The Commons: Stephen Harper is exultant, Peter Van Loan is confused

Marking seven years with a misunderstanding of the rules

Reporters were summoned to Parliament Hill for this morning to see and hear the Prime Minister’s remarks to the weekly gathering of the Conservative caucus. Somewhat disappointingly, the press gallery’s attention was not requested so that Mr. Harper might announce the Conservatives had succeeded in consolidating the government’s computer systems and thus returned the federal budget to surplus. Rather, it seems, the Prime Minister’s Office was just in the mood for a pep rally.

“Welcome to our very first caucus meeting of 2013,” caucus chair Guy Lauzon proclaimed. “And we’re going to start with a bang, ladies and gentlemen. I’m going to ask you to help me welcome the leader of Canada’s strong, stable, Conservative majority government the Right Honourable Stephen Harper. How about a welcome for Stephen Harper?”

The great man thus entered the room to a standing ovation, the chanting of his surname and rhythmic clapping. Apparently we are to assume the government caucus reacts this way whenever the Prime Minister arrives to speak to them.

This was apparently something of an occasion. “Friends, welcome back. As you know, last week we passed a significant milestone,” Mr. Harper explained. “Seven years ago, for the first time, Canadians placed their trust in this government.”

But it is not merely the passage of time we note.

“And to that trust we have been faithful,” the Prime Minister continued. “We have kept our promises.”

Well except for those bits about consolidating computer systems and putting a price on carbon.

The ensuing five minutes were mostly a reminder of what Mr. Harper would like you to remember about him and his party. And after the requisite boasting about new jobs, there was a commitment to four goals—each of which the government has already committed itself to, loudly and repeatedly.

“This spring,” Mr. Harper suggested, “we must continue to be focussed—and we will be, ever more tightly—on four priorities that Canadians care most about: their families; the safety of our streets and communities; their pride in being a citizen of this country; and of course their personal financial security.”

So taxes will be kept low and there will be more worrying about criminals and continued fussing about innovation (good) and red tape (bad). Also, there will be a series of national commemorations: WWI, Vimy, John A. Macdonald’s birthday, Confederation and still more of the War of 1812.

“We can look back with pride and forward with confidence as part of a Canada standing tall, the best country in the world,” Mr. Harper said.

The nation’s general state of being received a standing ovation.

“Colleagues, seven years ago, Canadians voted for new, clear, focused leadership — leadership that day in and day out we are providing. Canadians want to be prosperous, they want to be safe, they want to be strong. That’s our focus. That’s why we serve,” Mr. Harper explained. “Let’s get back to work.”

More applause and then someone started a round of O Canada. The assembled reporters were then kindly asked to leave.

Mr. Harper’s audience a few hours later was less uniformly supportive. Thomas Mulcair wanted Mr. Harper to account for the high unemployment rate among young people—the NDP leader flagrantly ignoring the universally agreed upon principle that everything that is good about the economy is to the government’s credit and everything that is not so good about the economy is moot because it is probably worse somewhere else (and also that the NDP has voted against the government’s budget bills).

“Since the recession ended we have created 900,000 net new jobs in this country, the best country in the G7. There is no better place for a young person to be today than in Canada,” Mr. Harper enthused. “Challenges still obviously exist in the labour market and for young people. That is why the government has addressed this in a series of budgetary measures, things like the youth employment strategy that created over 50,000 positions, the Canada summer jobs program and others, which the NDP unfortunately always votes against.”

Mr. Mulcair had at least done the Prime Minister the courtesy of listening to his morning speech. “Mr. Speaker, a year ago the Prime Minister promised to close the funding gap for first nations schools. Today school funding is still one-third less for kids in first nations communities than for other young Canadians. I do not think any parents in this country would stand idly by if this injustice were happening to their kids,” Mr. Mulcair ventured. “If the Prime Minister is serious about remembering historic anniversaries, how about this one. The Royal Proclamation of 1763, which is 250 years old this year, gives recognition and promises justice to first nations. When is the Prime Minister going to start treating the children of all of our nations equally?”

The NDP leader leaned forward here and stared down the Prime Minister.

“This government has built or renovated over 260 new schools,” Mr. Harper offered as response. “Not only have we made unprecedented investments in this area but we are presently in consultation with first nations on how to improve an education system. We know we have to improve that system. We do not just want to throw money at a problem. We want to make sure we get the absolute best results for aboriginal young people because they will have more opportunities than any previous aboriginals ever.”

The questions actually more difficult to answer when the challenges raised became less profound.

Alexandre Boulerice rose and raised the small matter of the Finance Minister’s letter to the CRTC. Peter Van Loan, the government House leader, attempted a rejoinder. “Mr. Speaker, yesterday I was reading letters and I found another one. This one reads: ‘I want you to know that I support this initiative, AVR Broadcasting, and encourage you to approve AVR’s application at the hearing on June 19, 2012.’  It is signed by the honourable member for Davenport, the NDP member of Parliament. The NDP members are critical of Conservatives writing letters like this, but apparently it is okay for NDP MPs to write these kinds of letters.”

Apparently indeed as that is precisely what the ethics commissioner—while referencing the government’s own guide to ministerial conduct—was compelled to explain to the government last week: that while MPs can write letters to the CRTC recommending this or that, it is improper for a minister or parliamentary secretary to do likewise.

Charlie Angus reiterated the NDP’s concern. Mr. Van Loan stood and tortured logic, nearly to death. “Mr. Speaker, the honourable member for Timmins-James Bay says, ‘It is all right to do as I say, but not as I do.’ He appears to apply a different standard. Now he says it is because he is not prepared to assume the kinds of responsibilities that one takes on when one is in government, that government members should be treated differently from him. I know government members have always said the NDP are not ready for government. It is good to hear the NDP members admit they themselves do not feel they are ready for government.”

The most charitable explanation here would be that Mr. Van Loan simply misunderstands the ethics commissioner’s ruling and the principles involved therein.

“Mr. Speaker, the government members are going to have all the opportunity they want to be backbenchers in 2015,” Mr. Angus shot back. “However, right now, the honourable member is a minister of the crown and he broke the law under section 9. That is the difference.”

Mr. Van Loan stood for a third time and again pleaded confusion. “The NDP are very proud, apparently, of writing to the CRTC as MPs and telling it how to do its job, something the NDP are very critical of Conservative MPs for doing.”

Alas, the Conservatives did not stand here and salute Mr. Van Loan’s effort with a hearty round of our national anthem.