After Question Period on Monday, a colleague took me aside as we walked out of ?Parliament’s Centre Block.
“Were you the one asking Elizabeth May questions?”
I knew right away I was in trouble. “Yes. Sorry. Why?”
“Justin Trudeau was waiting for that microphone.”
Ah. After question period, MPs from government and opposition take questions from reporters in informal scrums. There are three microphones for this purpose, parked in front of TV cameras in the Commons lobby. Two were being used by other MPs. One momentarily had no MP at it. Trudeau, the Liberal leader, had been on his way to the microphone. May, the Green party leader, got there first.
By asking questions, I was gently informed, I had delayed Trudeau’s arrival at the microphone. These days in Ottawa, delaying Justin Trudeau’s arrival somewhere is not a way to become popular.
Eventually, Trudeau made his way to the microphone. First question: What did he think of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s decision to deliver a budget on Feb. 11, in the middle of the Sochi Winter Olympics?
“I think we have a government that’s trying, once again, to play political games,” Trudeau said. “They’re out of ideas.”
(Fun with history: Marc Lalonde delivered the last budget from a government led by Pierre Trudeau on Feb. 15, 1984, halfway through the Sarajevo Winter Olympics.)
“They’ll try to come up with something,” Trudeau continued, “but it won’t be—” he considered for a moment. “It won’t be something serious Canadians need.”
He was asked: “What would you like to see in this budget so it would be acceptable?”
“I’d like to see a budget that responds to the real needs of the middle class.”
His interrogator wasn’t satisfied. “But concretely?.?.?.”
“Concretely, I’m not expecting much that’s concrete.” Lately, neither are we. From anyone. Ahem.
Yet, Elizabeth May still surprises. The Green party leader has had trouble lifting the fortunes of the Green party, if by “party,” you mean “more than one person.” Around her, lieutenants have come and gone. Having managed to get elected to Parliament in 2011, May does not seem to have improved anyone else’s chances of getting elected. Her only Green colleague in the Commons, Bruce Hyer, was elected for the NDP but was kicked out of that party’s caucus when he supported the Conservatives in ending the long-gun registry. He has fetched up with the Greens. So, if you are one of those gun-totin’ environmentalists, not an unheard-of species, the May-Hyer Greens are for you.
May’s microphone-hogging scrum, abetted by yours truly, was about cuts, consolidations and closures in government libraries across more than a dozen departments and agencies. May wondered whether such closures are even legal. The law requires the written consent of the librarian and archivist of Canada for such activity. May met the librarian and archivist of Canada, Hervé Déry, after repeated requests and in the presence of two super-helpful officials from the Department of Canadian Heritage who were there whether Elizabeth May liked it or not. Déry told May he thinks departmental officials have the authority to cull the collections.
May’s concerns extend beyond procedure. “I think it’s a real issue for Canadians. This material was put together under the auspices of the government of Canada. Canadians paid for this material. This is not the Conservative party’s library to throw on the Dumpster. This belongs to Canadians.”
Postmedia News, which has done yeoman work on the library issue, calculates the cost savings from all these consolidations in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s a rounding error in the budget of any department. But the library closings are the way of Stephen Harper’s world these days, as are a handful of other recent headlines: the sale of embassy assets abroad, the far larger cuts at dozens of departments and agencies, whose details have escaped the scrutiny of two successive parliamentary budget officers and, therefore, of you, sir or madam.
In 2009, after the opposition forced him to run very large deficits as the price of Conservative political survival, Stephen Harper made a simple, crucial decision: He would eliminate the deficit over time, not by cutting transfers to the provinces for social programs, but by cutting direct spending on the things the government of Canada does. The government of Canada operates embassies, labs, libraries, lighthouses, benefits for veterans and Arctic research outposts. Or rather, it used to. These days, each day, it does a little less of all those things.
The sum of these cuts is a smaller role for the federal government in the life of the nation. Each of the steps toward that destination is trivial, easy to argue both ways (who needs fancy embassies?) and impossible to reverse (if a future government decides, “We need fancy embassies,” it can never get back the prime real estate this government is now selling).
In his long-delayed appearance before the cameras (sorry), Trudeau depicted the Harper government as devoid of ideas. “Its primary interest is the well-being of the Conservative Party of Canada and not of Canadians.” May, on the other hand, is sure the government has ideas; that it is pursuing them even when the rest of us are grandly bored with details; and that it is changing the country. She’s right.