The Scene. For awhile before Question Period, the front row seat between Tony Clement and Lawrence Cannon, normally occupied by the Finance Minister, remained unfilled. No doubt, Jim Flaherty might’ve been forgiven for staying home. The weather outside was frightful, rainy and cold. And the mood inside was foul, accusatory and scornful.
But with minutes to spare before the Speaker called for oral questions, Mr. Flaherty arrived. And for the next 45 minutes he was treated to a fine show. A dramatically staged tale about a $16-billion rounding error. A harrowing story in which he was both the central character and principal villain.
First to take the stage was Michael Ignatieff.
“Mr. Speaker, in September the government said there would be no recession. In October, no deficits,” he said, rising up a bit on his toes with each point, nearly singing his disappointment. “In November it promised a surplus, but in January it brought down a $34 billion deficit. Yesterday it ballooned to $50 billion, all this in a breathtaking six months, and still the money has not gotten out the door. This is incompetence on a historic scale.”
Then, finally, a question.
“How can the Prime Minister or any other Canadian,” he said, “still have confidence in the Minister of Finance?”
So challenged, Stephen Harper did the honourable thing. He bragged about the great deal he was getting from his bank.
“Mr. Speaker, over the last few months we are all aware that the financial situations have deteriorated in all countries due to the recession,” he explained, at first able to keep his hands folded in front of him before the urge to point overcame him. “The fact of the matter is that our deficits in Canada are a third to a quarter the size of the deficit in the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan. These deficits are affordable. What we are doing is borrowing money at historically low interest rates to help unemployed people, to build infrastructure. That is what we should be doing and what we will continue to do.”
Back came Ignatieff, now wagging his own pointy finger.
“Mr. Speaker, the issue here is the credibility of the Government of Canada and the credibility of the Minister of Finance,” he clarified. “Just five weeks ago the Minister of Finance said, and I quote, ‘I am comfortable with our projections … We’re on track.’ On track to where? The largest deficit in Canadian history. Canadians just cannot trust the government with their money.”
Then, finally, the question.
“Will the Prime Minister,” Ignatieff begged, “fire the Minister of Finance?”
You’ll be no doubt surprised to learn the Prime Minister did not acknowledge this request.
“Mr. Speaker, what is at issue here is the credibility of the leader of the opposition, who has been here week after week demanding not just that the government spend more but that it spend more permanently. Now he tries to pretend he is concerned about the deficit,” he replied, yelling and pointing once more. “I cannot fire the leader of the opposition and with all the tapes I have on him, I do not want to.”
Mr. Ignatieff would later deem this Nixonian. A more charitable explanation would be that Mr. Harper is simply a great fan of Onegin.
The Liberal leader responded weakly en francais, then repeated his demand. The Prime Minister stood and demonstrated his developing ability to vent furious indignation in both official languages. Then it was John McCallum’s turn.
“Mr. Speaker, in his last budget the finance minister projected a $34-billion deficit and he said the money must be flowing within 120 days,” the Liberal finance critic reported. “Today is that day and where do we stand? The deficit has mushroomed to more than $50 billion and, according to media headlines, ‘Lots of announcements, but little money.’ How can the Prime Minister have confidence in his $50-billion man, a finance minister who has clearly lost the confidence of Canadians?”
Now, finally, came Jim Flaherty to defend his own honour.
“Mr. Speaker, what Canadians have lost confidence is the Liberals,” Flaherty declared. “On the one hand they say, ‘Spend more money’ and on the other hand they say, ‘Don’t run a deficit’ and ‘Don’t increase the deficit.’ This, from the member for Markham-Unionville who does not even know what kind of car he drives.”
The Prime Minister smirked. And, for sure, this bit was both true and demonstrable.
“Mr. Speaker,” huffed McCallum, “that is the voice of failure.”
“Mr. Speaker,” demurred Flaherty, waving his hands in the air, going red in the face, “how can the people of Canada have confidence in the Liberals when they say this would be the largest deficit in Canadian history when it is not. The deficits in the 1980s and 1990s, as members opposite should know, if they were living in the country at the time, approached 6 per cent of GDP.”
This delighted the government benches. Oddly, it did not assuage the opposition side.
Four more whacks from the Bloc Quebecois, then three from Jack Layton. Then back to the Liberals.
“Mr. Speaker, in my own province of Quebec thousands of aerospace workers have lost their jobs in this economic crisis that that Conservative finance minister has so badly managed,” offered Marlene Jennings. “What does he offer to these unemployed workers? The biggest deficit in Canadian history and no better access to employment insurance. How does that Conservative finance minister have any credibility with these unemployed workers today?”
“Mr. Speaker, this is just more Liberal hypocrisy,” moaned the Finance Minister. “The Liberals had no ideas coming up to the budget. We asked them for their ideas for the economic action plan. We got nothing.”
“Mr. Speaker,” repeated Jennings, “there speaks the voice of failure.”
Ralph Goodale stood next, but the noise was too much, compelling the Speaker to interject with a request for order. With the roar dulled, Goodale rose again.
“Mr. Speaker, Canadians are not inspired by a Conservative government that is so consistently dead wrong,” he posited. “Wrong about the recession, wrong about a fictitious surplus, wrong about no deficit in November, even more wrong about the deficit in January, wrong by 48 per cent at least. Worst still these Conservatives are wrong about the jobs they promised to Canadians, wrong by 540,000 and many victims cannot get employment insurance. Therefore we have $50 billion in red ink, no new jobs and no better access to EI.”
Then, finally, the most profound of questions.
The Finance Minister stood and staked the country’s claim to being slightly less screwed than others. Goodale tried again.
“This morning the Minister of National Revenue, the Conservative tax collector, was asked specifically to rule out tax increases by the government. He would not do it. Asked to be unequivocal on taxes his confused answer was ‘We’re not there.'” Remember when Conservatives promised never to tax income trusts. That promise was broken. They stabbed two and a half million innocent Canadians in the back,” he said, speaking, one assumes, metaphorically. “How can Conservatives be believed on the deficit, or taxes or anything else that involves trust?”
Back came Flaherty, brandishing his own public statement.
“Mr. Speaker, the only idea we have heard from the Liberals since the budget is their idea that taxes need to be raised. That is from the leader of the opposition. However, there is another idea today,” he reported. “The finance critic opposite says there might be certain measures that the Conservatives are doing what we would think would not be worth doing, things that we think are not necessary. So, the question is what would the Liberals cut? The home renovation tax credit? Infrastructure investments? Employment insurance benefits? Investments in agriculture? Health care funding like they did in the 1990s to the provinces, to the sick, to the elderly, to students and children—”
So carried away, he’d lost track of time.
After a short respite to allow the Bloc a few questions, the Liberals sent up Bob Rae.
“Mr. Speaker, 36 days ago, on April 21, the Minister of Finance said this: ‘I’m comfortable with our projections…I’m staying with our budget projection. We’re on track.’ That was 36 days ago,” he informed. “I would like to ask the Minister of Finance a very simple question. Do we believe the Minister of Finance who spoke on April 21, or are we to believe the Minister of Finance who speaks today about a budget deficit which is completely different? What is the answer to that simple question?”
“Mr. Speaker, I thank the honourable member for the question,” Flaherty fired across the aisle, “particularly since I know he is an expert on deficits from his time in Ontario.”
“Mr. Speaker, having dined out on me for 15 years, the minister will perhaps understand why some of us want to have one simple meal with respect to what he has done and what he has said,” Rae cracked.
“Mr. Speaker,” wondered Flaherty, “what is the member opposite opposed to?”
“You!” yelped a voice from the Liberal backbenches, showing an impressive sense of comedic timing.
Now it was Rodger Cuzner on his feet, the solidly built Nova Scotian fixing for a fight.
“Mr. Speaker, fishermen in Atlantic Canada, forestry workers in British Columbia, Canadians through no fault of their own are losing their jobs and they are not eligible for EI,” he said. “Three weeks ago, the finance minister said that he was willing to work with opposition parties to fix EI and stimulate the economy. Those suggestions were totally dismissed by the Prime Minister, so obviously the Prime Minister has no confidence in his finance minister. My question is simple. Will the Prime Minister do the right thing and replace the finance minister?”
The parliamentary secretary to the minister of human resources, Ed Komarnicki, took this one.
Sitting in wait, watching the Speaker close, was Michael Ignatieff. On only special occasions does the leader of the opposition traditionally rise after taking his three opening turns. But here, apparently, was just so important a moment.
“Mr. Speaker, I have a question for the Minister of Finance,” he reported to little surprise. “Yesterday he said that the deficit would be $50 billion or more. How much more? The question here is this. We cannot believe the minister on the previous estimate. Why should we believe him on this number? Since we cannot believe either number, will he do the decent thing and resign?”
Decency being such a quaint notion, Mr. Ignatieff’s question seemed doomed from the outset. Indeed, the Finance Minister would not even honour the gentleman opposite with a response. Instead, up came Harper, his pointy finger out again, jabbing at the bad vibes around him.
“Mr. Speaker, let me be absolutely clear once again,” the Prime Minister said. “Canada is responding to a global recession from a position of fiscal strength. Our debts are low, our deficits are manageable and affordable compared to other countries. That deficit has gone up because the recession is deeper. If the recession gets deeper, we will do more to help the unemployed and to help people. The hypocrisy of the leader of the Liberal Party is breathtaking. He cannot decry a deficit when he comes here and demand spending not just this year, but permanently.”
As a self-interested spin on the matter before the House it was exquisite.
Mr. Flaherty took a friendly question from a Conservative backbencher, then two more hostile queries on the Canada Pension Plan from the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair. But by the time Liberal Siobhan Coady finished the roast, with a request on behalf of Atlantic Canada that the Finance Minister take a long walk off a short pier, Mr. Flaherty had made an early exit.
Thirteen attempts to explain that $16-billion would have to do. At least for now.
The Stats. The economy, 22 questions. Employment, three questions. Crime, the Canada Pension Plan and arts funding, two questions each. Border security, the arctic and free trade, one question each.
Jim Flaherty, 13 answers. Stephen Harper, nine answers. Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Rob Moore, Dean Del Mastro and Gail Shea, two answers each. Ed Komarnicki, Dave MacKenzie, Chuck Strahl and Stockwell Day, one answer each.