, his gamesmanship served only to embolden his opposition. Indeed, if nothing else, the Prime Minister is perhaps to be commended for managing the neat trick—and no small feat—of making his usually dizzy critics seem suddenly substantive and reasonable by comparison.

First Dion, then Duceppe, then Layton with a crescendo. “Mr. Speaker, later today Canadians are going to be looking for bold leadership and dramatic and immediate action. They are going to be looking to see EI reform. They want to see strong action to protect their pensions. They want to see credit guarantees for businesses that are on the edge. The jobs of those workers are on the edge literally this afternoon. Canadians want to see investments in infrastructure to create work,” he cried.

His caucus rose to cheer, his voice swelled to yell over them. “Instead of an immediate stimulus package to attack the recession, the government is apparently going to attack democracy,” he continued, the Conservative benches clucking at this. “I ask the Prime Minister how such an attack is going to create one job or protect one pension?”

The Prime Minister did his best to respond, raising his voice, if not his rationale.

“The Minister of Finance has been very aggressive throughout this crisis,” he boomed. “Protecting the entitlements of political parties is not going to do anything for the Canadian people.”

How cutting such entitlements might do anything for the Canadian people was left unsaid.

The opposition moved on to other matters. During discussion of the auto industry, the Prime Minister absentmindedly tapped out a tune with his fingers on the arm of his chair. For the much of the rest of the hour he slouched and smirked, variously bored and unimpressed and satisfied.

After Question Period and with the conclusion of Flaherty’s economic storytelling, the opposition sounded nearly triumphant. Or at least newly, and rarely, focused. That probably won’t last. But a wider war seems in the offing.

If the Prime Minister is committed to this, there will be a vote. Which may very well be a matter of confidence. Which may very well bring about an election or an unprecedented mess of constitutional squabbling. Which is probably just as well, this Prime Minister having only ever displayed a fondness for this stuff.

The Stats. The economy, nine questions. The auto industry, the Canadian Wheat Board and Afghanistan, four questions each. The forestry industry, arts funding, banks and employment insurance, two questions each. Mumbai, the military, small business, natural health products, science and technology, ministerial spending, the meat packing industry and Aboriginals, one question each.

Stephen Harper, eight answers. Tony Clement, David Anderson and Ted Menzies, four answers each. Peter MacKay, three answers. Lawrence Cannon and Ed Komarnicki two answer each. Lisa Raitt, Stockwell Day, James Moore, Rob Merrifield, Diane Ablonczy, Leona Aglukkaq, Gary Goodyear, Jay Hill, Jean-Pierre Blackburn and Gail Shea, one answer each.

The Commons: Gaming the system

  1. The man is so surrounded by terrified sycophants – he has lost his grasp on reality.
    He has a minority – yet he acts like a dictator.
    To our south the man isn’t even in the White House – still some 50+ days before he assumes office – but already Obama has chosen the best of the best from whichever partisan team – in order to solve the problems – and is nudging the field markers such that Bush and his gang are reluctantly being dragged along!

    Yet Harper plays damned silly and NASTY games.
    The Sweater has fallen – and reveals what the Canadian public have always suspected – the man has horns, a tail and cloven hooves!

  2. It’s really our fault. For failing Stephen Harper so profoundly:

    First, facts about Canada. Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it. Canadians make no connection between the fact that they are a Northern European welfare state and the fact that we have very low economic growth, a standard of living substantially lower than yours, a massive brain drain of young professionals to your country, and double the unemployment rate of the United States.

  3. The policy of axing public funding for parties is sound. The way Harper is going about appears borderline insane. What the heck is he thinking? What’s his endgame?

  4. The policy of axing public funding for parties is sound.

    How so?

  5. Ben Hicks: He isn’t axing public funding. He is picking the one that benefits his opponents more and him less to eliminate. Why not eliminate the tax credit and expense reimbursements as well?

  6. It’s not a fair quiz if you answer the question before you ask it, Andrew.

  7. “How so?”

    Pretty much Coyne’s logic. There is no reason why all partys can’t get money from grass roots fundraising measures as the Reform Party did, as Obama did, and as the Conservatives do now. Even Independents like Bill Casey fundraise all their money without a party machine to back them up (they mentioned on Mike Duffy today he made ends meet by selling his campaign signs at ten bucks a pop). Having to earn every dime from the voters also encourages parties to create ideas and policies that inspire – or else they go extinct.

    Also, I really want the Bloc to perish.

    “Why not eliminate the tax credit and expense reimbursements as well?”

    Why not indeed. But even going halfway is better than nothing in my book.

  8. Mr. Flaherty spends ten minutes telling us that the world as we know it is at an end. Except in the alternate universe that is Ottawa. I hope against hope that the opposition can grow spines.

  9. Ben Hicks: $1 million spending limit per year per party, and any donations beyond that level are taxed at a rate of 100%. Great idea.

  10. Pretty much Coyne’s logic.

    Oh, ok. I thought you had thought about that yourself.

  11. I did give my reasons for agreeing with him…

  12. I did give my reasons for agreeing with him…

    That you did. And post hoc rationalisation is always valuable.

  13. The Toronto Liberals are fuming. They have been rejected in the vast reaches of Ontario and are considered laughable in most parts of the country. They have become irrelevant: no longer the party of choice for Catholics, Protestants or Jews as well as many other faith based groups. The secular liberals, who took us to Kandahar, then turned their backs on the mission, simply cannot believe that they are not the party of choice. Yes, they should do everything possible to bring down the government and give us one more chance to decimate them at the polls-76 seats is far too many for this Toronto based group which in a sense is now as anti-Canadian as it is anti-American.

  14. 1. Tighten the rules so only self-satisfied white bread with disposable income will play
    2. Be the party that appeals to self-satisfied white bread with disposable income
    3. Cut off all other means of support

    and they call it democracy

  15. 76 trombones playing out of tune
    76 liberals out of touch
    we need an election as fast as we can
    so bring it on; thank you very much

  16. if the bloc, liberals, and ndp are all up-in-arms together, the tories must be doing something right.

    let’s get them all back in the ring again, and let the voters decide.

    or, let an caucus-appointed Liberal be PM with socialist and separatist partners in coalition.

    let those parties that came nowhere near any level of real support in the last election take control and spend all of our money.

    i think it’s fairly self-evident how either scenarios will turn out – conservative majority.

    about time.

  17. those parties that came nowhere near any level of real support

    You mean the parties that received 62% of the vote to the Tories’ 38%?

    Those parties?

    Seriously, sometimes it as though conservatives are simply acting as if the other 60% of the country just doesn’t exist.

  18. Wascally Wabbit has it right. The quality of the Leader can be judged by who he surrounds himself with. Look at who Harper has for advisers and Cabinet ministers. Canada deserves better than a cheap-shot artist like Harper. He is no grand strategist, he is willful, angry and vindictive. Not the qualities I support in a PM.

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