The Commons: 'I am unclear as to why this is amusing'

The Scene. Michael Ignatieff arrived in the House foyer shortly before Question Period and walked to the designated spot where he was scheduled to speak with reporters. There he delivered his bit of news: Liberal senators would move immediately to ratify the government’s budget.

He took a few questions, offered a few answers and then took his leave. Ten minutes later he was up in the Commons.

“Mr. Speaker, Senate hearings discovered that eligibility for EI benefits was backdated two weeks prior to royal assent of the budget,” he reported. “This morning Liberal senators unanimously agreed to vote immediate passage of this budget, that way Canadians will be eligible for the help they need as early as March 1.”

There was a smattering of applause from the Conservative side.

“Will the Prime Minister instruct his Conservative senators to do the same so that Bill C-10 can get royal assent and Canadians in need of enhanced EI get the help they need right now?”

There were theatrical chuckles from the government benches.

The Prime Minister took the opportunity to note his concern for those in a helicopter crash off the coast of Newfoundland this morning, so Ignatieff tried again.

“Mr. Speaker, could I ask the Prime Minister again whether he is prepared to instruct the Conservative senators to vote speedy passage of Bill C-10 so that we can get enhanced EI available?” he wondered.

The Conservatives laughed.

“I am unclear as to why this is amusing,” the Liberal leader sighed.

The Conservatives laughed harder. After a moment or two, Ignatieff cracked a smile too.

“Mr. Speaker, even the leader of the opposition found the humour in that question,” the Prime Minister smirked in response. “Conservative senators have not been the problem. The problem has been the Liberal Party and the Liberal leader, who were told that every delay in the Senate would delay the delivery of important employment insurance benefits. I hope the leader of the Liberal Party will use this as a lesson. He would be well-advised, rather than to just be a critic, to act constructively in dealing with this economic crisis.”

It’s unclear what one is to learn from all of this.

The government’s budget was tabled on January 27. It received its first reading on February 6, its second reading on February 12. Parliament then took a week off.

When business resumed, the finance committee spent two days studying the bill, then reported back to the House of Commons on February 25. Another week passed before the House passed the budget on Mar. 4. The Senate undertook consideration of it that night. Liberals say the Conservatives asked to have it passed before the end of the month. Conservatives say they wanted it sooner.

Either way, a budget normally comes into effect April 1, the start of a new fiscal year. But on Tuesday of this week, a finance department official told the Senate finance committee that, due to the wording of the legislation, changes to employment insurance would come into effect immediately upon approval of the budget. That same day, the Prime Minister told an audience in Brampton that the opposition was obstructing his efforts to fix the economy. On Wednesday, he and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty took turns accusing the Liberals of purposefully delaying the budget. The Liberals responded with surprise, dismissed the allegations of obstruction and repeated their understanding that nothing in the budget could come into effect until April 1. A statement issued by Flaherty’s office said the Liberals were “playing politics with the lives of Canadians.”

“Mr. Speaker, how did we get here?” Michael Ignatieff wondered with his third question today. “There are only two possibilities. Either the government did not know that it had backdated EI eligibility in this way, in which case it was incompetent; or the government knew, kept it quiet so the Senate would go away into recess, and then hoped it could play political games on the backs of the unemployed for two weeks. Which is it, incompetence or heartless political gamesmanship?”

“Mr. Speaker, the gamesmanship is that the leader of the Liberal Party continues to want to cash in on bad economic news while not offering this country any constructive suggestions,” snapped Stephen Harper in response. “He and his party were playing a game in the Senate with this bill. They should not have done that. I am glad they are not doing it any longer, but I hope they make a vow not to do this kind of thing again.”

The Prime Minister’s first allegation—of cashing in—is an interesting one. At least insofar as it was his side that dispatched an email to supporters last night alleging Liberal shenanigans and suggesting a new way to protect themselves during this economic crisis: donate $200 to the Conservative Party of Canada.

Ignatieff’s question—how did we get here?—is the operative one. At least insofar as this place presently seems so far away from everything else.

Someone on television was saying the other day that we are in a “dangerous” situation. That, amid all else, many may look to what is happening here and conclude that it is vile—or, perhaps worse, that it is merely irrelevant. Assuming, of course, that most haven’t already decided as much.

Many days it is easy to refute this thinking—simplistic, cynical and ignorant as it often is. Today was not one of those.

The rest of the afternoon was filled with shouted allegations. Men in suits smirked and applauded each other. Some fiddled with Blackberries or pecked at laptops. Rona Ambrose passed around a box of chocolates. At least until the Speaker admonished her to put it away.

By the time you go to bed tonight, the budget will have passed and the Governor General will have signed it into law. And then tomorrow morning Statistics Canada will announce precisely how many thousands of people lost their jobs last month.

The Stats. The economy, seven questions. The environment, six questions. The auto industry, five questions. Forestry, four questions. Rural development, science, crime, press freedom, fisheries and regional development, two questions each. The Newfoundland helicopter accident, trade, drugs, immigration and the Paralympics, one question each.

Stephen Harper, six answers. Rob Nicholson, five answers. Stockwell Day, four answers. Ted Menzies and Denis Lebel, three answers each. Gary Goodyear, Jim Prentice, Lisa Raitt, Tony Clement, Keith Ashfield, Gail Shea and Vic Toews, two answers each. Laurie Hawn, Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Jason Kenney and Gary Lunn, one answer each.

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.