Okay, so I tore myself away from what was turning out to be a surprisingly lively Question Period – well, the questions were lively, even if the answers tended towards a more muted ‘wait and see what the Finance Minister has to say later today’ – and am now ensconced in the Railway Room in what may be teeniest, tiniest mini-budget lockup ever. Whoops, I forgot – it’s manifestly not a mini-budget according to Jim Flaherty: it’s an Economic and Fiscal Update. An EFU, if you will.
There are about — hmm, roughly a hundred or so people in here – not all media, of course; Finance has a full contingent of departmental and ministerial staff wandering the aisles, and PMO communicator general Kory Tenycke is on hand as well. Which is handy, because what doesn’t seem to be in the package that they’re handing out at the door is the legislation that would be required to, for example, eliminate the quarterly subsidy for political parties, which appears under the section entitled “Effective Management of Government Spending” on page 51 of “Protecting Canada’s Future”.
According to the Man in the Striped Tie who is in charge of explaining stuff to confused journalists, the legislation will be introduced “soon”. How soon? Well, before the House rises for Christmas, although he admitted that it was unlikely that it would make it through Parliament before the break — which means that we may not have an election showdown until the New Year. Oh, and remember all that stuff about belt (or, depending on your perspective, noose) tightening beginning at home for all political parties? The specifics of those cuts/freezes/whatever to MP and ministerial salaries are also left to the imagination; presumably that, too, will be in the magical mystery Bill C-2. (I’m assuming it will be C-2, since there’s no indication that the government plans to break its perfect record of not introducing legislation between now and whenever the bill is finally tabled.)
Props, by the way, to Richard Madan, my fellow Rogers employee and City TV political reporter par excellence, who not only briefed me on the key section, thereby sparing me from having to read the fifty pages that preceded the only bit that ITQ is actually interested in. Oh, come on, at least I’m honest — and there are more than enough serious business-type reporters who can explain the ins and outs of the deficit-that-may-or-may-not-be to the Canadian public. Me, I’m here for the high stakes political drama. Oh, and to liveblog Jim Flaherty’s briefing, of course, which will get underway in fifteen minutes or so.
An interesting thing about this lockup – well, one of the interesting things, other than the non-appearance of the bill to abolish opposition parties in Canada – (oh, relax, I’m kidding): Due to “space constraints”, we weren’t allowed to bring in their own experts — no economists, industry representatives or Sherry Cooper, which are usually pooled between media outlets. Instead, we’re forced to rely on the aforementioned government officials – and whatever bits of 11th grade economics we can still recall. Without the aid of Wikipedia, of course, since this is a lockup, after all.
In the olden days, I’m told, not only could reporters import outside analysts, but opposition members were in the same lockup as the media in order to provide their parties’ respective spin in time for the first post-embargo clips. Now there are separate lockups for opposition and government staffers.
Five minutes until Flaherty’s news conference. “Equalization is a hard word,” mutters a TV reporter to my right. I think she means as a concept, and I can’t say I disagree. Wait, was there something about equalization in this thing? I’ve been so focused on the political financing stuff that there could be a Free Ponies for Girls Named Kady tax credit and I probably wouldn’t have noticed.
Ooh, another clause I missed on first reading – suspending the right of public servants to strike over wages until 2010. I’m not sure if that’s actually as potentially incendiary as it sounds, since I thought most of the major unions have already agreed to salary freezes, but still. Them would otherwise be fightin’ words!
Scene change! it turns out that the minister’s press conference will take place one room over, which is where I and the trusty (but not nearly as good as the BlackBerry for liveblogging) laptop have staked out some turf in the far corner, right next to a Christmas tree. Yes, a Christmas tree; nobody rushes the season like the parliamentary decorating gnomes, who have been busily decking the halls — and, apparently, the public rooms as well — since last week.
Unfortunately, since there are no seats available, and I haven’t perfected the ability to type while standing, that means that I have to sit crosslegged on the floor like a small, blonde traffic hazard. (One person has already nearly fallen on top of me, although she managed to recover before she had a mid-air collision with the aforementioned tree.
There are two graphs at the front of the room – big graphs, like the kind Ross Perot used to break out – but more importantly, there is now a finance minister as well. He says that he wants to get through this quickly so he can give his statement in the House on time – well, maybe you could try showing up on time next time, minister, and I don’t want to hear that you were scrumming in the foyer, because we were waiting patiently for you over here in lockdown. Anyway, he says that it will come as no surprise that these are difficult economic times, and at that point I sort of tune out because really, this is all sounding very general, and, more importantly, familiar.
The two charts, by the way, represent the surplus projection BEFORE and AFTER “federal actions” – the capital letters are important. I’m too far away to read the fine print, but it seems as though these “federal actions” – I’m guessing all those prescient tax cuts that Canada’s Then New Government was so clever and forward-thinking to put into place – have made the line go up noticeably higher than would otherwise have been the case.
I’m not sure why the Conservative talking point on the elimination of the public subsidy relies so strongly on the argument that the other two measures – tax credits and expense rebates – remain intact when the argument seems to be that the subsidy “forces” Canadians to pay for political parties they may not support, which would also be an argument against the expense rebates and the tax credits. Of course, those wouldn’t benefit the Conservative Party, and only the Conservative Party, anywhere near as much as killing the subsidy.
Pay equity – it sounds as though he wants to put some sort of streamlined system in place to deal with complaints, a little bit like the land claims resolutin process.
There is much grumbliness amongst reporters over his lengthy speechifying – “This is a press conference,” one reminds him. “We get to ask questions.” Undaunted, Flaherty finishes his speech and opens the floor to questions – seven whole minutes of questions – and is immediately grilled over his plan to end the subsidy system. “Politicians need to lead by example,” he says with an air of self-satisfied selflessness. This is a time of restraint, after all – for MPs, for cabinet ministers and for political parties.
As for speeding up the budget, he promises an “early” budget – but not that early; it sounds more like mid-February than, say, next week.
A question from Colleague Madan about the sale of ‘capital assets’ – does that mean Canada Post or the CBC, he asks? No, no, the government has no intention of selling either corporation, Flaherty assures us – it’s all about looking at different possibilities, public private partnerships, that sort of thing. No decisions have been made on any particular assets.
More subsidy questions — is he really ready to take the country to a $350 million election over a $27 million subsidy? From Flaherty’s response, it seems as though the answer is yes. “This is a budget,” he points out before correcting himself. “Wait, no, this is *not* a budget.” What it is, however, is a confidence matter is teh clear implication.
One more question – yes, that’s all – and the room is already emptying out as reporters hustle to get a spot near the front of the line to reclaim one’s Blackberry. Which ITQ should really do as well – so I’ll be back once I’m free and clear of the lockup.
Heyall – did you miss me? Probably not since there was all the foregoing backstory to digest during my brief absence. In any case, I’m back – and I’m headed to the foyer, from where I will keep y’all up to date on the opposition reaction, which will, I am predicting, run the gamut from “outrage” to “horror”, with a brief stop at the lobby pen to see what the usual non-political suspects have to say. Hey, I wonder what the Fair Vote people think about eliminating the subsidy. Anyway, I’ll be posting regular updates, so keep checking back.
Well, I’m in the foyer, and Bob Rae is scrumming — I got here just in time for the condemnation of meanspirited partisan advantage-taking. The minister is still talking, I believe – I can hear applause coming from the House, so he may be winding down – and I think Dion may have popped out for a quick and dirty diatribe earlier, which would unfortunately have taken place right about the same time that the locked up were finally being liberated by our Finance Department captors.
It’s rather surreal to just wander back and forth in the foyer, past the little knots of intense two- and three-person conversations, overhearing the odd talking point.
“The ball in his court,” rumbles a remarkably Cheshire catlike John McCallum. That would be Stephen Harper’s ball and court, just to be clear. He refuses to rule out an election and points to Dion’s comments earlier.
The Liberals, incidentally, put out a press release that condemned the government for slashing funding to vulnerable groups, attacking the right of workers to strike and a host of other perfidies – but didn’t mention the political subsidies. Interesting tactic.
As per the NDP’s Ian Capstick, the first vote – Ways and Means – will be Monday.
An interesting chat with an NDP MP who doesn’t believe that the Liberals will have the guts to vote against an eventual bill, but seems equally sceptical of the idea that this could result in the best Christmas coalition government ever!
Ralph Goodale is on fire – on fire! He is at the mic, in a fine fury over the Tom Flanagan Party, which has the temerity to take advantage of an economic crisis to introduce bad legislation.
I swear, you could come to seven different conclusions as you walk through the hallway, each more fiendishly complex than the last.
Okay, the crowd is thinning out, so I’m going to sign off for a bit – I’m fairly sure there will be more drama later, but for the moment, everyone seems to be waiting to see how the story plays out tonight before deciding on their respective next move.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.