The Scene. By the third of Michael Ignatieff’s questions, the Prime Minister was losing patience. The Liberal leader had considered Mr. Harper’s second answer insufficient and said so out loud and, for sure, such an assertion could not be let alone.
“Mr. Speaker, the answer is the same in French and English,” Mr. Harper said en francais, proceeding to restate his case for the current distribution of employment insurance.
All shrugs and soft tones until then, the Prime Minister switched suddenly back to English, tipping to television producers around the capital that something vaguely noteworthy was about to be said.
“Let me be very clear,” he said, his concept of clarity often having something to do with the failings of the other side, “I am not sure what it is exactly now the leader of the opposition is proposing, but I can assure him that what we will not be doing is raising EI premiums and other taxes on Canadians.”
The government members snapped to their feet to applaud their leader’s non sequitur. But their leader was merely stretching his sneer, warming up as it were for the lesser battle to come.
After a couple questions about swine flu and four rounds of blame and accusation between the Bloc and government side, it was the NDP’s turn. Jack Layton then stood as Jack Layton does stand and spoke as he does speak.
He proceeded first, with slightly different numbers, to similarly bemoan the inefficiencies of aide for the unemployed. But to this previously covered dispute, he added a flourish. “It is exactly 50 days ago today that the House adopted a motion by the NDP to improve employment insurance,” he noted. “Where is the action and where is the help?”
Mr. Harper seemed unaware of the motion to which Mr. Layton was referring and proceeded instead to explain, for the benefit perhaps of those recently de-jobbed, how employment insurance works.
“Mr. Speaker,” Layton asserted in response, “the Prime Minister has just pointed out that people when they lose their jobs are going to get penalized under the system that we have got here.”
He then hearkened back to better times. Or at least less awful times.
“Let us go back to the last recession,” he said. “Eight out 10 people who were out of work at that time were able to get help from EI. Now it is less than half. Something is wrong with the system and it should be fixed. Fifty days ago in the House a motion was adopted to establish what should be done. The Prime Minister used to say that he had a moral obligation or any prime minister did to respect the House. When is he going to respect the House, but more importantly, the people—”
Alas, his time ran out in mid-shout. And now the Prime Minister was visibly displeased.
“Once again, Mr. Speaker, the numbers from the leader of the NDP are completely inaccurate,” he began. “For instance, over the past year, as I have said already, the increase in unemployment and the percentage increase in the unemployed and in EI beneficiaries has gone up one for one; 80%. More than 80% of those who are paying in will collect employment insurance. More importantly, this government has improved the system, by lengthening the period of benefits, by putting more money into training and more money for the unemployed.”
Then the big finish, his right hand jabbing and pointing and swiping about. “When we talk about respect for the House,” he said, “the NDP members should bother to read the budget before they decide to vote against it and not vote against the unemployed.”
It is a wonder the Prime Minister still bothers in this way. It’s been three months since his government tabled that budget that members of the NDP may or may not have bothered to review. For that matter, it’s been nearly five years for Mr. Harper and Mr. Layton, the last three of those spent mostly in disagreement. Surely, even Mr. Harper tires of this. Surely, at the very least, his doctor has warned him about the long-term risks associated with high blood pressure.
“Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister is simply propagating myths because it does not match the reality of what people are experiencing on the street, 50 days of inaction,” Layton shot back with his third turn.
The Conservative side grumbled.
“Let us try something else the House has done,” Layton continued. “The House has said we need strong action to deal with the issue of credit card gouging. In fact in the House another NDP motion was adopted, laying out what should be done, picking up on some of the initiatives that the Obama administration is bringing forward.”
The government side moaned.
“Yesterday the House spoke,” Layton finished. “The question is this. When is the government going to act? Is the Prime Minister going to tell his finance minister to stop talking and start acting to protect the middle class?”
Back, for a final time, came the Prime Minister.
“Mr. Speaker, I just talked about what we did in the budget on employment insurance. What we also did in the economic action plan on credit cards was we gave the Minister of Finance additional regulatory power to deal with some of these problems in the credit card business,” he said.
“The problem is, once again the leader of the New Democratic Party and his party had decided to vote against the middle class and vote against these things before they even knew what was in the budget. That was wrong and they should stop doing it.”
And so it was settled. Mr. Layton would continue to dismiss the government’s legislation and, in return, Mr. Harper would continue to ignore Mr. Layton’s proposed alternatives. For sure, it seems an arrangement that satisfies both sides.
The Stats. Employment, seven questions. Citizenship and cultural funding, four questions each. Taxation, three questions. Swine flu, Quebec, the auto industry, forestry, the civil service, Omar Khadr and prison farms, two questions each. Flag pins, Canada Day, credit cards, drugs, product labelling and infrastructure, one question each.
Stephen Harper, seven answers. James Moore, four answers. Jim Flaherty, Christian Paradis and Deepak Obhrai, three answers each. Leona Aglukkaq, Peter Kent, Jason Kenney, Diane Finley, Denis Lebel and Peter Van Loan, two answers each. Tony Clement, Lynne Yelich, Pierre Poilievre, Jean-Pierre Blackburn, John Baird and Diane Ablonczy, one answer each.