The Commons: Our house of glass -

The Commons: Our house of glass

“Mr. Speaker, H1N1 is not funny”


091028_bennettThe Scene. Shortly before Question Period began this afternoon, Jack Layton stood with something to say.

“Mr. Speaker, citizens appoint a member of this House to represent their values of cooperation and mutual respect,” he posited. “During Question Period we have been witnessing undeniably sexist heckling from members of the government side. This abuse is growing hotter, it is growing more frequent, and there is more bullying.”

For this, he was, of course, heckled and jeered.

“I can hear some of it now, except in this case it is not targeting women as it does all too often in this chamber. It targets women representing opposition parties, all the opposition parties in the House,” Mr. Layton continued. “Sexist bullying cannot be justified in Canada and can never be tolerated in our Parliament. As a parliamentarian, as a man, a father, a grandfather, I call on the government’s leadership to really get a grip on its members and set a higher standard.”

Members of all three opposition parties stood to applaud the NDP leader’s call. Government members sat impassively. Asked afterwards, Mr. Layton declined to specify any particular taunts of a particularly sexist nature.

His statement of concern comes a day after Carolyn Bennett, a rather forceful member of the Liberal side and a favourite target of Conservative members opposite, had been mocked and shouted at while trying to ask about the confusion some pregnant women are apparently expressing about vaccination programs for the H1N1 virus.

“This isn’t funny!” Ms. Bennett had yelled at her tormentors.

For sure, there is something to her contention. There isn’t that much funny about any of this, no matter how uproariously some members guffaw at the stylings of John Baird. But, of course, genuine and laudable wit is only part of what it is so sorely lacking.

A short while after Mr. Layton had made his plea, Michael Ignatieff stood, straight and narrow, to begin the formal inquiry.

Concern about H1N1 was widespread, he said, and the government has failed to properly communicate with Canadians. “The government spent $60 million to promote itself,” he said of the government’s concerted campaign to advertise all of the ways in which it has saved us from the economic ruin the Prime Minister assured us wasn’t a threat in the first place, “and a fraction of that to promote public health.”

There was yapping and grumbling from the other side.

Then, the question—and very nearly an actual query, rather than a lecture with a question mark at the end. “Can the Prime Minister,” Mr. Ignatieff asked, “explain why he made these choices?”

“Mr. Speaker, this government has spent over half a billion dollars on an information campaign about influenza A,” the Prime Minister reported, proceeding then to encourage everyone listening to get their shot.

(In fact, that half a billion figure includes the purchase of the vaccine. According to government figures, the Public Health Agency has spent $8.5-million to date on advertising related to H1N1.)

“Mr. Speaker, the question was about public information,” Mr. Ignatieff clarified with his second opportunity, proceeding to restate his hypothesis and question.

“Mr. Speaker, there is no contradiction in informing the public about the economic action plan and also informing them about H1N1,” Mr. Harper said, asserting apparently his ability to walk and chew gum simultaneously.

Back then to the events of the day before.

“Mr. Speaker, on the same subject, yesterday the member for St. Paul’s rose in this House and asked a serious question about H1N1. She was greeted with jeers and catcalls from the other side,” Mr. Ignatieff reminded. “Can the Prime Minister explain how this disgraceful scene occurred, and is he now prepared to apologize?”

The Liberal leader was jeered and catcalled as he spoke, then applauded by Liberals and NDP alike as he returned to his seat.

In response, the Prime Minister stood and implied, without specifics, an alternate version of events. “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “of course I did not see things that way myself and I was here.”

Such is politics perhaps, everyone seeing everything differently.

The Liberals turned then to Carolyn Bennett, the Conservatives hollering and laughing as she stood.

“Mr. Speaker, H1N1 is not funny,” she said. “Just ask any pregnant woman, confused and worried about her health and her future child.”

The rabble quieted slightly.

“In the United States there have been 700 cases of H1N1 in pregnant women. Of these, 100 pregnant women were admitted to the ICU and 28 have died,” she continued. “Why is the government forcing expectant women to make a choice between the risk of getting H1N1 in these next two weeks or taking a vaccine for which clinical trials are lacking?”

At the other end of the room, the Health Minister stood to offer a response. “Mr. Speaker, the Chief Public Health Officer and Chief Medical Officer of this country have both stated that both adjuvanted and unadjuvanted vaccines are safe for pregnant women,” Leona Aglukkaq clarified. “Second, Canada’s obstetricians and gynecologists also say that they are safe and available to Canadian pregnant women. We take the advice very seriously of the Chief Medical Officer, and I think the opposition should as well.”

Back to Bennett. “Mr. Speaker, this is about putting patients first, not politics,” she said.

“Ohhh!” cried the Conservatives. The yapping returned.

“We need clarity and unambiguous messages,” Bennett said. “Why has the government only delivered confusion?”

As the Health Minister accounted for the government’s efforts, Gary Goodyear freestyled his own response.

“You’re the only one confused, Carolyn,” he said.

The rest of the hour followed suit. Mr. Baird made a funny about the Premier of Ontario. Various Liberals loudly congratulated Industry Minister Tony Clement for the sidewalk in his riding that has won federal funding.

After Question Period there was a discussion of who precisely was to blame for the tone and tenor of the House. Olivia Chow of the NDP pointed to the Conservatives. Conservative Dean Del Mastro argued the NDP were just as objectionable. If, in your youth, you ever tussled with a sibling, you will recall having had this same discussion when your mother or father inquired as to who precisely could be said to have started it.

Ms. Chow lamented that the young people who often visit the House on school field trips would be present to witness such spectacle. But on this she perhaps had it backwards. Indeed, it should perhaps serve as inspiration to the next generation to see how easily, and with such little effort, they should be able to surpass this one.

The Stats. Ethics, eight questions. Pensions, seven questions. H1N1, five questions. The environment, four questions. Government advertising, foreign affairs, crime, trade and employment, two questions each. The gun registry, Iran, Afghanistan and fisheries, one question each.

Stephen Harper and John Baird, eight answers each. Jim Flaherty, four answers. Deepak Obhrai, Leona Aglukkaq, Tony Clement, Jim Prentice and Lawrence Cannon, two answers each. Jay Hill, Lisa Raitt, Peter Van Loan, Rob Nicholson, Gail Shea and Daniel Petit, one answer each.