The Commons: 'Our government shares that regret'

Flaherty warned unspecifically of the unexpected and unforeseen. He spoke passingly of the cost.

The Commons
When it was all over, when Jim Flaherty had finished with his mind-numbing ode—24 pages in all—to these mind-numbing times, the Liberals sent up Siobhan Coady, a rookie MP from Newfoundland, to respond. From the back row of the opposition side she wondered aloud about what has happened these last few months—the buying opportunities of October, the optimistic projections of November, the Prime Minister’s abrupt dash from Parliament, the grave pronouncements of now and the Canadians rendered jobless in between.

“Ya gonna vote for it or not?” yelped a Conservative, apparently eager to have the budget approved and this dalliance with bipartisanship done with.

“As I’m sure the honourable member knows,” Mr. Flaherty said in Ms. Coady’s direction, “we are living in extraordinary times.”

No doubt here was a rare motion that might pass this place unanimously.

When last this place was darkened with the sights and sounds of public debate, one side was being accused of treason, the other of merely undermining the most basic and sacred of our democratic principles. Since then everything and nothing has changed.

Stephane Dion now sits in the corner, banished to the Paul Martin Memorial Chair of Irrelevancy. In his old spot sits Michael Ignatieff, whose ability to conjugate English verbs has instilled new confidence in the Liberal side.

Opposite Ignatieff is Stephen Harper. At various points these last few months Harper’s dismissed the possibility of a recession and mused of a potential depression, promised never to put the country into a deficit and declared a deficit the only path to salvation, screamed about his opponents’ desire to destroy the country and vowed to work more closely with them. He continues to play chess. Though increasingly he seems to be playing it exclusively with himself.

There remains a written agreement among the opposition parties to form a coalition in the event of Mr. Harper’s parliamentary demise. Only everyone is agreed that the coalition is dead. Even if it’s currently more popular than the sitting government.

To his periodic credit, Jack Layton remains steadfast. This government, he says, cannot be trusted. Whatever it says it will do now, it is impossible to know what it will say or do next. And on that point the NDP leader seems to be finding allies in the most conservative of circles.

Extraordinary times, as Mr. Flaherty says.

Blessed consistency returned today in the daily ritual of Question Period—the opposition grasping at coherence, the government feigning concern before settling on ridicule.

“Why,” Michael Ignatieff wondered this day, “did the Prime Minister tell us we were in surplus on November 27 when we were actually in deficit?”

“Mr. Speaker, let us be very clear,” Mr. Harper began, announcing the impending arrival of utter nonsense. “Prior to the budgetary actions we will be taking in the upcoming budget this government has been in surplus for the current fiscal year.”

There was a surplus, you see, until there wasn’t.

Ignatieff and one of his deputies, Marlene Jennings, kept on in this regard for awhile. “How,” Ignatieff asked, “can Canadians trust the Prime Minister not to fail them again?”

Ted Menzies, the Finance Minister’s cheerful secretary, leapt to his government’s defence.

“Mr. Speaker, I would ask my honourable colleague to remember the fact that Liberals suggest that we have not been dealing with this,” he observed. “In fact, it was the fall statement of 2007 that the Prime Minister and the finance minister recognized what was on the horizon.”

They were preparing for a recession, you see, before they were denying its existence.

When it was Mr. Layton’s turn, he stood with a simple enough query. “Could the Prime Minister explain to Canadians now why, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he denied that there was a problem with the economy for so long?”

So challenged, the Prime Minister was forthright and contrite, humble and conciliatory.

Oh, just kidding. He actually stood and read into the record a quote from NDP MP Peter Stoffer that vaguely contradicted the NDP’s position on the federal budget. Zing!

Desperate to impose fact on the proceedings, Menzies came back up with a statistic. “We need to remember,” he said, “that since this government took power in January of 2006 there are still over 190,000 net new jobs.”

Moments later, a correction. “I would like to clarify a statement that was not exactly correct when I was asked about the number of new jobs,” Menzies said before responding to another question. “In fact there were 807,000 new jobs since this government has been in place.”

A rounding error, surely. And not all the sort of slip that should cast doubt on the government’s side grasp of accounting.

An hour later, after a brief recess Jim Flaherty strode into the House, unnoticed at first, but wildly applauded when he reached his spot in the front row. The Speaker called the proceedings to order. And peaking out from behind the tall wooden podium, Mr. Flaherty then vowed, at length and in excruciating detail, to both stimulate and protect.

The stimulation, in this case, was tantric. Lower taxes, greater spending. Innovation, expansion and investment. Money to feed your family and build a new deck in the backyard. An agency for every region, a fund for every cause, a job for every Canadian. Well except for those, who, the Minister conceded, will probably lose theirs.

The visitors’ galleries were full of grey-haired men in dark suits. The matinée idols of Canadian conservatism—Mike Harris, Gordon Campbell, Bernard Lord—watched from the VIP section. In the seats reserved for Senators, some of the newly indoctrinated watched and clapped adoringly. Michael Ignatieff, wearing glasses, sat and read and pondered, periodically jotting something down in his moleskin notepad. Across from him, Flaherty plodded on, sounding certain, if perhaps a bit sad. At the appropriate points, his government mates applauded, though never too enthusiastically, rising to their feet only when it was over.

Aside from a passing reference to our first prime minister and his railway, the Finance Minister did not reach into the past for inspiration or context. The prose never soared. Indeed, it barely broke a sweat. The problems came from mystical places beyond our borders—from the “global recession” and “the crisis in the U.S. financial system.” He warned unspecifically of the unexpected and unforeseen. He spoke passingly of the cost—some $80-billion in debt that will, most likely, be some other finance minister’s problem.

“Canadians regret the need to run a deficit in order to invest in our economy,” he said for all of us. “Our government shares that regret.”

Canadians will no doubt sleep better this evening knowing the Finance Minister feels just awful about all this.

Around the 50-minute mark, the Finance Minister began listing the specific highways, bridges and sewers his government will be attending to in the months and years to come. He spoke with some glee about a national call to build new hockey rinks. When all was said and done, he said, a train ride from Toronto to Montreal would be about 30 minutes shorter. And lest you fear that such talk is only that, there was the explicit promise of “progress reports.”

“We are, as the experts say, ‘building capacity,’ ” he said.

Those stirring words aside, the sentence of this day—of this time and situation and predicament—was found on page seven of Mr. Flaherty’s opus.

“While our projections are based on the best information available,” he said, words that will forever sit beside the best of Lincoln and Churchill, “we cannot guarantee them absolutely.”

The Liberal side chuckled at this. Crying might’ve been the more appropriate response.