The Commons: The latest distraction

Ignatieff questions the Conservatives' approach to post-secondary education

The Scene. If there was a particular low in the last week for Her Majesty’s loyal opposition, it was not Tuesday evening, when its mess of a motion culminated in a mess of a vote. That was, no doubt, quite ridiculous. But for profound pointlessness, the scene last Tuesday afternoon, when Ujjal Dosanjh was sent up with the opposition’s fourth and fifth questions, to suggest that the Finance Minister had somehow, if in code, expressed something less than full support for the Canadian health care system, was uniquely breathtaking.

“Is this all you’ve got?” begged Heritage Minister James Moore at the time. And though he makes a habit of yelping this particular complaint, this time the answer was apparently yes. The Liberals did not pick up the matter the next day and have since seemed, quite wisely, to forget about it entirely.

It is far too easy, and not generally productive, to dwell upon day-to-day scorekeeping, but even by the dizzying and easily distracted standards of events in this hyper-sensitized place, the official opposition has seemed particularly tawdry of late: groping about for something on which to focus a sense of outrage.

So it was today that Michael Ignatieff sat impassively in the minutes before Question Period today, listening as a smug government backbencher across the way lamented something or other about the leader of the opposition. When the smug backbencher had finished, Mr. Ignatieff simply shook his head.

A short while later the Speaker called for oral questions. Mr. Ignatieff stood and proceeded to raise the troubled state of First Nations University in Saskatchewan. After the Prime Minister had dismissed that query, Mr. Ignatieff rose and went a step further. “Mr. Speaker, this is a bigger issue than a single institution. The Conservatives’ approach to post-secondary education is in question here,” he said. “This is the government that cut the Canadian Council on Learning. This is the government that put $254 million in cuts in student grants and scholarships. This is the government that cut adult learning and literacy. Let me ask the question again. The Prime Minister said he is exploring options. Why does he not follow the Government of Saskatchewan and give First Nations University a second chance? Why should the students of today be punished for the mistakes of yesterday?”

He leaned forward over his desk and shook his fist. The Prime Minister was compelled to respond in kind, wagging his finger and raising his volume. He vowed accountability for First Nations University, referred to praise received from university presidents for the government’s most recent budget and damned the Liberal side for voting against said budget.

Mr. Ignatieff tried once more, the Prime Minister again dismissed his concern. Then though, Michael Savage was sent up to ask about student jobs and unemployment. And, after rounds from the Bloc Quebecois and NDP, Marc Garneau was sent up to ask about the taxing of post-doctoral scholarships. John Baird adopted a funny voice and mocked from across the way (“They’re taxing my post-doctoral fellowship,” he sarcastically cried) and Marc Garneau got quite frustrated and shouted facts at the Finance Minister. And as all this was going on, the Liberal press office was e-mailing around a release on First Nations University and a fact sheet on research taxation.

There would be no mention this day of Rahim Jaffer’s driving ability. No reference was made to air travel frustrations of various cabinet ministers. The Finance Minister was not once asked to explain his feelings on the health care system. Instead, the day climaxed, if that word can be applied here, when Liberal Shawn Murphy, making a rare Question Period appearance, stood and proceeded with the following query.

“Mr. Speaker, I have a very specific question for the Minister of Finance. On page 242 of the budget, in detailing the knowledge infrastructure program, it states that the University of Prince Edward Island will receive $30 million in new money for infrastructure upgrades, but now we find out that may not be correct. Would the minister confirm that the statement that he made, that he published in this House, is accurate, is correct and is factual in all respects?”

A mildly entertaining exchange ensued with Industry Minister Tony Clement; Mr. Murphy winning a standing ovation from his Liberal opposition seatmates with a mocking follow-up when the Minister proved unable to respond and Mr. Clement moaned that Mr. Murphy should be ashamed of himself.

This was perhaps not quite salacious. But it was also not particularly embarrassing.

The Stats. Education, 10 questions. Pensions, six questions. Haiti, four questions. Child care, forestry, television, the environment and food safety, two questions each. Continental relations, employment, seniors, Aboriginal affairs, Tuberculosis and crime, one question each.

Stephen Harper, nine answers. Diane Finley and Jim Flaherty, five answers each. Jason Kenney, Denis Lebel, James Moore, Tony Clement, Jim Prentice, Gerry Ritz and Chuck Strahl, two answers each. Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Leona Aglukkaq and Vic Toews, one answer each.

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