The Commons: Words, they just get in the way

The opposition directs its focus on what the PM's been saying

The Scene. Whatever the resulting impact on our democracy and the institutions of our governance, one thing is increasingly clear: this would be a much happier, and perhaps even more efficient, place if everyone would stop insisting on paying any mind to the words that come out of the Prime Minister’s mouth.

“Mr. Speaker, last September the Prime Minister said: ‘If we were going to have some kind of crash or recession, we probably would have had it be now,'” John McCallum reported to open Question Period today, taking the place of an absent Michael Ignatieff. “We know he said this on the eve of the biggest contraction of the Canadian economy in almost 20 years. Will the Prime Minister apologize to the thousands of Canadians who have needlessly lost their jobs because of his utter misreading of the Canadian economy?”

Mr. Harper grimaced at Mr. McCallum’s demand for an apology. The Prime Minister then rose, buttoned his jacket, adjusted his left cuff and offered his defense—a stirring call to our nation’s not fairing quite as poorly as others.

“Mr. Speaker, everyone will know that the Canadian economy contracted in the fourth quarter. At the same time they should also know the American economy contracted twice as quickly, the European economy twice as quickly, the Japanese economy four times as quickly,” he observed. “Our economy remains in a position of relative strength.”

Undaunted, McCallum persisted. The Prime Minister eventually felt it necessary to point out that he had foreseen our current predicament long before he had missed it. “I will remind the honourable member for Markham—Unionville,” he said, “when I told Canadians in Christmas 2007, there would be a significant slowing of our economy, that member said we were being unrealistically pessimistic.”

In fairness, the opposition did not let the Prime Minister’s general pessimism go entirely unnoticed. Indeed, much of the rest of the afternoon was spent trying to make sense of Mr. Harper’s televised assertion to an American cable audience that our foes in Afghanistan could not actually be, in the strictest sense of the term, defeated.

The Bloc’s Gilles Duceppe noted that when his side had previously questioned the goals of our mission, they had been accused of aligning themselves with terrorists. How, he wondered, could the Prime Minister explain this “volte-face?”

Mr. Harper pronounced his government’s position to be “clear.” Canada, he explained, was in Afghanistan to train the Afghan army. Also, he added, the government remains proud of the troops.

Duceppe begged the government to clear up any remaining ambiguity on its intention to withdraw those troops in 2011. Mr. Harper again mentioned how proud he was of said troops.

Denis Coderre picked up the line of questioning. “He called us all names imaginable,” he recalled. “He questioned our patriotism.” If the evildoers could not now be defeated, Coderre wondered, were Canadian soldiers just passing time until 2011?

Laurie Hawn, the retired Air Force colonel who now serves as Peter MacKay’s parliamentary secretary, came up sounding besmirched. “Mr. Speaker, my honourable colleague should not belittle the efforts of the Canadian Forces members like that when he says they will be marking time,” he said. “I have been there several times, as has he. They are doing exceptional work on the ground day to day under very tough circumstances. We should all be proud of that.”

“Mr. Speaker, I have been there too. I am not the one who is abdicating now,” Coderre shot back, Mr. Harper’s brow furrowing at this allegation of abdication. “This is what the Prime Minister was saying in 2006: ‘Once we get rid of the bad people, we can carry on with full force in terms of the reconstruction and development.'”

“He was talking about the Liberals!” Vic Toews shouted from across the aisle.

Coderre kept on. “Now he is saying that we are not ever going to defeat the insurgency. For the sake of our troops, their families and all Canadians, the Prime Minister for once must come clean,” he said. “Why is the Conservative government abdicating now? Why the new shift? Did the Prime Minister at least inform our allies at NATO?”

“Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the question from the honourable member for ‘see how mad I can get,’ but in fact nothing has changed,” Hawn replied, before asserting his pride for the troops not once, not twice, but thrice in a two-sentence span. “Once again, it is a mission that we can all be very proud of. Canadians are proud of the men and women over there, the job they have done and I know that member is proud of them, too.”

Bob Rae got up then, speaking in the slow, quiet, deliberative way of his. Mr. Harper, not one to generally reward opposition members with a noticeable demonstration of his attention, leaned back to listen.

“Mr. Speaker, the government can hardly pretend that the Prime Minister’s remarks do not represent something of a change for him—not for the rest of us, but for certainly for him—in terms of the position that he has taken,” he began, naively. “I would like to ask the Prime Minister, does he not realize the implications of this kind of statement for our NATO allies, for our troops and the mission that they are carrying on, and does he not also realize that other countries in fact are engaging in far more diplomacy and politics and reconstruction than Canada?”

The Prime Minister left his relative level of realization unclarified, letting Hawn take this question too.

“Mr. Speaker,” the parliamentary secretary said, “I simply reject the premise of the question that other countries are doing so much more than Canada, in terms of development.”

Rae stood once more. “Mr. Speaker, it is very clear. The government is trying to have it both ways. The Prime Minister’s statement came right out of, whether it is left field or right field it certainly came as a surprise to a great many people listening to the Prime Minister. He has to recognize that simple fact,” he said. “He also has to recognize one more simple fact; that is, from Petraeus, to Henry Kissinger, to so many other people, are looking at this issue in the most broad way with respect to the politics of the region, the diplomacy of the region. Where is the Canadian diplomatic intervention that is supporting and backing up our troops?”

This too was left to Hawn to answer. “We are engaged at all levels and our men and women, at all levels, have done an incredible job,” he said. “This member should be proud of them. In fact, it did not come out of left or right field; the Prime Minister has been hitting them straight down the middle all along.”

The Stats. The economy, 11 questions. Afghanistan, 10 questions. Pay equity and the environment, three questions each. Science, government contracts, Omar Khadr and John Baird, two questions each. The seal hunt, bank fees, the military, Sri Lanka, health care and immigration, one question each.