The Commons: A day like any other

On the last sitting before Parliament's summer recess, a "visionless" government and the "tired" official opposition

The Scene. As Bob Rae began the first question of the last Question Period before this third session of the 40th Parliament pauses for the summer, a respectful silence took hold.

The subject matter was this morning’s release of the final report from the inquiry into the Air India bombing. Mr. Rae commended the government and the inquiry’s commissioner. The Prime Minister stood and added his thanks to Justice Major. Mr. Rae probed for specific details of the government’s expected response, Mr. Harper offered assurances. The two danced quite delicately on the edge of combativeness, this adversarial system at its most sensitive.

Not until the Speaker called on the polarizing member for Ajax-Pickering, the Liberal Mark Holland, did the noise return to the chamber, government members groaning and moaning as Mr. Holland abruptly and loudly changed topics.

“Mr. Speaker, when next week’s G8 summit starts, world leaders will not visit $50 million in unfinished mud parks, bridges, gazebos and a sunken boat paid for in their names,” Mr. Holland reported. “While world leaders cannot visit unfinished pork, tourists will not be going to Toronto. The U.S. just issued a travel advisory not to visit Toronto during the G8. At the height of the tourist season, Conservatives are shutting down Toronto. The Economist magazine is now calling the $1 billion in waste a ‘loonie boondoggle.’ How much more of an international embarrassment can this get?”

To this facetious provocation, Lawrence Cannon stood contrite and humble to mouth just enough platitudes about security concerns to fill the time allotted for response.

Mr. Holland tried again. “Here is the problem,” he clarified. “Conservatives approved $50 million in projects under the banner of the G8 that have nothing, zero, to do with the summit. This is not a gazebo and ice rink sales convention. It is a world leaders’ meeting on international debt. I am not talking about the $500,000 they spent on the bunny hop trail or the $50 million and other pork shoved into the minister’s riding. I am talking about this G8 legacy fund, a bonus $50 million for the minister in the name of the summit that has nothing to do with the summit at all. How do they justify this?”

This was closer to a direct question, but the minister in question—the frequently tweeting Tony Clement—stayed seated so that John Baird might stand and emphatically proclaim the government’s good and noble works on behalf of the Canadian people. “Mr. Speaker, the government has done some 12,000 infrastructure projects in every corner of the country,” he reported. “We have two major goals as part of our economic action plan. One is to create badly needed jobs in the short term, and second is to improve public infrastructure in the long term. We are accomplishing both of those objectives. We have seen, since July, the creation of more than 300,000 new jobs. Our plan is working.”

This being the last sitting before Parliament’s summer recess, the day was otherwise consumed with much pausing for reflection. Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton convened news conferences to expound on the efforts of their respective sides. In the moments before Question Period, the government sent up one of their dutifully elected news release readers to proclaim the government’s accomplishment. Mr. Layton lamented the “visionless” government and the “tired” official opposition. Mr. Ignatieff lamented for the intimidation and partisanship of Mr. Harper’s side. The news release reader complained of the opposition’s mudslinging. And so it was that everyone was agreed that something was wrong and that someone else was primarily to blame.

“Government is us,” Mr. Layton had offered at one point. And so here we are.

The arena of our democracy was at it usually is, a mix of aspersion, sorrow, frustration, self-righteousness and triumphalism. Adjectives were exchanged, explanations were demanded, voices were raised, facts were asserted and claims made. Each side cheered their own. Carefully scripted lines were read into the record.

Wayne Easter whined and the government side jeered. Dominic LeBlanc happily taunted the Justice Minister off camera. The Bloc Quebecois mounted an omnibus list of grievances on behalf of its namesake province. The NDP called on others to follow their lead and the government side groaned. There were questions about agriculture policy, the Sydney harbour and lighthouses.

Maxime Bernier showed up in a handsome three-piece suit. Michael Chong sat quietly and observed, perhaps plotting revolution. Ralph Goodale attempted a straightforward question. A government backbencher was sent up to ask a rhetorical question of a minister. When the accusations grew too numerous, the Conservative side employed John Baird as a distraction. Rodger Cuzner stood and very nearly screamed himself into a broken rib. Keith Ashfield rose and did what he could to ward off suggestions of impropriety.

In a way, the opposition held the other side to account. In a way, the government was made to explain itself. Either way, we were provided another 45-minute demonstration of who and what we have here and, ultimately, what is us.

When it was all over, the Prime Minister crossed the aisle and caught Mr. Rae’s attention. The two found seats in the opposition front row and sat for awhile as the House proceeded with other business. The conversation, whatever the topic, seemed altogether friendly and respectful.

The Stats. Quebec, 10 questions. The G20, eight questions. Air India, four questions. Agriculture, ethics, the Sydney harbour and lighthouses, two questions each. Crime, taxation, poverty, labour, foreign affairs and the oil industry, one question each.

Stephen Harper, seven answers. Keith Ashfield, four answers. Lawrence Cannon and John Baird, three answers each. Rona Ambrose, Gerry Ritz, James Moore, Dave Anderson and Jim Prentice, two answers each. Jim Flaherty, Denis Lebel, Jason Kenney, Diane Finley, Vic Toews, Rob Nicholson, Gail Shea, Lisa Raitt and Deepak Obhrai, one answer each.