The Commons: More than 400 pages and still short on details

Funny how the opposition can't seem to find much in this budget bill

The Scene. For all of the budget bill’s pages and clauses—more than 400 of the former and more than 700 of the latter—opposition MPs seem strangely at a loss. So very many pages and yet still they cry out for more.

“Mr. Speaker, until now the Conservatives had refused to come clean on how much they plan to cut from old age security,” Thomas Mulcair reported this day as if reading the evening news. “Finally yesterday, when asked whether the Conservative cuts would take about $10 billion out of the pockets of Canadian seniors, the Minister of Finance said: ‘I’ve heard that number. I’ve heard $12 billion also, something in that area.’ ”

Staring across the aisle at one minister in particular, Mr. Mulcair moved for the quip. “I guess,” he said, “it is not just the Minister of Defence who has arithmetic problems.”

Peter MacKay nodded mockingly.

“Would the Prime Minister refresh the memory of his Minister of Finance,” Mr. Mulcair finally asked, “and table the full cost of his Old Age Security Cuts?”

The problem here was apparently one of wording.

“Mr. Speaker, I would be glad to refresh the memory of the leader of the NDP that of course in this budget there are no reductions to Old Age Security,” the Prime Minister explained. “We are looking at adjustments to the age of eligibility,” Mr. Harper explained, “that will not begin to take effect until the year 2023.”

No reductions, only adjustments. Future adjustments. Think of it like the federal treasury has scheduled an appointment to go see the chiropractor in 11 years.

Unmoved, Mr. Mulcair moved on. “Mr. Speaker, the Minister of Finance’s remarks about OAS were not the only disturbing comments he made yesterday afternoon,” he segued. “When asked whether unemployed teachers and nurses should be forced to take any job that comes along or be taken off EI, the minister said: ‘There is no bad job. The only bad job is not having a job.’ ”

In his seat across the way, Jim Flaherty nodded. The government benches applauded, several members feeling it necessary to stand and clap for this recitation of the Finance Minister’s philosophy.

Mr. Mulcair waited for the applause to finish and then started again. “Mr. Speaker, the minister said: ‘There is no bad job. The only bad job is not having a job.’ ”

Once more the Conservatives applauded.

Mr. Mulcair waited for the applause to finish and then tried once more. ” ‘There is no bad job. The only bad job is not having a job.’ ”

Demonstrating Pavlov’s famous discovery, the Conservatives clapped on cue for a third time.

“Order, please,” the Speaker admonished. “We will have to make up the time somewhere else.” (And, indeed, the Speaker later skipped a Conservative backbencher on the schedule to make up for this clapping.)

Mr. Mulcair finally finished. “Mr. Speaker, then he went on to say that he had driven a taxi and refereed hockey,” he said of the Finance Minister. “Does the Prime Minister actually agree that our teachers and our nurses should be taking jobs driving taxis rather than being given a chance to look for work in their own field?”

Mr. Harper stood with a bit of a smile on his face. He enthused about the “superior employment creation record of the country.” “We want to make sure going forward that people continue to have those opportunities,” he explained. “We anticipate that labour shortage is going to be a serious concern in the Canadian economy in the years to come and we want to make sure all Canadians have the opportunity to get the kind of work they need.”

The NDP leader proceeded to his third grievance. “Mr. Speaker, the Minister of Finance also went on to say: ‘We’re going to have significant labour shortages in this country,’ ”  he reported. ” ‘That means we’re going to have to encourage more persons with disabilities to work, more seniors to work. We need to get rid of disincentives in the Employment Insurance system.’ ”

Mr. Mulcair seemed to find this unreasonable. “Could the Prime Minister tell us how retirement is a disincentive, how living with a disability is a disincentive?” he asked.

There were groans on the government side.

“The only disincentive here is the Conservatives hurling insults at seniors and people with a disability, and they should be ashamed of themselves,” he declared, furrowing his brow and swiping his fist.

Mr. Harper stood and turned philosophic. The House going quiet as he did.

“Mr. Speaker, one of the things that has changed very positively in the course of my lifetime has been our realization that people we call disabled are able to do a whole range of functions that every Canadian can do,” the Prime Minister mused. “An example of that is right before all of us, right here in the Minister of State for Transport, who is able to be Minister of State for Transport.”

The Conservatives stood and treated Steven Fletcher to a standing ovation.

Now Mr. Mulcair was quite angry. And then Mr. Harper was suggesting that the NDP leader believed unemployment was sufficient for the disabled. In the absence of the explanation, the House seemed to have strayed.

For the sake of clarifying what exactly the government plans to do to Employment Insurance with the powers its budget bill vaguely bestows, Liberal Rodger Cuzner rose awhile later with an example to test.

“Mr. Speaker, let us look at the case of a single mother in Margaree Harbour, in Cape Breton, who contributes to the success of two seasonal industries,” he offered. “She works as a chambermaid during the tourism season and she makes Christmas wreaths, at a small shop, each fall. EI helps feed her family between seasons. Like many rural Canadians, she has no access to public transit or child care. And know this. Her attitude is not defeatist.”

(This much was a shot at the Prime Minister.)

“The Prime Minister now makes the rules for EI,” Mr. Cuzner continued, perhaps getting ahead of himself. “So, I ask him, in the case of this single mother, would she be packing or would she just be poor?”

This brought Ms. Finley to her feet. “Mr. Speaker, let’s face it,” she sighed. “Canada is facing unprecedented shortages of labour and skills. We need to help Canadians who are unemployed get back to work quickly. The changes that we are proposing would help the unemployed find jobs in their local area and would, at the same time, address the skills shortages faced by Canadian employers. Canadians would be expected to take jobs appropriate to their skill level in their area.”

Whether or not this precisely answered Mr. Cuzner’s question, it was at least something of an explanation for something that remains, for all the budget contains, rather mysterious. For the sake of a just few more pages, it might be written down and added to the bill.

The Stats. Employment, six questions. Old Age Security and the budget, four questions each. Military procurement, Afghanistan and aboriginal affairs, three questions each. Veterans, crime, food safety, the Heritage Minister, crime and affordable housing, two questions each. Fisheries, education, firearms and airports, one question each.

Stephen Harper and Diane Finley, eight responses. John Baird, three responses. Peter Kent, Julian Fantino, Steven Blaney, James Moore, Rob Nicholson, Gerry Ritz and John Duncan, two responses each. Keith Ashfield, Candice Hoeppner, Joe Oliver and Denis Lebel, one response each.