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Hill Dispatches: Conservatives invent a policy for the NDP

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On Wednesday, the Leader of the Opposition, Tom Mulcair, asked questions of government ministers about the most pressing matter of the day, as is his wont and his duty.

Mulcair was interested in learning more about statements the Prime Minister had made while visiting Britain and France. The NDP Leader's main purpose was to explore the economic policy implications for Canada of the impending crisis the Prime Minister had described in such dire terms.

Mulcair asked three questions on that day, all focused on Canadian economic policy. 

His first question was: "Clearly and simply, does the government have a plan to fight off another recession? If the Conservatives have a new plan, let us hear it."

His second question, in French, was: "Soit le premier ministre pérorait de manière irresponsable hier, soit il y a un besoin réel de mettre en place un nouveau plan économique, et ça urge. Ça va bien, ou ça ne va pas bien?"

Roughly translated that would be: "Either the Prime Minister was speaking in an irresponsible manner yesterday, or there is a real and urgent need to put in place a new economic plan. Is it going well or is it not going well?"

And Mulcair's third and final question on this subject was: "At the G20 meeting in April the Minister of Finance led the effort to block an international plan to resolve the European economic crisis. He told European countries to . . . fix the problem on their own, as if our fate were not intimately connected to theirs . . . When will the Conservatives stop lecturing European countries and put forward a real plan to protect and create jobs here in Canada?"

'Catastrophic economic scenarios'

The next day, the NDP leader continued to focus on issues raised by the prime minister's meetings and statements in Europe.

After posing an initial question on pensions, Mulcair returned to the subject of the previous day: the threats to the Canadian economy of a looming European recession.

The Opposition Leader wanted to know why the government has been so complacent about these threats until now, and if it had any plans to deal with them.

"Suddenly, after months of insisting that all was well, the Prime Minister has started musing about catastrophic economic scenarios on the horizon," Mulcair said in the House. "We are running out of runway, [the Prime Minister] has told us. . . Is everything under control like the Conservatives say or are we on the brink of collapse?"

The answer Mulcair got from Finance Minister Jim Flaherty seemed like typical Conservative rhetoric at first - until Flaherty veered away from the predictable lines and came up with this assertion:

"The solution is not, as the NDP leader suggests, to take billions of Canadian tax dollars and give them to wealthy European countries."

Mulcair dismissed that accusation - for which there does not seem to be any basis in fact - out of hand: "That is the type of pure fabulation one resorts to when one does not have any arguments. . ." And then he continued to push his own line of questioning about what Canada's response to a potential European crisis might be.

Does repetition create 'truth?'

One might think that would be the end of that particular Conservative attack.

But a little later in Question Period, in response to a question from NDP Finance Critic Peggy Nash, Flaherty again denounced the NDP leader for his supposed (though it seems fictional) proposal that Canada should shower wealthy European countries with billions of Canadian dollars:

"...we have encouraged our European allies," the Finance Minister said "to move forward, to seize the day and to address the major fiscal issues that they have in that country, without Canadian tax dollars bailing them out which the Leader of the Opposition suggests."

Comb through Hansard for Wednesday and Thursday and you will find nary a word from Mulcair to justify this line of attack.

The closest to anything resembling a suggestion that Canada should help bail out Europe is the NDP's leader's preamble to one question, in which he said that the Canadian Minster of Finance had led efforts at the G20 meeting in April to "block an international plan to resolve the European economic crisis."

One-day wonder, or new urban legend?

Unless it is a deep secret, unknown to anyone in Ottawa or elsewhere in Canada, the NDP does not have any policy to spend billions on Europe, and its leader has never said sending money to Europe is what he or his party propose.

It would, in fact, be quite foolish for the Official Opposition Party to make any commitment of this sort without all of the information available to the government.

There are reports that other non-European countries, including Australia and Japan, are planning to pledge additional funds to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF would use those funds in the event any member countries needed a financial rescue.

There could come a day when it would be entirely in Canada's self-interest to help head off financial chaos in Europe. That is why the Official Opposition is being careful to avoid definite commitments on this matter, one way or the other. The government has eschewed this prudent and pragmatic approach.

But that is not what Mulcair wanted the government to explain earlier this week.

The major thrust of Mulcair's questioning on Wednesday and Thursday was to attempt to shed light on the Canadian government's plans for the Canadian economy, in the event of a deepening Euro crisis.

The Opposition Leader's main concern was with the apparent inconsistency, and perhaps even incoherence, of a Prime Minister who has claimed for months that all is well, and now, suddenly, while on a trip abroad, evokes images of economic doom and gloom.

Yet, as with the multiple distortions of the meaning of the expression "Dutch disease," the Conservatives have managed to plant the seeds of a new urban legend - to wit, that the NDP is enthusiastically in favour of doling out billions of dollars to profligate, irresponsible Europeans (who are also comfortably wealthy, for good measure)!

This one may or may not have traction. In the days to come, we'll see whether other senior Conservatives trot it out.

The rules of Parliament have it that one cannot be sued for anything one says there. That is why it is "unparliamentary" to call another honourable member a liar. From time to time the Speaker reprimands members for using that sort of language, and even requires them to apologize, on occasion.

It is much rarer for the Speaker to admonish a member for knowingly uttering a falsehood. After all, true and false, in politics at any rate if not in logic, are not absolute qualities.

It is not the Speaker's job to know what the Official Opposition Party's position on a European bailout might be.

The Speaker's job is to maintain order and decorum in the House, as best he can, and to see to it that the business of democracy gets done.

One of the underlying motivating principles of the Canadian parliamentary system is that lively and vigorous debate among honourable members will somehow translate the popular will into good policies and legislation.

But when some use Parliament as a stage for strategically planned attack-dog tactics, the democratic purposes of Parliament can become distorted.

Flaherty's particular attack on Mulcair may be no more than a one-day wonder.

Or - who knows? - we might continue to hear versions of that attack not only from Conservative politicians, but from the all-too-well-stocked bullpen of pundits and commentators who happily pitch for the Harper government.

The great composer of "Ain't Misbehaving" and "The Joint is Jumping" put it very well: "One never knows, do one?

 

Karl Nerenberg covers news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist for over 25 years including eight years as the producer of the CBC show The House.

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