The Commons: The case of actions v. words

Are the Conservatives breaking an election promise by reforming Old Age Security?

The Scene. “Mr. Speaker, once again, I think the government has been repeatedly clear when it comes to retirement income, such as old age security,” the Prime Minister clarified.

And on that note, his second sentence. “We have no intention,” he said, “of changing any benefits.”

Clearly. At least so far as those with no short term memory could be concerned. For the rest of those listening, there was what the government had sent up Wai Young to say no more than 90 seconds earlier. “We will implement any changes fairly,” the dutiful backbencher reassured the House with the last intervention before Question Period, “allowing lots of time for notice and time to adjust.”

So the government has no intention of making changes. But if—for whatever reason—it should be struck with such intent sometime between now and the tabling of this spring’s budget, you are to be assured that those changes will be implemented fairly. Indeed, even with these changes existing only in the theoretical, the government presently lacking even the intent to make them, Ms. Young managed today to congratulate her side for having had the courage to change. “In fact,” she reported, “the National Post gets it with its front page headline today, ‘Tories on the right side of pension reform.’ ”

Of course, what the Prime Minister presumably means to say is something that was vaguely implied in his third and fourth sentences. “In fact, seniors would continue to receive everything that they are receiving and expecting,” he explained. “At the same time, younger generations expect us to ensure the system is viable for them. That is a responsibility this government takes very seriously.”

So if you are currently old, you’ve nothing to worry about. And if you plan on getting old, you might have to think about working a couple more years. But hopefully that’s far enough off—and the big numbers sufficiently scary-seeming—that this will all be a distant memory when the government stands for reelection in 2015.

In the meantime though, the opposition has an opportunity to make unflattering comparisons.

“The government has a choice,” Peter Julian asserted this day, his hair dramatically parted in a great swoop to the right. “A single F-35 costs $450 million. That would pay OAS benefits for 70,000 Canadian seniors. Its prison plan costs $19 billion. That would pay annual benefits for 2.9 million Canadians seniors. The Conservatives say costly prisons and fighter jets are their priority. We say seniors are more important.”

Diane Finley forced a slightly patronizing smile and proceeded to rhyme off a list of things the NDP had apparently voted against in refusing to support the government’s previous budgets. “They should have voted for the biggest increase in the guaranteed income supplement which helps our poorest seniors that we made last spring. They should have voted for that,” she scolded. “Their actions speak a whole lot louder than their words.”

This last reference was particularly inspired, the New Democrats having in fact rejected the government’s GIS increase because they felt that increase to be too small. (That difference between $300 million and $700 million being one of the reasons we had an election last spring.)

Of words and actions, Bob Rae attempted then to broker a connection.

“Mr. Speaker,” he said, “at the time of the last election the Prime Minister’s party put out an election platform that said, and I quote: ‘We will not cut transfer payments to individuals or to the provinces for essential things like health care, education and pensions.’ ”

Various Conservatives across the way happily applauded.

“Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Rae continued, “I wonder if the Prime Minister can tell us as he talked in Davos about a demographic crisis and he talked about it again today … Was the Prime Minister aware of this so-called demographic crisis at the time that he and his party made the election promise they made just a few short months ago?”

In response, Mr. Harper used the word “clear” no less than three times, but he did not answer the question.

Mr. Rae lost his temper here and failed to ask a question in between his shouting and the Prime Minister took the opportunity to mock Mr. Rae’s record as premier of Ontario nearly two decades ago.

Regaining himself, the interim Liberal leader then returned to his original question. The House went quiet and the only sound was that of Mr. Rae’s confidently spoken French. “Will the Prime Minister tell us whether he was aware of the demographic problem, whether he knew he was going to cut pensions in the future and raise the retirement age?” Mr. Rae asked. “If he was aware of these things, why has he not revealed to Canadians his big plan? Why did he decide to hide what he wanted to do and what he intends to do now?”

Mr. Harper assured the House that the government had been clear and switched to French to chastise the Liberals for their failure to be dutiful and deferential. But once again he did not answer the question.

The Stats. Pensions, 11 questions. The environment, seven questions. Military procurement, five questions. Aboriginal affairs, four questions. Affordable housing, firearms, the RCMP and infrastructure, two questions each. Health care, crime, Iran and veterans, one question each.

Diane Finley, eight answers. Joe Oliver, seven answers. Stephen Harper, six answers. Julian Fantino and Vic Toews, five answers each. Denis Lebel and Peter Kent, two answers each. John Duncan, Leona Aglukkaq, Peter MacKay and Steven Blaney, one answer each.

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