The Commons: The budget bill blues

Alas, the Prime Minister was not present this day to enjoy this misty-eyed reminiscing

The Scene. Nathan Cullen held in his left hand the budget bill. Or at least a reasonably thick stack of papers that one might’ve presumed was the budget bill. Give or take a couple hundred pages.

“Mr. Speaker, the Conservatives have introduced a so-called budget more than 400 pages long, 70 acts, more than 753 clauses amended and one Parliament being asked to vote blind,” the NDP House leader lamented, “gutting environmental protections, ripping up the Fisheries Act and eliminating entire laws. Asking a single committee to review this bill would mean that it would not get the scrutiny that it deserves. Will Conservatives work with New Democrats, respect Parliament and agree to split the bill?”

This was now a contest of who could sound more reasonable. James Moore, leading the government side this day, opened his right hand as if to massage the nation’s collective shoulders.

“Mr. Speaker, budget 2012 is about creating jobs and opportunities for Canadians,” he assured. “We tabled this bill on March 29 and it is now May 7.”

That today is May 7 is beyond dispute. But while the Finance Minister delivered his budget speech on March 29, the actual bill was not tabled until April 26.

“Canadians want us to get on with the task of creating jobs, lowering taxes and having economic stability for the country and that is what this budget implementation bill is all about,” Mr. Moore continued, gesturing reassuringly with that open hand. “This budget implementation act will be debated more than any other budget implementation act that this Parliament has seen in 20 years. We are getting the job done, delivering for Canadians and putting forward a responsible budget that Canadians support.”

This was a wildly optimistic statement. If only because it assumes that any Canadians not otherwise paid to do so have actually read the budget bill in its entirety.

Mr. Cullen, as comfortable on his feet as he is bald, did not allow Mr. Moore’s soothing words to distract him from his next move.

“Mr. Speaker, allow me to quote someone familiar to my friend across the way,” he teased. “That person said: ‘I would argue that the subject matter of the bill is so diverse that a single vote on the content would put members in conflict with their own principles.’ ”

This person sounded quite idealistic.

“Who said that?” Mr. Cullen asked, rhetorically. “A younger version of the Prime Minister.”

Alas, the Prime Minister was not present this day to enjoy this misty-eyed reminiscing.

“I remember working with the government in the early days on accountability and it seems like no one on that side is at all interested in the very word, never mind the notion,” Mr. Cullen chastised. “Is there anybody left over there who believes that Parliament should have the scrutiny and the power to review laws before it?”

Still carrying around that pile of papers, the NDP House leader slammed the stack on his desk.

Mr. Moore stood to Mr. Cullen’s challenge. But only to redirect the scorn.

“Mr. Speaker, the only party that is playing games with this budget is the NDP whose finance critic, in the first week that this budget was debated in this House, spoke the entire week, filibustered the budget bill for over 13 hours of debate and denied any other MP the opportunity to speak on it,” the minister charged.

The New Democrats applauded.

“The NDP members are proud of the parliamentary games they are playing,” Mr. Moore scolded, now wagging his finger and pumping his fist. “We are delivering a budget that we campaigned on, that would lower taxes for small business and provide more training for young Canadians who want to enter the workforce. We are delivering. It is the NDP that has played games since day one. It is time to get back to work for Canadians.”

Apparently Mr. Moore desired that Question Period cease immediately so that the budget bill could be passed at once.

Mr. Cullen was not interested in so putting the nation’s interests first. “Has power changes his principles?” he wondered aloud of the Prime Minister. “For years, the Conservatives promised to do better than the Liberals, but now they are doing exactly the same thing: no transparency, no accountability. Why not split the bill and allow the committees to do their job?”

Beside him in the front row, David Christopherson and Peggy Nash thumped their desktops.

“It is time for Parliament to act responsibly to benefit our economy and our communities,” Mr. Moore declared, now all open palms. “We will keep our promises, as the Conservative government: lower taxes for families and small and medium businesses across Canada so they can create jobs and opportunities for the future.”

In fairness, the Conservatives did not campaign on a promise to show deference to the principles of parliamentary democracy. Indeed, given the circumstances of the last general vote, one might suggest the implicit promise was precisely the opposite.

The Stats. The budget, seven questions. Military procurement, the environment and ethics, four questions each. Aboriginal affairs, three questions. The Canadian Forces, health care, Conrad Black, immigration and bilingualism, two questions each. Crime, veterans, housing, the military, trade, the national archives and Parks Canada, one response each.

James Moore, seven responses. Jason Kenney, four responses. Gail Shea and Jim Flaherty, three responses. Dean Del Mastro, Rona Ambrose, Pierre Poilievre, Leona Aglukkaq, John Duncan, Christian Paradis and Diane Finley, two responses. Joe Oliver, Rob Nicholson, Steven Blaney, Peter MacKay, Ed Fast and Peter Kent, one response each.