Bob Rae led off Question Period for the Liberals today, standing in for his friend and sometimes foe, Leader Michael Ignatieff.
The image was delicious - Mr. Rae, who is persistently rumoured to be gunning for Mr. Ignatieff's job, being the leader for at least a few minutes. He accused the government of delaying the distribution of the H1N1 vaccine.
Not surprisingly, his new status provoked a few guffaws and a classic line from one of his own colleagues. Asked where Mr. Ignatieff was today, a Liberal MP replied by e-mail: "Job sharing with Bob Rae."
Mr. Ignatieff doesn't like the session much and has only made one appearance this week. Today, he was at a meeting and then on his way to Toronto for events. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in British Columbia, which had NDP Leader Jack Layton focusing his questions on the controversy over the harmonized sales tax in that province.
So it was a day of Question Period stand-ins - and for the most part the stand-ins performed better than the regulars.
Mr. Rae said there were delays of several months in the government's decision to order the H1N1 flu vaccine, which "have cost and will cost lives."
His accusations were challenged by Industry Minister Tony Clement, who argued that the Health Minister and chief public health officer have been "working assiduously with the provinces and territories across this land to deliver the vaccine."
He said six million doses will have been delivered by the end of the day tomorrow; by the end of next week a total of nine million doses will have been delivered.
In the scrums after Question Period, Mr. Rae explained his accusations: "Well, I think you have to say there are people who unfortunately have succumbed to the disease. I think it's a reasonable thing to say that if they'd had the vaccine it's quite possible their lives could have been saved. That's a harsh truth."
"… Even today, from North York, we understand the clinic had to be closed because the lineups were four hours long, four and five hours long. So there's clearly an issue of distribution, a question of availability," Mr. Rae told reporters.
The charges over the H1N1 vaccine also led to some pointed heckling with Transport Minister John Baird shouting, "Where is Carolyn Bennett today? Is she out scaring someone?"
Mr. Baird was referring to the Toronto Liberal MP who for the last several days has been holding the government's feet to the fire over the confusion around the vaccine for pregnant women.
She was shouted down by Tory MPs when she tried to ask a question, prompting her leader, Mr. Ignatieff, to demand an apology from the Prime Minister. One was not forthcoming.
Ms. Bennett, a medical doctor, is in Calgary today receiving a prize from the Canadian College of Family Physicians.
The controversy over infrastructure stimulus spending was also on the agenda Thursday, with the Liberals again accusing Industry Minister Tony Clement of treating the G8 summit, which is taking place in his Muskoka riding next year, as a "political slush-fund opportunity."
Infrastructure critic Gerard Kennedy has been pestering Mr. Clement every day about the amount of spending going into his riding, while other ridings are getting much less. "Is there any point where the government is going to stop putting the Conservative Party first and the country second?" he said.
Transport Minister Baird, the point-man on stimulus, was buying none of it, saying that current provincial Liberal politicians and former Liberals, such as Allan Rock, who is now president of the University of Ottawa, have applauded the government for its infrastructure spending.
"I say to the member opposite, does the Minister of Industry ever stop doing the right thing?"
The Tories loved it; Mr. Baird had his MPs on their feet for standing ovation after standing ovation. There was a lot of eye-rolling, meanwhile, from the Liberal bench.