Question Period began with a hefty dollop of concern over the AIDS researcher who's quitting Canada in part because of what he says are Tory cuts to research funding.
After that, however, the employment insurance drumbeat grew louder. All three opposition parties used the majority of their time to demand the Harper government relax rules for access to EI as the economy worsens.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff clearly likes the exiting AIDS researcher story, though, because it puts a face on opposition allegations the Tories have beggared some research projects - and leaves the impression the Conservatives are anti-science.
Speaking in French, Mr. Ignatieff said: "Rafick-Pierre Sékaly, a renowned expert on AIDS, is leaving Montreal for the United States and 25 researchers from his team are following him. Dr. Sékaly has said that he hopes his departure will sound the alarm; the question is has the government heard the alarm? Where is the government's strategy to prevent our best scientists from leaving the country?"
A clearly exasperated science minister, Gary Goodyear, at first tried to restrict his defence to HIV-AIDs funding, suggesting Ottawa is handing out money all over the place for this cause.
"The only government that has cut funding to HIV-AIDS is the Liberal government in 2005. Mr. Speaker, what this report fails to tell Canadians is that the Conservative government committed $94-million to HIV-AIDS research this year - and guess what, Mr. Speaker, we committed $111-million to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation for HIV-AIDS and this researcher is still getting all the funding from this Conservative government."
But unfortunately for Mr. Goodyear, there was no stopping Mr. Ignatieff.
"The facts are that the Conservatives cut funds for scientific research in real terms and have done so every year since they have been elected, and our finest researchers are leaving the country," he said in French. "What is the government doing to prevent this exodus of our finest researches."
Mr. Goodyear then reached for the main tool in his oratorical arsenal: a MULTI-BILLION DOLLAR number, designed to quell debate.
"Absolutely false. In fact, the last time this country faced a recession in the mid 90s the Liberal government cut scientific research by $442-million. We take a different approach, Mr. Speaker, we've increased funding by $5.1-billion."
Mr. Ignatieff used his third question to hammer home the same theme - that the Tories are the Flintstones of science funding.
"This is the only government anywhere that doesn't seem to understand that investing in science research and technology is the key to the jobs of tomorrow. President Obama is investing more, the Ontario government is investing more, and the Conservative government cut $148-million from our research granting council. How does the government expect Canada to compete in the Information Age with policies derived from the Stone Age?"
Mr. Goodyear responded by reaching for an evolving Conservative theme - that Mr. Ignatieff, who left Canada for 30 years, is a carpetbagger not really committed to the country. "I know that member was in the United States living during the cuts under the Liberal government," the science minster said before concluding his rebuttal by again touting his government's $5.1-billion spending increase.
Gilles Duceppe, meanwhile, whose party has lost significant ground to the Liberals in recent Quebec polls, took pains to attack the Grits before the Tories in his first Question Period salvo.
"The Liberals have no credibility with respect to EI," the Bloc Leader said in French. "In 1993, on the eve of the federal election, Jean Chrétien promised changes to employment insurance. Once he was elected, the Liberals used funding from it and like the Conservatives didn't resurrect the program for older workers. Why doesn't the government simply use our assistance plan to enhance the employment insurance program, including the elimination of the two-week waiting period."
Revenue Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn, answering for the government, dismissed the Bloc attack by reminding the House the separatist party voted against the budget which boosted the maximum EI payout period by five weeks. "Each time we put something positive forward they can't seem to agree with it; they always say no, no, no."
Jack Layton also offered up equal-opportunity attacks, slamming both the Liberals and the Tories for the problems with access to EI payouts today. The NDP Leader harkened the House back to the beginning of the Chrétien era and asked: "Guess what the situation was? Seventy-five per cent of workers who needed help from EI could get it. But after years of these two parties in government, less than 40 per cent of workers can get access to the help they need. Sixty per cent of workers get the door slammed in their face by this government when they need help to feed their families, Mr. Speaker. Fifty-six days ago, the House adopted our proposals for change. When is this government going to take action?"
In response, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley simply called Mr. Layton a scaremonger, arguing he has its facts wrong. "Repeatedly we have told him that, according to Stats Canada, over 82 per cent of those who pay into EI can collect EI benefits," Ms. Finley said. "I do wish the honourable member would recognize this and stop trying to scare people who are getting laid off."
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