The Commons: Stephen Harper sees partisan people

Always keep an eye out for Liberal sympathizers

With his second question, Thomas Mulcair rounded on the Finance Minister.

“Mr. Speaker, the Finance Minister announces changes to mortgage rules and then reverses them. The Finance Minister announces changes to skilled training programs and then reverses them, all without warning, all without consultation, all at great cost,” Mr. Mulcair declared. “It is no wonder that senior public servants from the Finance Minister’s own office are now calling his actions ‘a disgrace and an insult to Parliament.’ ”

The NDP leader had slipped two ways here. First, the two senior public servants in this case—Scott Clark and Peter DeVries—are formerly of the finance department and neither ever worked under the authority of Jim Flaherty. Second, the specific “disgrace” and “insult” to Parliament referred to was the practice of omnibus legislation.

The Prime Minister might remember feeling somewhat likewise about omnibus bills, but he stood here to resolutely defend his Finance Minister. “Canada is very lucky to have the most successful finance minister in the world,” Mr. Harper proclaimed. “That has been recognized by experts in this field around the world and is backed by the performance of the Canadian economy. In spite of the tremendous difficulties that continue to exist, the global uncertainty, the Canadian economy has managed to created 900,000 net new jobs since the end of the recession and that is due, in no small measure, to the good efforts of the Minister of Finance.”

Mr. Mulcair persisted, returning to the matter of Mr. Flaherty’s letter to the CRTC. Mr. Harper persisted in defending his minister. Somehow or another this culminated in John Duncan, the former aboriginal affairs minister who was recently dispatched after an errant letter to the tax court, receiving a standing ovation from the Conservatives.

When Bob Rae stood to ask his first question, he returned the House to this matter of the former public servants and their quibbles with the government’s general approach to budgetary matters.

“Mr. Speaker, two former officials of the Minister of Finance’s department have criticized, deeply, the pattern of secrecy and the abuse of Parliament by the government,” Mr. Rae explained.

Then the interim Liberal leader was off on a tangent about the government’s reported desire to rearrange the transfer of EI funds to the provinces. Mr. Rae thought Mr. Harper might sit down with the provinces to discuss this matter.

The Prime Minister thought it premature to speculate on the contents of the budget. But as for those two former public servants, there was apparently something to say.

“In terms of the government’s record on transparency of accounts,” Mr. Harper segued, “rather than cite the partisan report that the leader of the Liberal Party cites…”


Later, Mr. Flaherty would clarify that it was “a partisan report by Liberals.”

“One of them is a very well-known Liberal,” the Finance Minister reported. “The other one is less well-known. In February 2008, when I asked the Liberal Party to tell me who they would like to send to the budget lock-up, his name appeared on the list. Therefore, I do not worry about the impartiality of it because it is not impartial.”

There is always something a touch odd about hearing a partisan dismiss another individual as a partisan. It is a bit like mocking someone for sinking to your level.

The report in question is a wide-ranging and periodically denunciatory critique of Parliament’s financial oversight and the government’s willingness to embrace transparency. As mentioned, Mr. Harper might recognize some of the criticism as similar to the sort of thing he once said—although, granted, perhaps he was speaking only as a partisan at the time. Concerns about the estimates process and the timing of the budget are not entirely novel either. They were, for instance, raised in a report of the government operations committee that was tabled last June. Granted, that committee was composed entirely of partisans, but seven of them were Conservatives, so perhaps that counts for something towards its credibility. That committee actually heard from Mr. DeVries—from the transcript it does not seem the Conservative MPs present for his testimony dismissed him outright on sight as they obviously should have—and then referenced his testimony in its report. This despite the fact that Mr. DeVries and Mr. Clark have been complaining about the budgetary process since at least August 2011.

Of course, Mr. Clark and Mr. DeVries went further this week than the government operations did last year. And perhaps they were not particularly demure in their tone. This seems, for instance, to have been Kevin Page’s primary mistake. But then Mr. Clark and Mr. DeVries are not bound by formal office and criticism of the government should not be equated with partisanship.

But perhaps, on the other hand, the two former finance officials do have Lester B. Pearson posters on their walls at home. We have no proof that they do, but we also have no proof that they don’t. Perhaps they were dispatched in the fall of 2010 by Gerald Butts to start a public policy blog as part of a five-year plan that would see them help ensure Justin Trudeau’s victory in 2015. Perhaps it goes back even further. Perhaps a 13-year-old Trudeau, seeing that power was being centralized and the legislature undermined, helped Mr. DeVries to gain entry into the Mulroney government’s finance department in 1984 so that one day Mr. DeVries might reasonably claim to be a veteran public servant who was both familiar with the federal government’s budgetary process and apparently interested in improving things. We have to at least allow for the possibility.

But then if we are not to trust the judgment of partisans, why should we trust an admitted partisan’s judgment of who is motivated by partisanship? That would seem to be something a conundrum, of the sort that would seem to render the question of partisanship moot, leaving only the strength or weakness of the actual arguments to be debated.