The Commons: A minor revelation

The Scene. The Prime Minister and Industry Minister were elsewhere and the latter’s parliamentary secretary had been given a rather short script from which to read so it eventually fell to John Baird to explain the government’s purchase today of a rather troubled automobile manufacturer. Only the Transport Minister didn’t want to talk about what he could do to put Ralph Goodale in a new PT Cruiser, he wanted to talk ominously about what Michael Ignatieff may or may not do if or when he becomes prime minister.

“Boooring! Boooring!” sang a voice from the Liberal side as Baird dutifully repeated a series of lines the Conservatives have been singing for two weeks now.

Switching from faux outrage, the minister next attempted to assuage his audience with comedy. “Mr. Speaker, the one remarkable thing that has happened over the last four or five months is that the Prime Minister has put aside partisan politics,” Baird quipped, the Liberal side loudly recognizing his joke with hearty laughter.

Then it was Jim Flaherty’s turn, the Finance Minister rising to scowl and stew and sigh, grimace and growl and grumble, swatting and swiping as he mocked the Liberal house leader and wondered aloud why the Liberal finance critic wasn’t driving a domestic.

And then, climactically, it was Jack Layton who stood and wondered dramatically about the generous incentives allegedly afforded managers of the Canadian Pension Plan. “Are you,” he asked, poignantly, “kidding me?”

It is by such standards that Leona Aglukkaq has emerged as something of a star this week.

Barely arrived in Ottawa from Nunavut as a rookie MP when the Prime Minister named her his health minister, Aglukkaq had served her first six months in relative anonymity. Dispatched to the far end of the front bench, and nearly obscured from view by the linebacker form of James Moore, she proceeded to provide few excuses to pay her much attention, speaking when she did in a slow, quiet tone.

Then, last week, a looming global pandemic intruded.

If there were fears she might be ill-prepared for such stuff, they’ve initially been calmed. If only, it seems, because she would seem for now to understand how poorly prepared to manage a worldwide health crisis she—or anyone—may be. In public, she has deferred to the experts around her. In private, she has gathered opposition MPs for consultation. In Question Period, she has provided straightforward answers. Asked after one session this week to clarify a previous statement, she stood, admitted her mistake and thanked the opposition critic for the opportunity to correct the record.

Suffice it to say, such stuff has been heralded as a sort of revelation, so rare it is to see someone behaving like something other than a self-aggrandizing outlet for utter nonsense, let alone freely admitting one’s own limitations. Indeed, never minding Aglukkaq’s own particular qualifications—one could fairly debate how well being the health minister for Nunavut, an expansive territory with a population of 32,000, prepares you to manage a national medicare program, let alone an unpredictable outbreak of potentially deadly influenza—she has become perhaps a worthy reminder of how few arrive here with a level of expertise equal to the powerful authority they happily claim. And how many, despite this honest limitation, carry on with the zeal of someone destined to carry such responsibility. 

Aglukkaq rose just twice this day, taking the twenty-first and twenty-second questions of the day.

“Mr. Speaker, health officials missed the opportunity to act in Mexico, where there are 2,500 suspected cases of flu. CBC and WHO officials say that the flu may turn out to be more similar in both Mexico and the states, that is, more mild cases may be uncovered in Mexico and more severe ones found in the U.S.,” reported Liberal Kirsty Duncan with the first.

Across the way, two of Aglukkaq’s colleagues grumbled.

“What? What?” muttered Vic Toews, furrowing his brow. “What’s the question?”

“Yeah, scare the public,” sighed Gary Goodyear, the minister of state for science. “Scare the public.”

“What is the minister doing to ensure that no opportunity to intervene appropriately is missed here in Canada?” Duncan asked.

The Health Minister stood, clutching a blue piece of paper, and detailed with whom she had been communicating these past few days to coordinate this country’s response.

Duncan, an academic with a book to her name on the Spanish flu of 1918, stood again. “Mr. Speaker, the swine flu outbreak is very dynamic, fluid, and is rapidly evolving. The increased threat level signifies that we have taken a step closer to a pandemic,” she said.

“Ralph, you’re scaring the public,” moaned Goodyear, in the direction of the Liberal house leader.

A voice from the Conservative front bench chirped something unintelligible.

“Should a pandemic occur,” Duncan continued, “how will it be decided who has been exposed and requires treatment? How will antivirals be distributed?”

Aglukkaq rose once more. “Mr. Speaker, our Conservative government’s highest priority is the health and safety of Canadians,” she said. “That is why in budget 2006 we invested $1 billion to increase Canada’s preparedness to respond to public health threats, including an influenza pandemic.The Public Health Agency of Canada, working with the provinces and territories, has developed a comprehensive pandemic influenza plan. The plan includes domestic vaccine capacity as well as stockpiling of antivirals. I can assure all honourable members that we are continuing to review and update this plan in order to protect Canadians.”

Granted, this was not much of an answer. But if it lacked in substance, it lacked equally in ill intent.

The Stats. The auto industry and infrastructure, five questions each. Employment and taxation, four questions each. The civil service, agriculture and the environment, three questions each. Listeriosis, government funding, swine flu and the Olympics, two questions each. The military and war medals, one question each.

Jim Flaherty, eight answers. John Baird, seven answers. Jean-Pierre Blackburn, four answers. Gerry Ritz and Ed Komarnicki, three answers each. Jim Prentice, Lisa Raitt, Leona Aglukkaq and James Moore, two questions each. Jacques Gourde, Denis Lebel, Pierre Poilievre and Greg Thomson, one answer each.

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