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Hill Dispatches

karl nerenberg's picture
Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

One MP resigns, two call out abusers, and a Minister slanders refugees

| November 6, 2014
Photo: where to here/flickr

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Wednesday, November 6, was a day of theatre, drama and unprecedented events on Parliament Hill.

A sitting MP rose on a point of personal privilege before a hushed House and tearfully announced his resignation, to take effect immediately.

The members of his own party, the Conservative Party, gave him an enthusiastic standing ovation. Liberals also stood, although with less enthusiasm.

Most of the MPs from the Official Opposition, the NDP, stayed in their seats.

But a few NDPers gingerly stood up, among them Ruth-Ellen Brosseau, the well-liked and respected MP for Berthier-Maskinongé, once only known as a former bartender who travelled to Las Vegas during the last election campaign.

The real political story of Dean Del Mastro's resignation will be what happens if and when there is a by-election in his Peterborough riding. This is a seat that has swung back and forth between Conservatives and Liberals and once was even held by a New Democrat. It is somewhat more Conservative-friendly than anything else, but still would be an interesting bellwether.

The Prime Minister has nearly six months before he must legally call the by-election, and he might decide to unleash a general election in the spring of 2015 instead.

Prime Minister Harper's choice on what to do about Peterborough could give some clues as to his political plans.

The other unfolding drama on Wednesday did not take place in the House of Commons chamber, at least not on the record and openly. All over the rest of the Parliamentary precinct, however, there was persistent buzzing about it.

As you almost certainly know by now, this drama involved accusations by two unnamed NDP MPs of some not yet clearly defined harassment against two Liberal MPs.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau suspended the two from his caucus, and, when explaining his decision, struck a tone that verged on righteous indignation. One suspects Trudeau might have been as much concerned about the electoral politics of the situation as he was about the rights of the two NDP MPs.

"This is 2014," the Liberal leader told a hastily arranged Parliament Hill news conference, implying that politicians and others in authority on Parliament Hill might have gotten away with abusive behaviour in the past, but they can't get away with it now.

To repeat what almost every other journalist who covers Parliament has been saying: this particular situation is without precedent.

There have been lots of cases, whispered and otherwise, of Hill staff subject to abuse by politicians. But nobody can remember a case of MPs from one party accusing MPs from another of any kind of abuse other than the partisan, political kind.

We cannot prejudge what the still-undefined investigative process Trudeau has set in motion will uncover. But however it all works out, this is one for the record books -- if anyone is keeping records of this sort of unsavoury business.

Chris Alexander makes up facts about refugees

In the midst of all this stürm und drang the members of Parliament still found time to trade barbed exchanges on actual policy differences.

For instance, if you thought last week's Federal Court of Appeal decision on refugee health had put that matter to rest, think again.

The Court, to all appearances, ordered the government to restore the Interim Federal Health Program for Refugees for all of those who had been entitled to its benefits before the Harper government had, in effect, killed it.

However, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander does not see it that way. And in defending his selective interpretation of the Court decision he engages in some pretty dodgy rhetoric.

On Wednesday, the NDP's Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe and Andrew Cash questioned the Minister as to why, after saying his government would respect the Court ruling, it now seems to be backpedalling.

Cash put it this way:

"First, [Alexander] refused to accept when the Federal Court ruled his actions were unconstitutional. Then he continued his attack by using the omnibus budget bill to sneak in changes that would take social assistance away from refugees. Now he is refusing to fully respect the Court's decision on refugee health care. What does the minister have against refugees?"

Here's the Minister's answer:

"Does the member opposite have any respect either for Canadians or for the English language, because there is no case when refugees, those determined to be so by our independent Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) or by the UNHCR [United Nations High Commission for Refugees] and then resettled in Canada, have failed to receive health care under this government, and refugees will continue to receive health care. What New Democrats are asking for, and we really find it unbelievable, is that people whose claims were found to be false, people whose claims were found to be fraudulent, people waiting to be removed from Canada, should receive better health care than Canadians themselves."

What Alexander never admits is that his government has taken away health benefits for some 10,000 people who arrive annually and claim refugee status in Canada. These people have not even had their claims heard by the IRB, and yet the Minister tries to give the impression that their claims are "fraudulent."

As we wrote in this space earlier this week, even those whom the IRB turns down in the first round have a full legitimate and legal right of appeal. And in very few cases does the IRB rule that refugee claimants appear to be trying to deceive the authorities. IRB judges merely deem that claimants' very credible and not at all false tales of persecution and discrimination do not always rise to the level of refugee, as legally defined by the 1951 Convention on Refugees.

As well, among those refugees who are "resettled" from United Nations camps, to whom Alexander points with pride, the government will not fund health care for those who are sponsored by church or community groups in Canada.

These are the sort of "good" refugees the government claims it wants. Alexander boasts of  the government's record of taking in about 10 per cent of the total number of refugees from camps resettled worldwide.

And yet, the Harper government's current refugee health policy leaves out these sponsored folks, and dumps the responsibility on the sponsoring groups and the provinces.

Alexander's claim, as well, that the Interim Federal Health Program for Refugees has afforded refugees better health care than many Canadians is not factual. Indeed, that frequently repeated claim verges on dangerous demagoguery.

In 2012, the Canadian Council for Refugees did a study, based on government statistics, which showed that the federal government spent, at the time, between $500 and $600 per refugee annually, while the cost of health care for the average Canadian was over $5,000 per year.

If you think Canadians on social assistance have a peachy deal for health care, then you will think likewise for refugees. The federal refugee health program offers a level of care no better than that available to folks on provincial social assistance.

The Harper government has created a political scapegoat: the refugee

The rhetorical game the Conservatives are playing in maliciously denigrating a large class of people who come here as refugees is very dangerous.

But there is method to their malice.

It is the old political game of scape-goating, feeding the inchoate resentment of the "mainstream" population toward the strangers in our midst.

Unfortunately, it is a game that could yield electoral rewards.

The Harper government characterizes the total amount of savings it can achieve through cuts to the refugee health program as $100 million. However, that is over four years, which fact they always put in the fine print.

Twenty million dollars, per year, is not, frankly, significant in federal budgetary terms. The Harper government does not need that small packet of cash in order to eliminate the deficit.

The reason the Conservatives have chosen to make these particular cuts is precisely so they can make political hay out of them. Conservative fundraisers actually appeal to donors by boasting that the Harper government cut "gold-plated" health care for these "undeserving" foreigners.

It is a bottom-feeding form of politics; but it does, apparently, work.

The Liberals, or at least some of them, are aware of that brutal fact. That is why Liberals are generally muted on the refugee issue.

The NDP are unusual for an Official Opposition in their willingness to take on an issue that is not likely to be a political winner. In light of that ugly political fact, politicians from the Official Opposition might want to make a greater effort to specifically counter Alexander's clever (if unfair and distorted) arguments with hard facts and figures.

They will also want to continue emphasizing the real human misery caused by removing federal refugee health benefits.

The Canadian Council for Refugees and other groups that assist refugees have documented scores of cases of genuine suffering. Those human stories make the decision to cut the health program seem barbaric.

These cases include a refugee from West Africa whose leg was amputated by guerrillas being denied a prosthesis and physiotherapy in Canada, refugees with cancer denied chemotherapy, and a six-year-old refugee child denied surgery to correct a severely cleft palate that inhibited his ability to speak.

That's what this difference of opinion among politicians is really all about.

Photo: where to here/flickr



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