The Commons: Shovel-ready answers

John Baird is the government's fast-talking expert of the day

The Scene. At each MP’s desk, a red box had been placed with a gift package of sporting equipment intended to celebrated the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. While he waited for Question Period to begin, Peter MacKay removed the swimming goggles, put them on his head, then put one of the socks on his nose. 

Class resuming after a week off, the mood was relatively light. The 15 minutes before Question Period included just one shouted denunciation of the Liberal leader. The Speaker advised that he would be looking into a report of unparliamentary language made before the break. Then Michael Ignatieff stood in an attempt to be serious.

“Mr. Speaker, the country is facing record unemployment, record bankruptcies, record hardship for small businesses, especially auto dealers,” he began, congratulating the government on its acheivements. “And still the stimulus is not flowing. It is nearly June. Cities and municipalities are still waiting for the infrastructure funding that was promised in the budget. The government has already missed the June construction season. Why has only six per cent of the stimulus gotten out of the door?”

The Human Resources Minister was in Oshawa, reannouncing something from January’s budget. The Finance Minister was in Quebec, warning that the wild guesses on which that budget was based now seem “substantially” off the mark. The Prime Minister was unaccounted for. So the day would belong to John Baird.

“Mr. Speaker, we are working co-operatively with provinces and municipalities,” the Transport Minister said. “We are getting the job done. That non-partisan work is really paying dividends.”

Having not said a single thing of any consequence, he proceeded to read into the record something Mr. Ignatieff had said that seemed to be only vaguely related.

Ignatieff tried again. “Mr. Speaker, still there is no answer to the question of why only six per cent of the stimulus has gone out on the 26th of May,” he said.

“Improving EI eligibility will put money in the hands of 150,000 Canadians and their families, people hardest hit during this crisis,” he continued, adding another matter to the queue. “That is effective, immediate and targeted stimulus, and it will get there before the honourable member’s infrastructure programs even begin to kick in. The government can do this without raising payroll taxes and it can do it without raising benefit levels or duration, so why will the government not make EI work?”

Back to Baird. “Mr. Speaker, our government is committed,” he said, “to doing absolutely everything we can to help Canadians who, through no fault of their own, find themselves unemployed.”

He reannounced Diane Finley’s reannouncement, then repeated allegations of a nefarious Liberal desire to raise taxes on the unemployed, destroy small businesses and eliminate jobs.

“Mr. Speaker, what the minister has just said is absolutely false from one end to another,” huffed Ignatieff, repeating his question in French.

Next it was John McCallum’s turn. What, the Liberal finance critic wondered, of the government’s purported 120-day deadline for emergency spending?

“Mr. Speaker,” repeated Baird, “we are working constructively with our municipal and provincial partners.”

Till then he had failed to rouse much cheer on his side, so the minister began now to talk faster, syllables running together in an unbroken stream of obfuscation.

“Moreinfrastructurespendingwillhavebeencompletedthisyearthaninanyyearinourhistory,” he said. “Itismoving10times-fasterthanunderanyotherLiberalgovernment. TheLiberalplanisonlytodigdeeper, toaskworking-familiestopaymoretaxes. Thatwillkilljobsandthatiswhythisgovernmentwillneverundertakethat-typeofrecklessplan.”

A few backbenchers stood to clap when he finished.

“Mr. Speaker, Canadians know what that answer means; 120 days and zero jobs created,” snapped McCallum. “What those days have delivered is an IMF report showing that the government is actually running a $120 billion deficit, not the $80 billion that it claims. This is confusing for Canadians. The Conservatives are promising money. They are not spending money, but the deficit is going through the roof.”

“The member should come clean with Canadians, unveil the Liberal plan to raise taxes so we can have an honest debate,” replied Baird, talking louder now and apparently without irony.

With the Bloc taking up the questions then, Baird handed off to National Revenue Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn, the responders interchangeable when the responses are so rote.

Eventually Jack Layton stood to beg for clarity on the matter of employment insurance. Here, again, came Baird.

“Mr. Speaker,” he said, “the New Democratic Party came out against our budget before it was even presented in the House of Commons.”

The NDP leader tried again to gain clarity.

“Coalition!” cried Baird. “Socialist scheme!”

Layton moved on to pensions. Baird was the day’s expert on this too.

“Mr. Speaker, it is this government,” the minister observed, “not the NDP, that has brought forward a range of services and support to help seniors … I can say that this side of the House is committed to an economic action plan that will give more jobs, more hope and less taxes to Canadians, unlike the Liberal leader and his friend in the NDP.”

Brusque and unimpressed, Liberal Michael Savage rose next.

“Mr. Speaker,” he grumbled, “the only things in this House that are shovel ready are the answers from that minister.”

The Liberals jumped up to applaud. Across the way, Baird smiled, then stood too to clap and congratulate Savage on his effort.

The Stats. Employment, eight questions. The economy, six questions. Chalk River, four questions. Afghanistan and transportation, three questions each. Forestry, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Quebec, the auto industry and aboriginals, two questions each. Pensions and credit cards, one question each.

John Baird, 11 answers. Lawrence Cannon, six answers. Jean-Pierre Blackburn and Lisa Raitt, four answers each. Vic Toews, three answers. Ed Komarnicki, Josee Verner, Mike Lake and Chuck Strahl, two answers each. Denis Lebel and Peter MacKay, one answer each.

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