The Commons: Smile and shrug

Tony Clement faces off against Michael Ignatieff

The Commons: Smile and shrugThe Scene. After the last of several government MPs had been sent up before Question Period to cast aspersions on Michael Ignatieff’s character, the Speaker decided to interject. Calling for order, Peter Milliken told Conservative Daryl Kramp that he might “find himself suspended” if tries again to defy a recent ruling against the use of Parliament’s time to attack a fellow MP.

Those on the Liberal and NDP benches applauded. The government side pouted and, after Question Period, once more asserted its right to freely disparage by doing just that.

“This is politics. This is not a Harvard classroom,” explained Kory Teneycke, the Prime Minister’s press secretary. “You have to be able to take it as well as give it.”

Above all else, it seems, one’s ability to “take it” is the highest measure of public leadership in Stephen Harper’s Ottawa. Take, for instance, the Question Period that followed the Speaker’s warning.

“Mr. Speaker, yesterday we asked the Minister of Industry three simple questions about whether they did their jobs to protect Canadian autoworkers and Canadian taxpayers,” Michael Ignatieff began by way of review. “And the answers were as follows. No secure credit facility right now. No corporate assets backing up our loans and no warranty guarantees for Canadian consumers.

“Is this the government’s position? Because if it is, they’re not doing their job.”

Tony Clement stood to respond. “In fact, what I indicated yesterday was, of course, we are working with these two auto companies, as before,” he said. “There has not been any money flowed to General Motors and, of course, there are strict conditions before they are. And should the company’s restructuring plans not be certified or should that company go into CCAA or Chapter 11, of course, we can convert those loans to debt financing which … have higher security. So that’s the answer to the honourable member’s question.”

This was not an insufficient response. But Clement could not let Ignatieff go unchallenged.

“When is he going to do his job as the leader of the opposition and not say one thing in British Columbia and say another thing in the House of Commons?” he snarked.

The Conservatives stood to cheer. Clement sat back down, leaned forward and glared across the aisle.

It is tedious to belabour this point, but if the government persists, it perhaps necessary to do likewise.

In Squamish, B.C. this past weekend, Mr. Ignatieff commented on the prospect of financial aid for the automotive industry. “I don’t believe in bailouts,” he said. “What I believe in is fully-refundable loan packages for industries that give you a business plan that will restore them to profitability. No voter in B.C. wants to throw money into the auto sector and neither do I.”

This is, it must be said, a position not unlike that of Mr. Clement’s government. But seizing on the last 16 of Mr. Ignatieff’s words, the Conservative side has chosen to assert the Liberal leader is a double-speaking enemy of Canada’s economy.

“Mr. Speaker, I make a habit of saying the same thing right across the country,” Ignatieff shot back.

Clement made an odd waving gesture with his right hand.

“I did not get an answer about protecting warranties for Canadian cars,” Ignatieff continued. “I did not get an answer to the question about access to the credit facility … why? When will the government start doing its job, which is to protect Canadian taxpayers and Canadian autoworkers?”

Back came Clement. “When we get some details of what the Obama administration plans on warranties, we’ll have a look at that of course,” he said. “But, indeed, as I said before, we have made loans available. GM has not asked for those loans. There are strict conditions that are attached to those loans.”

Then on to something almost entirely unrelated. “When the honourable member stands up and says he is being consistent, I’d like to ask him about how consistent he is on the carbon tax,” he continued, “which he pushed on the previous leader of the Liberal party and is now trying to distance himself from.”

The Conservatives stood again to cheer.

Fifteen months ago—far exceeding the statute of limitations on what is remembered here—there was great concern over the safety of the nuclear reactor at Chalk River, a small town northwest of Ottawa. The facility had been shut down on account of such concerns, but the pause in its operations had resulted in an international shortage of medical isotopes—the radioactive substances used in tests for cancer and other ailments.

When the issue reached the House of Commons, the Prime Minister was quick to blame his partisan rivals.

“What we do know is the continuing actions of the Liberal-appointed Nuclear Safety Commission will jeopardize the health and safety and lives of tens of thousands of Canadians,” Mr. Harper fumed. “The question is whether the Liberals will continue to block the production of medical radioisotopes in the country. It is on their shoulders, and they continue to block what is necessary for the public interest and the health of Canadians.”

Emergency legislation to restart the reactor was soon enough passed. Days later, Tony Clement, then the health minister, was asked to explain his superior’s sudden burst of outrage. “Sometimes,” he said, “you gotta fire a couple shots across the bow to make sure the opposition knows that you’re serious about the issue.”

Today, Ignatieff sneered in reference to Clement’s promise to consider what the American president ends up doing. “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “the answer amounts to saying, always a follower, never a leader.”

“It’s very interesting,” Clement responded. “He says things in different parts of the country that he thinks will be acceptable to them. Doesn’t he understand that we have 24-hour news channels? We hear those things and we wonder, when is he going to be consistent? Because if he wants to be Prime Minister, he’s going to have to be consistent.”

Marc Garneau asked a question about the conditions General Motors must meet to receive a government loan. Clement ventured a sort of answer, pronounced himself “consistent” and encouraged Garneau to tell Ignatieff to do likewise.

Frank Valeriote stood, removed his glasses and hectored Clement to do better.

“I would only say to the honourable member that President Obama, yesterday, credited the Canadians with being part of the solution, credited us with working together with them,” Clement said in response. “It’ll be something that even the leader of the Liberal party must be very jealous of.”

With that Clement sat back down, smiled across the aisle and shrugged.

The Stats. Taxation, eight questions. Employment, six questions. The auto industry, five questions. The economy, four questions. Infrastructure, border security, energy, immigration and Afghanistan, two questions each. Justice, aerospace and the environment, one question each.

Tony Clement and Jacques Gourde, six answers each. Ted Menzies, five answers. Ed Komarnicki, four answers. Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Peter Van Loan and Jim Prentice, three answers each. John Baird, Jason Kenney and Stockwell Day, two answers each.

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