The Commons: The cause of, and solution to, all life’s problems

The Liberals seek to prove "you can walk and chew gum at the same time"

Ideas are such mysterious and troublesome things.

Yesterday, for instance, the Prime Minister, penning an op-ed for the flagship newspaper of Canada’s liberal media elite, explained that, as part of hosting the G8 summit later this year, Canada will “champion a major initiative to improve the health of women and children in the world’s poorest regions.”

This seemed almost impossible to quibble with. And yet, soon enough, people were asking questions, namely about what precisely the Prime Minister was talking about. How will he go about this? How much will it cost? What about Haiti? What about the deficit? Does this have something to do with abortion?

A reporter today asked Bev Oda, the minister for international development, which countries this country had so far discussed this proposal with. Ms. Oda declined to divulge specifics, but did assure that, in general, there was some interest in pursuing maternal and infant health in “conceptual terms.” “I can report with confidence that generally, all countries and all organizations we discussed with recognize the need and recognize that something can actually be done that will show results,” she reported.

So perhaps this is less an idea than a general notion. Still, it was enough of a concept for the nightly news to conclude this was somehow a setback for the Liberal side: the primary concern in any discussion of the world’s impoverished women and children being, of course, ‘how does this affect Michael Ignatieff’s chances of getting to be Prime Minister?’

Ideas, both his and others, have been the bane of Mr. Ignatieff’s existence for some years now. When he’s had them, he has been vilified variously as wrong and rash and dangerous and silly. When he hasn’t had them, he has been scolded for lacking that which he was supposed to bring to our sad, hopeless little capital. Attempting perhaps to split the difference, he has, for the most part, settled on speaking vaguely of unimpeachable generalizations: we should think about expanding trade with Asia, we should invest in education, we should get the unemployed working again, we should help old ladies cross the street, and so forth.

But in the absence of a functioning Parliament, the Liberals have been convening forums in Ottawa to hash out how to go about doing these things. And subsequently, perhaps unavoidably, Mr. Ignatieff emerged this afternoon with some ideas. Some proposals, in fact, for whatever everyone has decided to call this “jobless recovery.”

“Together we’re putting forward three specific proposals to get more Canadians working again,” Mr. Ignatieff said, standing behind a lectern in the House foyer, flanked by no less than seven Liberal MPs. “And we’re calling on the Conservative government to adopt these measures in the forthcoming budget. ”

A half-dozen reporters, who had already been handed a five-page explanation of these measures, held their collective breath.

“Our first proposal is a cash advance on the accelerated capital cost allowance for manufacturers,” the Liberal leader explained, stirringly.

“The second proposal is to create temporary financial incentives to hire young Canadians,” he continued. “This can take the form of an EI premium holiday for those employers who take on young workers. It could also take the form of a straight grant to employers to incentivize the hiring of young Canadians.”

Keen students of math will understand that Mr. Ignatieff was not done there. “Our third proposal,” he concluded, “is new tax incentives for investment in Canadian entrepreneurship in emerging sectors like clean energy and the life sciences.”

With all that said, the Liberal leader took a moment to congratulate himself. “We believe in being a positive opposition,” he said. “We’ve shown also that you can walk and chew gum at the same time. You can show up for work here and think of positive budget measures. Mr. Harper says he can’t produce the budget and run Parliament at the same time. That seems to me to misunderstand what democracy is all about. He shut the place down, but Liberals are still working and we hope our proposals will help this government to recalibrate as they call it.”

And with that clarified, John McCallum stepped forward to outline the cost of these proposals, figuring the total at somewhere between $125 and $270 million.

Asked about all this in relation to the treasury’s multi-billion-dollar deficit, Mr. Ignatieff deftly employed the phrases “fiscally responsible,” “highly targetted” and “Paul Martin.” And about a half hour after they arrived, the Liberal leader and his delegation took their leave, the whole presentation seeming to have been relatively painless and inoffensive.

A few hours later, as I type, Conservative Ted Menzies is on television ridiculing the Liberals as tardy and superfluous, while the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair is dismissing both the Liberals and Conservatives as corporate lapdogs. Mr. McCallum sits between them, seeming not terribly moved by any of it.