The Commons: A rhetorical downturn

Harper invites Ignatieff to "actually provide some economic policy suggestions"

The Scene. With the Prime Minister back in the House, Michael Ignatieff decided to pick up yesterday’s line of questioning where it had been left. Perhaps he figured Stephen Harper might be better equipped to explain this government. Perhaps the Liberal assumed the mutual respect between opposition leader and government—the Liberal-Conservative coalition, as Jack Layton puts it before crying himself to sleep each night—might lend itself to a clear and fulsome discussion of our present situation.

“Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister said last Friday there would be no new stimulus measures even if the economy continues to decline; the so-called economic action plan is the plan,” Ignatieff began. “However, the same day, the finance minister appeared to say the opposite.”

His use of the term “so-called” did not bode particularly well.

“The Prime Minister and his Minister of Finance appear to have some kind of disagreement and Canada needs clarity,” Ignatieff continued. “Will there or will there not be further action beyond the budget as the crisis worsens?”

Obviously troubled at the suggestion that his public comments might be confusing Canadians, the Prime Minister jumped to his feet to correct the record. “Mr. Speaker, last week the leader of the Liberal Party supported the budget. This week he is out criticizing the budget,” Mr. Harper reported. “I can assure him that both the Minister of Finance and myself agree that we do not change budgetary policy once a week.”

The Prime Minister’s use of the passive aggressive bode even less well.

So challenged, Mr. Ignatieff attempted that rarest of Parliamentary feats—the spontaneous retort.

“Mr. Speaker, can I therefore take it as being the policy of the government that the economic action plan is the plan, that it is not going to change?” he asked. “The facts are changing hourly. The government is not going to adapt? It is not going to respond? Is that the meaning of the Prime Minister’s answer?”

In response, the Prime Minister opted first for repetition. “It is important that we proceed with a plan,” he said, “that we act on a plan and that we do not change our plan every week.”

That clarified, he went back to sounding altogether hurt at the Liberal leader’s insistence on acting like a member of the opposition. “If the leader of the opposition believes there should be changes,” he said, “I would invite him to do something he never did in the pre-budget period; which is, actually provide some economic policy suggestions.”

The Prime Minister’s rediscovered peevishness surely has nothing to do with the latest poll numbers. Perhaps he’s just getting tired of having to listen to complaints about a federal budget he likely wasn’t particularly fond of in the first place. Perhaps travelling the country pledging to build more hockey arenas wasn’t what he had hoped to do with his second mandate. Maybe he’s simply grown tired of feigning indifference with the Liberals, while repeating for months now the same complaints about the NDP (too critical!) and Bloc Quebecois (too interested in Quebec!).

If he’s made restless by the current unrest beyond this place, he is hardly alone.

Engaging in a fiscal measuring contest of sorts, Mr. Layton invited Mr. Harper to “get on the same train that we see the president of the United States taking.” The Prime Minister took the opportunity to explain, somewhat incomprehensibly, how his government had reacted in the fall of 2007, months before he denied the possibility of a recession, to combat the recession that is now here.

Conservatives Jason Kenney and James Moore—a pair who seem to find each other quite hilarious—couldn’t resist mocking a series of British Columbia MPs who were sent up to lament their province’s state. Liberals responded in kind when the Finance Minister, growling and barking despite having to speak just three times today, rose to warn of something called a “synchronized global recession.”

Awhile later, the NDP’s Judy Wasylycia-Leis and Treasury Board president Vic Toews engaged in a spirited discussion of who could more loudly assert their concern for women’s rights.

“When will this government stop with its macho politics and stop turning the clock back on women’s rights in this country?” asked the New Democrat.

“Mr. Speaker,” responded Toews, “the fact that the member shouts and yells from the other end of the House does not change the facts.”

When Question Period concluded, various points of order led to a discussion that seemed to have something to do with what might be done about members who freely abuse the truth during proceedings in the Commons. Much apparently to everyone’s chagrin, the Speaker appeared to suggest there was not much he could do about this.

The Stats. The economy, five questions. Aerospace, British Columbia, arts funding, employment and Omar Khadr, four questions each. The environment, three questions. Mining, forestry, food safety and women’s rights, two questions each. Child safety, child care, taxation and electoral law, one question each.

Stephen Harper, eight answers. Tony Clement, five answers. Diane Finley, James Moore and Lawrence Cannon, four answers each. Jim Flaherty, three answers. Denis Lebel, Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Vic Toews and Josee Verner, two answers each. Lisa Raitt, Peter Van Loan and Jim Prentice, one answer each.