The Harper government is failing to provide Canadians with crucial information about H1N1 vaccinations while spending millions of taxpayers' money on vanity advertising, the Liberals charged in the House of Commons this afternoon.
Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale asked how the Tories can justify an "advertising tsunami of $100-million for partisan Conservative propaganda but only a pittance for crucial information about vaccinations?"
Neither Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff nor Prime Minister Stephen Harper were in the House on Monday, so Mr. Goodale led the charge in Question Period.
The daily back-and-forth, however, was overshadowed by the shouts and demands from a group of climate-change activists who had quietly taken over the north gallery. Their protest started as NDP Leader Jack Layton began asking his questions.
"Bill C-311," shouted one protester. "Sign it, sign it, sign it," the others responded. It was a well-orchestrated affair; as some protesters were dragged off by Commons security guards, others would pop up and start shouting again, drowning out Mr. Layton.
Bill C-311 is an NDP private-members bill that demands the government act on climate change at the upcoming Copenhagen conference. It has been delayed in committee by the Conservatives and some Liberals.
Finally, the whole north gallery of more than 100 people was cleared out. One elderly couple remained in their seats but as MPs shouted up to the Common guards, "Let them stay, let them stay," they too were escorted out. They were clearly not part of the protest.
(In Hansard, the daily written record of the chamber proceedings, the lengthy protest was reduced to "a disturbance in the gallery." Six protesters were detained and have been barred from Parliament for a year.)
When order was restored and Mr. Layton was able to be heard, he asked about pension security. The topic is becoming a big issue in the wake of protests by former Nortel workers on Parliament Hill last week.
The NDP Leader accused the Tories of not meeting with the Nortel pensioners because they are indifferent to their plight.
Industry Minister Tony Clement, who stood in for the Prime Minister, denied the accusations, saying that pensions are a provincial issue and that the retirees were better off protesting at Queen's Park as they did several weeks ago.
The Liberals, meanwhile, kept their focus on the lack of information around the H1N1 vaccine. This has been a constant refrain over the last few days as public opinion polls have shown Canadians divided as to whether or not to get vaccinated. Many are unsure whether the shot is safe.
Mr. Goodale said that the confusion is the result of the government's failure to communicate. He said this could put "lives at risk."
Not so, said Mr. Clement, who lauded Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, saying she was doing an excellent job. "Despite the fear-mongering on the other side, we are focused on protecting the health and safety of every Canadian," Mr. Clement said.
To complete a chaotic Question Period, there was also a "gotcha" moment. Transport Minister John Baird turned the tables on Liberal MP Martha Hall Findlay, who had been accusing the Tories of unethical behaviour over the way they conduct their advertising.
Said Mr. Baird: "I like the member for Willowdale. I enjoy her interventions in this place. I wanted to ask her a question. Would she tell me whether it would be appropriate or inappropriate for a certain Liberal leadership candidate to use her MP office to raise funds for her leadership campaign?"
He quoted from an email from Ms. Findlay's office asking for donations to help her pay her leadership debt. Ms. Hall Findlay ran unsuccessfully for the Liberal leadership in 2006.
This being Question Period, however, there was no answer to Mr. Baird's retort or the initial question Ms. Hall Findlay put to the Transport Minister.