The Commons: Yelling into the abyss - Macleans.ca

The Commons: Yelling into the abyss

How does a government that once promised never to run a deficit justify being in the red?

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The Scene. If the leaders of the opposition parties have not yet realized that it is futile to ask the Prime Minister to account for the things he says and does—what he has said so far having only passing relation to what he has done and what he did yesterday having no necessary bearing on what he might do tomorrow—Mr. Harper is perhaps beginning to understand that he is best off bringing as little attention to himself as possible. So it was this afternoon that he yawned his way through three questions from Michael Ignatieff on the government’s policies on climate change and shrugged away three questions from Jack Layton on the extension of this country’s military mission in Afghanistan. When Gilles Duceppe asked about the risks entailed in offshore oil excavation, the Prime Minister didn’t even bother to stand.

However wise of Mr. Harper this may be, it does deprive the gallery spectators of a good show—the House rarely as exciting as when the Prime Minister is up and shouting some bold declaration to which he possesses at least a fleeting commitment.

Lucky then for those who turned up to watch today that the Finance Minister has not yet learned that it is, in the long view, better to speak softly and avoid any statement that might be construed as a nod to objective reality.

It was Ralph Goodale who provoked Jim Flaherty this afternoon, the Liberal deputy engaging the Finance Minister with an altogether discomfiting analogy. “Mr. Speaker, the finance minister wraps himself in the flag of austerity, but it is made of cellophane,” Mr. Goodale ventured. “This emperor has no clothes.”

While everyone within earshot tried hard not to think of Mr. Flaherty naked, Mr. Goodale proceeded with the indictment. “He rails against big, risky spending schemes, but what about $1 billion for fake lakes, glow sticks and a wasted weekend on the G20?” he begged. “What about $16 billion for stealth fighters, $10 billion for jails, and $6 billion every year for extra tax breaks for the wealthy? Why are these big, risky Conservative schemes exempt from austerity?”

What followed from Mr. Flaherty is perhaps best taken a sentence at a time.

“Mr. Speaker,” he said, “we have the lowest deficits in the G7 and the best overall fiscal position.”

Two years ago, nearly to the day, this Finance Minister rose in the same spot and forecast budgetary surpluses through 2014. The Prime Minister had of course promised “never” to put the country into deficit. Now, committed to something like $171-billion in new debt through 2015, Mr. Harper’s Finance Minister boasts that it could be worse.

“Our deficit this year,” he continued, “is lower than originally forecast.”

Here the minister bravely, perhaps necessarily, put forward a unique and thought-provoking understanding of what constitutes originality. In the fall of 2008, Mr. Flaherty projected a small surplus for the 2010-2011 fiscal year. In the budget of 2009, he forecast a $29.8-billion deficit. By the next fall it was a $45.3-billion deficit and by this spring it was $49.2 billion. Undaunted, when the minister released his fall economic statement last month, the deficit for fiscal year 2010-2011 was back down to $45.4-billion—$45.5-billion more than “originally” projected in 2008, but yes, $3.8-billion less than “originally” projected this past spring.

On that, no doubt, the Finance Minister should surely be congratulated. Not least because with that $3.8-billion saved, it will be that much easier for future generations to pay the larger deficits Mr. Flaherty now projects for the fiscal years ending in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014.

“As we have said all along,” he went on to explain for Mr. Goodale’s benefit, “once our recovery is assured we will return to a balanced budget.”

Indeed, when the government acknowledged the necessity of deficit spending, that return to balance was projected to occur in 2013. At last report, it was projected to occur in 2015.

“The stimulus package was necessary to protect Canada,” Mr. Flaherty reminded, “and that meant running a deficit for a short period of time.”

And that means that the government that once vowed never to put the country into deficit will, if current projections hold, spend a short seven consecutive years in the red.

Here the Finance Minister finished with a quote from his Liberal finance critic. “I know it was the right idea,” he said, “because the member for Kings—Hants, my critic, said: ‘The Canadian stimulus package undoubtedly created economic activity and jobs.'” This, no doubt, explains everything.

Otherwise it is surely necessary to note that managing the affairs of a nation is hard and perhaps only to pity that this government, faced with an uncertain, complex and ever-changing world, so compulsively insists on holding itself to such unrealistic standards of certainty and righteousness. For that matter, to regard Mr. Flaherty this afternoon was perhaps to lament for the unforgiving nature of modern politics.

Alas, demonstrating no such empathy, Mr. Goodale pressed on, turning to Mr. Flaherty’s record as finance minister in Ontario, including, provocatively, a reference to Walkerton. This seemed very much to incense Mr. Flaherty, who began yelling his rejection of Mr. Goodale’s version and stepped to the edge of the aisle as if preparing to charge the Liberal deputy. The Liberals happily called him on and the Finance Minister’s face turned red and in the resulting cacophony it was impossible, even with an earpiece, to make out what it was Mr. Flaherty was saying.

Perhaps that’s just as well.

The Stats. The environment, seven questions. Government spending, six questions. The military and Afghanistan, three questions each. Julian Fantino, ethics, securities regulation, the Senate, taxation, copyright and aboriginal affairs, two questions each. Air safety, poverty, the census and crime, one question each.

Stephen Harper and John Baird, six answers each. Jim Flaherty, five answers. Peter MacKay, three answers. Christian Paradis, Steven Fletcher, Keith Ashfield, James Moore, Rona Ambrose, Vic Toews and Stockwell Day, two answers each. Chuck Strahl, Ed Komarnicki, Mike Lake and Rob Nicholson, one answer each.