The Commons: Idle No More and the complaints of before

Maybe something has changed, but it's still hard to explain the F-35

With protesters standing in the snow outside, our House moved quickly to make up for six weeks without these formal proceedings.

“Mr. Speaker, today in First Nations communities across the country, the unemployment rate can reach 80%, half of the housing units are in a pitiful state and schools and students receive 30% less funding than others,” Thomas Mulcair reported. “Last year, during meetings between the Crown and First Nations, the Prime Minister promised to renew our nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous people. He promised substantial consultations: he never listened. He promised to tackle these problems: instead he attacked the chiefs. Will the Prime Minister finally take concrete action in this matter?”

The Prime Minister was prepared with assurances. “Mr. Speaker, this government has acted on several concrete measures, unprecedented in our country, for Aboriginals. We built new housing, created new schools, implemented new systems for drinking water and finalized certain land claims. Obviously, there is much more to do. However, we will continue our program with positive partners.”

It went on more or less like this for eight of the first 10 questions: a rhetorical stalemate, or rather a restating of the general positions. This newest concern is, of course, something like this nation’s oldest concern and the challenge is thus profound. In this case, the House probably needs something it can wrap its collective and metaphorical arms around—a tangible something to argue about (something that Romeo Saganash’s bill on the UN declaration and Carolyn Bennett’s question about cuts to the Aboriginal Job Centre might yet provide).

But if the last six weeks represented some kind of change beyond this place—though it is still too early to say so for sure—they did not quite resolve the matters that the opposition was fussing about at the end of 2012.

Take, for instance, the parliamentary budget officer—not merely the existential question of the office’s future, but the small matter of the questions the current officeholder continues to raise about this government’s management.

“Mr. Speaker, one of the commitments the Conservative Party made in 2006 was to create an independent parliamentary budget authority to provide objective analysis directly to Parliament,” Bob Rae offered with his third intervention, stepping forward and jabbing his index finger at the government side. “I ask the Prime Minister, how is that statement and the creation of the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer in any way, shape or form compatible with the kind of cheap partisan attacks the Minister of Finance made against the Parliamentary Budget Officer and against his observation that the job of the Parliamentary Budget Officer was to be a sounding board for the government? Does the Prime Minister not realize it is independent and—”

The interim Liberal leader had run out of time. Not that it mattered much because the Prime Minister objected to the premise anyway.

Mr. Speaker, of course I would not in any way accept that categorization,” he lamented. “I would state clearly that it was this government, this government, that created the Parliamentary Budget Office.”

This much, at least, is indisputable.

“We have done so in order to enhance a dialogue to ensure there is a partisan—”

Mr. Harper caught himself.

“—non-partisan, credible source of opinion on fiscal matters,” he explained. “We will go forward in a way to ensure we have an officer and an office that are non-partisan and credible in their economic appraisals.”

It is Kevin Page’s ability to remain non-partisan that the Conservatives now seem to open to mocking and it is his credibility that they now question.

“The Minister of Finance claimed Conservative cuts would affect back operations and not front-line services. Now he has been proven wrong,” Peggy Nash reported a little while later. “The PBO reports that back office spending has gone up by 8%, where services Canadians rely on have been cut by 4%. Will the minister just come clean and admit that his reckless cuts have been a mistake?”

The minister would not. Indeed, Jim Flaherty would remain seated while Tony Clement offered the official rebuttal. “Mr. Speaker, actually I must inform the House that the budget officer has his definitions wrong and is ill-informed on these issues,” Mr. Clement scolded.

“Ill-informed” is actually a description Mr. Page himself would most likely agree with wholeheartedly. Indeed, he would no doubt be better informed if Mr. Clement’s government had been more forthcoming in its disclosures. But that is now a matter for the courts.

It is another matter of which the Parliamentary Budget Officer was apparently poorly informed—Mr. Page denied a meeting with defence officials, then publicly criticized—that most tests the limits of the government’s ability to explain: the F-35.

Once again this afternoon the New Democrats wondered when the government would hold an open competition to purchase a new fighter jet and, once again, it was Rona Ambrose’s duty to stand and attempt to fashion an assurance of some kind.

“Mr. Speaker, as I indicated and as the member knows,” Ms. Ambrose offered the NDP’s Matthew Kellway, “the Auditor General asked that the Department of National Defence refine its cost estimates. It has done exactly that. He also asked that the Department of National Defence start to apply a full life cycle cost estimate, and it also has done that.”

Congratulations would surely be in order if such costing wasn’t what Treasury Board policy required and what the House of Commons had demanded. And if the Department of National Defence hadn’t already previously agreed with the Auditor General to apply such accounting.

“The member should know the KPMG report found no documentation for a full life cycle costing because the Department of National Defence has never applied this framework before.”

It was unclear if Ms. Ambrose considered this a statement of explanation or a pronouncement of blame, but either way it would seem to clash somewhat with all of the above, as well as the auditor general’s assertion that a 36-year costing existed.

“The Auditor General thinks this is a good idea and we agree and now the Department of National Defence is doing that,” Ms. Ambrose concluded. “We are happy that we have met the Auditor General’s recommendation.”

With that the House returned to the greatest mystery of both 2011 and 2012, the unresolved question at the heart of who we are as a nation, the mystery that shackles us with suspicion and doubt: What was Peter MacKay doing with that helicopter?

For the record, the Defence Minister continues to insist he was called back from personal time to attend a news conference on very short notice.