The Commons: Question Period, not Answer Period

Liberal Judy Foote faces off against the finance minister

The Scene. By Michael Ignatieff’s reckoning, there were two problems here. They were as follows.

First, “the heartlessness of the government.” And second, “the refusal of it to admit in the House what it is doing.”

No doubt these seemed a problematic set of circumstances, not only for the country, but for the government itself. Indeed, if the first step to healing is admitting the problem, this government’s denial would seem to be standing in the way of some important self-improvement.

“The Prime Minister denies the facts, but in a message on October 21 the minister clearly commits to cut the GIS. Poverty among seniors is increasing and yet the government is cutting benefits to the most vulnerable seniors in our population,” Mr. Ignatieff explained. “How can the Prime Minister justify these priorities to vulnerable Canadians?”

A thousand therapists could perhaps not unravel the Prime Minister’s quick response.

“Of course, Mr. Speaker,” he said, “completely the opposite is correct.”

It serves here to note that when the hour was through, Liberal Shawn Murphy would rise on a point of order to lament that a suggestion by the Government House leader that an opposition member take his question “outside” was an affront to the principles of parliamentary democracy. This was derided as out of order by government members and then dismissed by the Speaker on the grounds that the chair has little say over the content of responses offered during QP. It is, he noted, called Question Period, not Answer Period.

Indeed, for another day there were straightforward questions about the number of children detained and transferred by Canadian Forces in Afghanistan and, for another day, the government quite unabashedly declined to acknowledge the substance of those queries. Such is life. And as such, what that old saw fails to note is what inevitably results when a Question Period includes few answers: a Question Period with few questions that are honestly intended to produce answers.

“Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister is not denying what is plainly in writing in his minister’s letter of October 21 and it is time for him to answer the question about the GIS,” Mr. Ignatieff explained with his third intervention, gesturing indignantly. “The government refuses to help disabled Nortel pensioners, it is cutting the GIS, it seems to have money for prisons, it seems to have money for planes, it has the money for corporate tax breaks, but when it comes to finding support for seniors, suddenly it is out of dough. Why?”

He flashed his right hand in the air as he pleaded this rhetorical device.

“Mr. Speaker, guess what?” Mr. Harper responded, now apparently trying to pose questions for himself. “Unlike the previous Liberal government, this government can equip our armed forces and can put criminals in prison and also support our senior citizens.”

He declared this quite proudly. Then, turning suddenly less bullish, he added this addendum. “In terms of the particular matter the leader raises, there was a court decision that was intended to reserve GIS for those who are the poorest and vulnerable,” he offered. “Some changes were made administratively in HRSD that may have overreached that objective and the minister has made clear she has cancelled those changes.”

Here then, a kind of response to the question that was sort of asked. Huzzahs seemed in order, but before the House could dutifully take note of this moment, Liberal Judy Foote was up with various flourishes to shout in the Finance Minister’s general direction.

“Mr. Speaker, the record of the finance minister must feel like a recurring nightmare for those in Ontario who lived through his first kick at the can,” she cried. “His Harris government fired inspectors leading to the Walkerton tragedy, he fired thousands of nurses, he closed more than 20 hospitals, he drove up deficits saddling future generations with a mountain of debt. All he left of Ontario’s cooked books was a smouldering ruin.”

In fairness, she finished this with two sentences that were, technically speaking, interrogative. “Why can the finance minister not see that this rerun of failed policies are hurting Canadians?” she wondered aloud. “How can the Prime Minister keep this two-time financial offender in his cabinet?”

Perhaps appreciating Ms. Foote’s effort, or merely anticipating the chance to speak his response, Jim Flaherty stood here with a smile. “Mr. Speaker, I am not sure where the honourable member was in the 1990s,” he mused. “I know her leader was not in Canada. I did not realize she was not, either.”

In fairness, the Finance Minister does not hold himself accountable for knowing what happened in Canada during the late 60s when he was at Princeton. And neither, for that matter, does he take much responsibility for anything that happened in the province of Ontario when he was at Queen’s Park.

“Do you know what happened in the 1990s, Mr. Speaker? The Liberal federal government decided that it would balance its budget on the backs of the provinces,” he continued, now pumping his fist and wagging his finger and turning less gleeful. “Those of us who were working in the provinces at that time, including the member for Toronto Centre—Rosedale who has said this, suffered through those cuts to the provinces. What were the cuts in? They were in health care, education—”

So carried away had he gotten with this that he’d both forgotten that the riding of Toronto Centre—Rosedale was several years ago renamed and surpassed his time limit. All the same, John Baird mimed a baseball swing to demonstrate his regard for Mr. Flaherty’s retort.

Unfortunately, at least for her, Ms. Foote elected here to dabble in improv. “Clearly, Mr. Speaker,” she said, “the truth hurts.”

The Conservative howled with laughter.

The Speaker begged for order.

“Mr. Speaker,” Ms. Foote tried again, “this is a finance minister who cannot admit the truth.”

Then back to the purple prose.

“This Queen’s Park denier’s historical rewrite did not fool Ontarians, and it will not fool Canadians,” Ms. Foote pronounced. “Next he will be telling us that there is no $54 billion deficit, he never hired crony speechwriters, he did not cut food inspectors leading to listeriosis, there was no fake lake, no income trust flip-flop and that seniors have been better off under his watch. When will the minister stop his sorry excuses? Why do Canadians have to suffer again for his failures?”

After a word of advice from his seatmate, Industry Minister Tony Clement, Mr. Flaherty was up for another go.

“Mr. Speaker, it is apparent that the member for Random—Burin—St. George’s did not experience the cuts that were done by the federal Liberal government in the 1990s in Newfoundland, but the people of Ontario did,” he explained, growing loud and angry. “We felt it having to reduce the number of teachers, reduce the number of nurses, and not being able to build the hospitals that the people of Ontario needed. I know the member for Toronto Centre-Rosedale lived through that. Apparently the member from Newfoundland did not.”

Then the big finish.

“The people of Ontario voted in Vaughan,” he said, “because they remembered earlier this week.”

The Conservative side was delighted.

A moment later, Gilles Duceppe was up to ask the first question about those children detained in Afghanistan. The House turned decidedly less enthused.

The Stats. Government spending, six questions. Afghanistan, five questions. The economy, infrastructure and ethics, four questions each. Seniors, aboriginal affairs and AIDS, three questions each. Copyright, two questions each. Immigration, Wikileaks, product safety and the environment, one question each.

Stephen Harper, eight answers. John Baird, six answers. Jim Flaherty, five answers. Chuck Strahl, four answers. John Duncan and Lawrence Cannon, three answers each. James Moore, Tony Clement and Leona Aglukkaq, two answers each. Peter MacKay, Diane Finley and Jason Kenney, one answer each.

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