The Commons: ‘I am unclear as to why this is amusing’


The Scene. Michael Ignatieff arrived in the House foyer shortly before Question Period and walked to the designated spot where he was scheduled to speak with reporters. There he delivered his bit of news: Liberal senators would move immediately to ratify the government’s budget.

He took a few questions, offered a few answers and then took his leave. Ten minutes later he was up in the Commons.

“Mr. Speaker, Senate hearings discovered that eligibility for EI benefits was backdated two weeks prior to royal assent of the budget,” he reported. “This morning Liberal senators unanimously agreed to vote immediate passage of this budget, that way Canadians will be eligible for the help they need as early as March 1.”

There was a smattering of applause from the Conservative side.

“Will the Prime Minister instruct his Conservative senators to do the same so that Bill C-10 can get royal assent and Canadians in need of enhanced EI get the help they need right now?”

There were theatrical chuckles from the government benches.

The Prime Minister took the opportunity to note his concern for those in a helicopter crash off the coast of Newfoundland this morning, so Ignatieff tried again.

“Mr. Speaker, could I ask the Prime Minister again whether he is prepared to instruct the Conservative senators to vote speedy passage of Bill C-10 so that we can get enhanced EI available?” he wondered.

The Conservatives laughed.

“I am unclear as to why this is amusing,” the Liberal leader sighed.

The Conservatives laughed harder. After a moment or two, Ignatieff cracked a smile too.

“Mr. Speaker, even the leader of the opposition found the humour in that question,” the Prime Minister smirked in response. “Conservative senators have not been the problem. The problem has been the Liberal Party and the Liberal leader, who were told that every delay in the Senate would delay the delivery of important employment insurance benefits. I hope the leader of the Liberal Party will use this as a lesson. He would be well-advised, rather than to just be a critic, to act constructively in dealing with this economic crisis.”

It’s unclear what one is to learn from all of this.

The government’s budget was tabled on January 27. It received its first reading on February 6, its second reading on February 12. Parliament then took a week off.

When business resumed, the finance committee spent two days studying the bill, then reported back to the House of Commons on February 25. Another week passed before the House passed the budget on Mar. 4. The Senate undertook consideration of it that night. Liberals say the Conservatives asked to have it passed before the end of the month. Conservatives say they wanted it sooner.

Either way, a budget normally comes into effect April 1, the start of a new fiscal year. But on Tuesday of this week, a finance department official told the Senate finance committee that, due to the wording of the legislation, changes to employment insurance would come into effect immediately upon approval of the budget. That same day, the Prime Minister told an audience in Brampton that the opposition was obstructing his efforts to fix the economy. On Wednesday, he and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty took turns accusing the Liberals of purposefully delaying the budget. The Liberals responded with surprise, dismissed the allegations of obstruction and repeated their understanding that nothing in the budget could come into effect until April 1. A statement issued by Flaherty’s office said the Liberals were “playing politics with the lives of Canadians.”

“Mr. Speaker, how did we get here?” Michael Ignatieff wondered with his third question today. “There are only two possibilities. Either the government did not know that it had backdated EI eligibility in this way, in which case it was incompetent; or the government knew, kept it quiet so the Senate would go away into recess, and then hoped it could play political games on the backs of the unemployed for two weeks. Which is it, incompetence or heartless political gamesmanship?”

“Mr. Speaker, the gamesmanship is that the leader of the Liberal Party continues to want to cash in on bad economic news while not offering this country any constructive suggestions,” snapped Stephen Harper in response. “He and his party were playing a game in the Senate with this bill. They should not have done that. I am glad they are not doing it any longer, but I hope they make a vow not to do this kind of thing again.”

The Prime Minister’s first allegation—of cashing in—is an interesting one. At least insofar as it was his side that dispatched an email to supporters last night alleging Liberal shenanigans and suggesting a new way to protect themselves during this economic crisis: donate $200 to the Conservative Party of Canada.

Ignatieff’s question—how did we get here?—is the operative one. At least insofar as this place presently seems so far away from everything else.

Someone on television was saying the other day that we are in a “dangerous” situation. That, amid all else, many may look to what is happening here and conclude that it is vile—or, perhaps worse, that it is merely irrelevant. Assuming, of course, that most haven’t already decided as much.

Many days it is easy to refute this thinking—simplistic, cynical and ignorant as it often is. Today was not one of those.

The rest of the afternoon was filled with shouted allegations. Men in suits smirked and applauded each other. Some fiddled with Blackberries or pecked at laptops. Rona Ambrose passed around a box of chocolates. At least until the Speaker admonished her to put it away.

By the time you go to bed tonight, the budget will have passed and the Governor General will have signed it into law. And then tomorrow morning Statistics Canada will announce precisely how many thousands of people lost their jobs last month.

The Stats. The economy, seven questions. The environment, six questions. The auto industry, five questions. Forestry, four questions. Rural development, science, crime, press freedom, fisheries and regional development, two questions each. The Newfoundland helicopter accident, trade, drugs, immigration and the Paralympics, one question each.

Stephen Harper, six answers. Rob Nicholson, five answers. Stockwell Day, four answers. Ted Menzies and Denis Lebel, three answers each. Gary Goodyear, Jim Prentice, Lisa Raitt, Tony Clement, Keith Ashfield, Gail Shea and Vic Toews, two answers each. Laurie Hawn, Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Jason Kenney and Gary Lunn, one answer each.


The Commons: ‘I am unclear as to why this is amusing’

  1. Mr. Speaker, the only justification in evidence for this minor tweak to the EI system that is the in thing right now is NOT the widespread misery of receint EI beneficiaries that required urgent correction, but rather the apparent requirement to join with all the other shovels at the ready to put a little more money into the hands of every single Canadian regardless of need. My question is for either the Minister of Finance or the Minister of Industry. Has the National Research Council developed a new species of tree upon which money grows so that its harvest may support these plans, and when does planting season begin?

    • When your house burns down and your insurance payments are up to date would you appreciate the Insurance company playing ‘Hide the Salami’ while your ass is out on the street and out in the cold?

      It is unconscionable that the government of the day seeks to wreak political havoc on the opposition on the backs of legitimate Employment Insurance beneficiaries.

      From your comments it appears to me that you believe Employment Insurance, which employers and employees fund from earnings, is some kind of political football? Shame on you sir.

      • Mr. Connors, if you so totally wildly unequivocally missed my point, I suppose others might, as well. So thank you for the opportunity to reiterate.
        The insurance company is contractually obligated to pay the benefit in the event of a legitimate claim. No more, no less. Society’s sudden imposition of some superior benefit than what was in the contract, as some sort of political emergency because there may happen to be more claimants around, is bonkers. And unless anyone can explain otherwise, that’s pretty much the extent of the political nonsense of the last couple of days.
        What, exactly, is presently “on the backs” of legitimate EI beneficiaries? Last anyone told me, the system is still direct-depositing according to the rules in place.
        Read my comments again. I am specifically wondering myself why EI has suddenly become this political football. And especially why absolutely every single Canadian suddenly deserves a little extra money from the future, regardless of need.

        • O.I.C. Please excuse my fervour in defense of the defenseless then, and my apology that I invoked the word shame to your comments.
          That you question quantum/duration amendments merely resurrects my ire toward the government again; that debate on that point is considered, ahem, pointless as well.

          • As I said, I thank you for the opportunity to reiterate.

          • I think I am missing your point. Is it permissable in good times to reduce EI benefits (duration) and increase qualifying requirements when jobs are a plenty?

          • aplenty of spelling mistakes

          • Yep, you’re right, you missed my point. You either need EI benefits because you are unemployed, or you don’t because you are not. Those benefits are either suffciient to keep you out of financial ruin or they are not. The number of other people drawing or about to draw benefits has an impact on your own needs and entitlements only to the extent that you all together become a movement of panderable pencil-wielding voters.

          • And yes, I am reasonably certain that “panderable” is not a word.

          • Those benefits are either suffciient to keep you out of financial ruin or they are not.

            Right, and so the question remains – if the economy tanks, and the unemployment rate in a given region escalates accordingly, should the entitlement period be increased (or vice versa if the unemployment rate drops significantly) given that the existing rates/length of entitlement were set in a different economic time?

          • I suppose that depends on your sense of what EI is for: is it a temporary income to avoid bankruptcy while you look for work elsewhere and/or re-train? Or is it a cushion that should change with the economic climate until said climate improves so markedly that finding another job will be effortless?
            Depends, too, on whether you believe there is anything more sympathy-provoking or meritorious about someone laid off / fired in March 2009 vs. February 2008.
            You will undoubtedly be not-at-all surprised about my take…

          • Well, up until the latest downturn in the economy, it seems to me the debate over EI premiums was that the prolonged boom (well beyond the “average” business cycle of seven yrs or whatever) and tightening of benefits/length of time required to qualify/receive benefits resulted in the funds in the EI account growing significantly. Some debate ensued about reducing EI premiums.

            So, it seems to me, if you can tighten it up during boom periods, then it follows that you can relax it for recessionary times.

            “Logic? LOGIC?”. Yes, precisely!

  2. QP was dispiriting today.

  3. Does Stephen Harper realize it’s his job to formulate policy?

    • No, his job is to go around attack the opposition and tell us the sun will come out tomorrow, because Canada is NOT in a recession. If we’d been in one, it would have come already. Come on, on sait tout ça.

  4. Could someone explain to the slow guy here, what’s happened? Are the libs incompetent on this, as they should have made it their business to find out that the EI provisions were back-dated. Or have the consevatives deliberately hid infomation from them in order to embarrass, or even intenttionally misled the house. Or lastly is it just a massive cock-up all around?

    • Good questions – from the content of the ‘debate’ during the past few weeks, neither the CONs nor the Libs have done their due diligence for the general public. While Harper demanded his blank cheque and quick unencumbered passage of his budget, did he not know about this important clause, and if so, why didn’t he or one of his point-men point it out? Wouldn’t that have ended the debate quickly, or was it just about playing ‘Gotcha!’? And the Liberals inability to thoroughly comprehend a budget that they supported is bone-dumb.
      I’d also throw a bone to the media, who apparently don’t read anything either, but are glad to play with people’s livelihoods as long as they don’t have to do anything indepth or move from their seats, ala covering a tennis game.

      • To me, it’s either that Harper and Ignatieff BOTH failed to realize the exact implications of the backdating (which would explain why the TORY Senators never brought it up, nor asked for an earlier deadline, nor for a friendly amendment to extend the retroactivity by another week or two), or Harper DID realize the implications, and either never asked his Tory Senators to do anything about it, or (the most nefarious option) deliberately told his Tory Senators NOT to do anything about it, so they could disingenuously accuse the Liberals Senators of “obstructionism” for agreeing with the Tory Senators on an April 1st deadline that they knew was problematic, but agreed to anyway.

        To me, the notion that BOTH leaders missed the exact implications of the retroactive clause (a single sentence in a HUGE document) is the most palatable, as I can forgive politicians for not realizing the exact import of each and every line of a Bill, especially in such hurried times (I mean, that’s why we have a Senate, right?). If Harper and Flaherty knew all along that this was an issue though, and understood the implications from the beginning (which seems to be their current argument), then they either acted incompetently by failing to ever mention it to any of their Conservative colleagues in the Senate so the Tory Senators could do something about it; or, they acted duplicitously by either deliberately failing to inform their Conservative colleagues in the Senate about it (just so they could ambush the Liberals with it) or worse, by actually informing their Senate colleagues about it, and telling them to keep it quiet, just so they could ambush the Liberals with it.

        I really hope both leaders missed the import of the clause, because to me the other options are far less palatable.

  5. Big wordy reply to kc’s appeal not… getting… through…

    • Yeah, this new format have anything to do with it? Is Maclean’s trying to give us a sense of how deflation feels? Ya think?

  6. Check out Kady’s ITQ blog yesterday re the Senate. There is still democracy! At least some of the Senators are more concerned about Canada than just following the party-line.
    Or maybe the Progressive Conservative Senators don’t have a “party line”.
    Good for them!

  7. Isn’t Ignatieff’s point that the reason the Liberal Senators never tried to speed up the process to an earlier date than April 1st is because the Conservative Senators never asked them too? Harper INSISTS that the Liberal leader bring “his” Senators in line, and do X, but we’re to believe that it never, ever occurred to Harper to ask HIS Senators to champion X??? That makes no sense whatsoever.

    Liberals Senators came to an agreement with Conservative Senator to pass the budget by April 1st. As far as the Liberals Senators were concerned, everything was fine. Apparently, as far as Conservative Senators were concerned, everything was fine. Harper never asked the Tory Senators to speed things up, and Ignatieff never asked the Liberal Senators to speed things up.

    If both leaders missed (or failed to realize the full implications of) that one sentence in the whole budget that said the EI provision would take affect BEFORE the Bill received Royal Assent, then they’re both equally culpable (well, maybe not 100% equally, since it is Harper’s budget, but I’ll leave that aside, ’cause it’s a huge document, and things sometimes get missed, or their implications are not fully realized… that’s why we have a Senate, LOL). The idea that they both missed it is somewhat supported by the fact that the Tory Senators never asked the Liberals Senators for anything more than “let’s agree to pass the budget by April 1st”. So, one could argue that if the Tory Senators didn’t realize that April 1st wasn’t ideal, that therefore the TORIES GENERALLY didn’t realize that April 1st wasn’t ideal. So what are they complaining about now, if they too missed this?

    Frankly, given the Prime Minister’s seeming love of politics over policy, I’m more inclined to believe that the Tories DID know that this was an issue, and either didn’t tell their Tory Senators about it (even though they could have negotiated an earlier deadline with the Liberals, who were pretty much agreeing to everything the Tories asked for from the beginning), or the Tories DID tell their Tory Senators about it, but told them to keep quiet about it so that the Finance Minister could come and make a big show and act all indignant that the Liberals were “obstructing” the budget by only agreeing to everything they’d been asked to agree to.

    This is why Ignatieff’s asking if Harper plans to talk to his Tory Senators. Because either Harper and Flaherty weren’t talking to the Conservative Senators before (As evidence by the fact that the Conservative Senators never brought this up in the Senate, or their negotiations on the Bill’s passage with their Liberal counterparts), or the PM and FM were talking with their Senators, and they were asking them to help them ambush the Liberals by keeping quiet on this issue, and by not trying to move the budget forward any faster than the April 1st deadline.

    Either Harper and his Senators missed the same implication that Ignatieff and his Senators did, or they didn’t miss it, and merely acted as though they had missed it in order to ambush the Liberals with disingenuous calls of obstructionism.

    I’m not sure which is worse, but I think it’s the second.

    • Sorry for the huge comment, lol.

      • LKO précis:

        ‘Gainst Marmion, charge disproved and vain?
        Small risk of that, I trow.
        Yet Clare’s sharp questions must I shun;
        Must separate Constance from the nun –
        Oh, what a tangled web we weave,
        When first we practise to deceive!

        • LOL,

          Ironically, I’m half Scottish, so I loves me some Walter Scott!

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