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Lot of hot air under glass dome

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OTTAWA -- More than a decade ago, Canadian comedian Rick Mercer convinced some gullible Americans (including then-Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee) that Canada's Parliament buildings were made of ice and needed to be encased in a glass dome to prevent them from melting under threat of global warming.

Is life now -- sort of -- imitating art?

Beginning in 2018, MPs will debate from within a $42-million glass dome in the courtyard of Parliament's West Block.

The building will be temporary quarters while the House of Commons undergoes a seven-year renovation as part of a $5-billion overhaul.

The agency that administers Canada's national properties in Ottawa has approved a $42-million glass dome House of Commons for Parliament Hill.

The dome won't encase anything in ice -- just a lot of hot air.

It's already generating some steam.

Green party Leader Elizabeth May last week said the government has lots of alternative spaces it could use within walking distance of the Hill without spending such an extravagant amount.

If $42 million doesn't sound like much, just wait until the budget balloons. Almost no part of Parliament's overhaul has come in on budget.

In 1998, it was supposed to cost $460 million for the 25-year project. Within seven years that had ballooned to $5 billion and earlier this month auditor general Sheila Fraser said she expects the final tally will exceed even that.

In-and-out saga


FOUR Conservative party operatives, including two senators, were charged last week with offences under the Elections Act.

All were architects of the Conservative election campaign in 2006.

The offences stem from the so-called in-and-out scandal. Elections Canada argues the Conservatives overspent their $18.3 million budget limit by $1.3 million by funnelling it through 67 individual riding associations, who claimed the money as advertising expenses of their own. It inflated both the national ad buy for the Conservatives and the taxpayer-funded rebates payable to candidates who earn at least 10 per cent of the vote.

The rebate money is in court limbo as Elections Canada refused to pay it, the Conservatives sued for it and won, and now Elections Canada is appealing.

The Conservatives tried to appear unfazed by the charges last week.

In Manitoba, a similar scheme at the provincial level leaves our senior federal minister with the distinction of being convicted of an elections offence.

Vic Toews pleaded guilty in 2005 for overspending his campaign budget in the 1999 Manitoba election by $7,500. Like the federal party, the provincial Tories had their candidates absorb $7,500 each in central campaign advertising expenses.

Toews refused, wanting to spend all of his own budget to try to maintain his seat. But the party forced him to absorb the money anyway, and in a double-whammy, he also lost his seat to the NDP's Harry Schellenberg.


Harper's book club

PRIME Minister Stephen Harper might be writing a book, but how many of them does he read?

He did not show up to say Friday night when he was invited to a one-time performance of What is Stephen Harper Reading?, a French play based on letters sent to Harper by novelist Yann Martel.

The performance took place Feb. 25 at the National Arts Centre when Harper was busy dealing with Canada's response to the Libyan crisis -- not that he would have gone.

Harper never responded to any of the 100 letters Martel sent him faithfully every second week, along with a copy of a different book. Harper's assistants sent thank-you notes for seven of the books and Industry Minister Tony Clement responded once to some criticism about scholarship funding.

From Shakespeare to Charlotte's Web to hockey novels, Martel varied the content and often tied his choices to political events of the day.

In June 2008, after Harper issued an apology for residential schools, Martel fired off a copy of the aboriginal play The Rez Sisters.

Martel also used the exercise to criticize many of Harper's policies. And perhaps the nail in his little book club's coffin came in January 2009, when Martel sent Harper a copy of one of Michael Ignatieff's books right after Ignatieff became leader of the Opposition.

"I believe you said in an interview not long ago that you hadn't read much of Michael Ignatieff's work," Martel wrote. "It's obvious that you should, isn't it?"

Martel's campaign ended this month with the 100th instalment.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 28, 2011 A6

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