The Commons: The $3-billion question

The Scene. Ralph Goodale stood to open Question Period with a question of entirely symbolic value. The Finance Minister responded in kind.

“Mr. Speaker, as we know, we are in the midst of a global economic recession,” Jim Flaherty said. “This is a very serious time. Canadians have seen serious times before.”

“Where’s the $3 billion you’re sitting on?” Maria Minna interjected from across the aisle.

This was closer to what the Liberal house leader had meant to ask. And after Mr. Flaherty had finished, Mr. Goodale picked up where Ms. Minna had left.

“Mr. Speaker, the government says it will introduce a new law later this month to give itself a $3-billion blank cheque for spending after April 1,” he said. “Why can the government not find a few minutes any time in the next three weeks before April 1 to tell Canadians which stimulus programs will be financed with this unprecedented blank cheque?”

“Slush fund! Slush fund!” chirped a Liberal.

This is a somewhat tricky matter.

The government has indeed asked for $3-billion to be spent outside Parliamentary oversight. The opposition parties would like the government to explain how it plans to spend said money before they approve it. The government would like the opposition parties to stop hurting the country with their incessant questions.

Ms. Minna’s shouted query spoke to the even trickier matter.

Indeed, as the Liberals announced last week, the government already has approximately $3-billion in unspent, but officially approved, funds from last year’s budget. And as far as the Liberals are concerned, the government doesn’t need $3-billion if it already has $3-billion. As far as the government is concerned, this detail once again demonstrates the shortcomings of our democracy.

“Mr. Speaker, we have been very clear in our comments in respect of that fund,” said Vic Toews, responding to Mr. Goodale. “We have indicated that the projects in respect of which this money will be spent has all been spelled out in the budget and we appreciate the support that the Liberal Party gave us in that respect. We would ask that the Liberals encourage their colleagues in the Senate to get it through the Senate as quickly as possible.”

Goodale disagreed markedly.

“Mr. Speaker, the details are not in the budget,” he corrected. “The Prime Minister seems to be making the shocking confession that he cannot walk and chew gum at the same time.”

“Ralph!” cried John Baird in faux outrage.

“He says he can either quickly fight the recession or he can be accountable for his spending but somehow, he cannot do both,” Goodale continued. “That is utter nonsense. The two are not mutually exclusive, especially with more than three weeks to go before any of that spending would actually begin. Why will the Prime Minister not tell us accurately what the money is for?”

The Prime Minister, for the record, was not present. So back up came the Finance Minister.

“Mr. Speaker, it is for Canada’s economic action plan,” Flaherty said, holding his budget aloft and growling at the other side. “That is what it is for. It is for infrastructure spending. It is for spending for our colleges and universities. I know the member for Wascana does not understand that, but the Canadian construction season starts in a few weeks. In April, May and June, we need this money out the door. We need it for Canadians. We need it for Canadian families. One would think the Liberal opposition would understand that. This is a serious crisis. This money needs to get out the door now, in April, May and June. I hope the Liberals will get their Liberal senators to follow that lead.”

Marlene Jennings stood to continue with the line of questioning. Why hadn’t the government spent the billions it had? What was it going to do with the billions it wanted? Was there a plan of some sort that might explain these things?

“Mr. Speaker, not only do we have the plan, which is in Canada’s economic action plan, we have the process as well,” Flaherty growled.

The Finance Minister then put his fists together and turned them upwards, both begging and flashing his gold cufflinks.

“The President of the Treasury Board and I have met with the Auditor General. We have met with the parliamentary budget adviser. Treasury Board has been working very hard. Senior public servants in this government recognize the importance to Canadians of getting this done and getting it done promptly,” he said. “It is too bad the Liberal opposition doubts the veracity of our public servants in Canada to get this job done. They ought to be ashamed of themselves.”

“Louder! Louder!” heckled a Liberal.

Jennings switched directions, next wondering about the budget’s considerations for women.

The Finance Minister, whose face would be affixed in a permanent scowl by day’s end, was less than impressed with her insinuations.

“Mr. Speaker, as she probably knows, all of the elements that are in Canada’s economic action plan are gender-tested. That is part of the standard development of policy in the Government of Canada,” he said.

“No they are not,” sniped Ms. Minna. “Give me a break.”

“I am sorry the member for Beaches—East York does not understand government process, but all policy recommendations go through a gender assessment,” he said.

Then his big finish. “Having said that, this plan is a plan for all Canadians,” he said, his voice rising as his mates in caucus began to applaud, “for men, for women, for young people in Canada, for students, for professionals, for labourers. We are for all Canadians and all Canadians support this plan.”

By the end, the Finance Minister was shouting over the cheers as his side rose to salute him.

A fine show. Even if the $3-billion question remains resolutely unanswered.

The Stats. The economy, nine questions. The auto industry, seven questions. Forestry, six questions. Universities, arts funding, the CBC, agriculture, regional development and pay equity, two questions each. Infrastructure, government contracts, the steel industry and health care, one question each.

Gary Goodyear, ten questions. Jim Flaherty, seven answers. Denis Lebel, six answers. John Baird, Dean Del Mastro and Vic Toews, three answers each. Stockwell Day and Gerry Ritz, two answers each. Christian Paradis and Leona Aglukkaq, one answer each.