The Commons: One thing he can say for sure

The ultimate measure of a man is where he gets his health care

The Scene. After the Prime Minister had escorted into the House the two newest additions to the government side, after the government side had delighted in the arrivals, and after the two MPs—Robert Sopuck of Dauphin and Julian Fantino of Vaughan—had officially surrendered their free will and taken their respective seats in the far southwest corner of the room, Mr. Harper returned to his own chair and awaited the first complaint of the leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition.

Michael Ignatieff’s lament this afternoon would be for those left waiting hours in emergency rooms across the country. By Mr. Ignatieff’s reckoning, the government had neglected to act sufficiently these last five years and, furthermore, the Prime Minister himself was not adequately supportive of the Canada Health Act. How, Mr. Ignatieff thus wondered, could the government be trusted to protect the public health system?

Mr. Harper stood and dispatched with this perfunctorily, lamenting for cuts to provincial transfers made by Liberal governments during the 1990s and boasting of how many billions his government has dutifully handed over in more recent years.

Having heard this version of events before, the Liberal leader was quick to respond that whatever Mr. Harper’s government had managed to transfer had been budgeted for by a Liberal government in 2004. Switching to English, he shook his fist in the Prime Minister’s direction and reviewed both the premise and the indictment. “The federal-provincial accords run out in 2014. The government has no record on public health. There has been no federal leadership on this issue for five years,” he declared. “The Prime Minister is heard to muse about how he would like to get rid of the Canada Health Act and he says that any plan to bring help to families to look after their loved ones at home is reckless. How can Canadians trust the government to defend public health?”

Mr. Harper stood and repeated his previous points, his right index finger emerging to wag and point variously. But here then the Prime Minister was apparently compelled to punctuate this fall sitting with a statement of great definitiveness.

“Since the leader of the Opposition made this personal, let me be clear,” he said, though it was not entirely clear to what degree the Liberal leader had turned the conversation toward the personal. “Myself and my family, we depend on, we have always used the public health care system of Canada. I wonder if the leader of the opposition can say the same thing.”

The government side leapt up joyously to salute their leader’s statement. And, for sure, it was quite heartening to hear the Prime Minister speak so clearly and openly for all to see and hear. He might not yet have explained to the nation how he came to completely reverse his position on the future of the mission in Afghanistan and decide to commit another 1,000 soldiers and $1.5 billion to the cause. He has so far been too shy to articulate a comprehensive plan to deal with what he has termed “perhaps the biggest threat to confront the future of humanity today.” His government remains hesitant to fully account for its decision to commit as much as $21 billion to new fighter jets. It seems rather unable for now to convey its policies on foreign aid. It cannot assure us that its sentencing reforms will result in less crime. It is seemingly unwilling to explain what security arrangement it is negotiating with the United States. But Mr. Harper can say that he and Mrs. Harper and their two children, having only ever resided in this country, have partaken of our national health care system.

The Liberal side, alas, seemed decidedly less-than-enthused about what should obviously be considered something of a breakthrough for our Prime Minister. Taking note of Mr. Harper’s last sentence, they apparently detected an insinuation that Mr. Ignatieff, having resided elsewhere in the world, had thus not always used the Canadian health care system and was, as a result, something less of a man, or at least less of a Canadian. Across the aisle from Mr. Harper, Liberal House leader David McGuinty extended his arm and put his thumb and index finger very near to each other, perhaps to describe the size of something unspecified.

“I can make that commitment, Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Ignatieff himself shot back, proceeding with a harangue that wildly exceeded his time limit.

If one were incapable of focusing on the positive here, as the Liberals apparently were, it would perhaps be tempting to wonder whether Mr. Harper has checked with every member of his cabinet—at least two of whom have strayed outside Canada at one time or another—to ensure neither sought any unCanadian medical treatment while abroad. The more uptight amongst us might wonder to what extent the health care histories of the families of politicians—if a second cousin of yours went to California to have his hip replaced, does that disqualify you from questioning anyone else’s commitment to public health care?—should be subject to public accountability. The more rigorous amongst us might at least now ask that a royal commission be struck to determine whether the prime-minister-elect received nothing more than the absolute average standard of care when he was taken to the emergency room four years ago with respiratory problems. Mr. Harper’s office did vow to be more transparent about his health after that incident, so maybe a comprehensive medical record could be tabled before Parliament.

But let us not now, at least for this precious moment, be distracted from a rare display of openness, transparency and definitiveness.

“Mr. Speaker, I do not have to make a commitment to use the Canadian public health care system,” Mr. Harper proclaimed again when Mr. Ignatieff had finished his third and final intervention. “That is what I have always used.”

And let us celebrate this disclosure. All the more so in the knowledge that if Mr. Harper ever seeks treatment in a less-than-Canadian system we cannot in anyway expect an explanation as to why.

The Stats. Quebec and seniors, four questions each. Health care, the economy, ethics, crime and the military, three questions each. Foreign aid, national security, the environment, infrastructure, the census and employment, two questions each. Canada Post, Iran and aboriginal affairs, one question each.

Stephen Harper, seven answers. John Baird, six answers. Diane Finley, four answers. Vic Toews and Peter MacKay, three answers each. Gail Shea, Bev Oda, Lawrence Cannon, Tony Clement and Rob Merrifield, two answers each. Denis Lebel, Rob Nicholson, Stockwell Day, Deepak Obhrai and Leona Aglukkaq, one answer each.

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