OTTAWA - Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq's attempt to leave sooner than expected from a special Parliamentary committee meeting, examining swine flu preparedness, set off political fireworks Wednesday.
A verbal tussle broke out between Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett and Conservative chairwoman Joy Smith, and ended with threats to suspend the meeting.
"This is unacceptable," Bennett complained of the minister's departure. "I am extraordinarily disappointed that you, madame chair, did not make us aware of that at the beginning of this meeting."
Smith, a backbench Manitoba Conservative, would have none of it said it wasn't "appropriate to continue in this manner when we have this very important issue to discuss today."
Cooler heads did prevail and the meeting carried on, but it was just the sort of political spat Aglukkaq had bemoaned earlier in the day.
The health minister told reporters at a news conference she was disappointed the House of Commons health committee called the unusual, midsummer meeting on the H1N1 virus.
She said she was worried political theatrics would trump all of the policy and planning that's been underway, adding the recall of the committee in the middle of the summer was unnecessary.
"They do not need to play politics," Aglukkaq said.
But opposition MP's insisted they needed to know about the federal government's plan to deal with a possible resurgence of the H1N1 virus this fall.
The political spat came on the same day health officials announced that two more deaths could be attributed to swine flu - one in Alberta and the other in British Columbia - raising the total number of confirmed deaths in Canada to 66.
The Liberals claim the government has been stonewalling them on key questions related to the virus and how the country would cope with a massive outbreak.
"We can't sit back and wait," Bennett said before the meeting.
"I can't imagine anybody thinks that as parliamentarians we should just say, 'Now, now dears, don't worry your little heads' and be sitting on the dock at the cottage while people we are talking to are very worried."
But the health minister dismissed the criticism as nothing more than political rhetoric.
"I'm disappointed," she said. "In terms of calling back committee members in the middle of the summer, I'm disappointed in that process. Because you know, many people are working very hard over the summer months."
There have been more than 20 news conferences on the subject since the spring and MPs are routinely briefed on the status of the outbreak, Aglukkaq said.
Earlier Wednesday, the health minister announced the federal government has granted a $926,600 contract to the International Centre for Infectious Diseases in Winnipeg to develop tools and strategies that small and medium size businesses could use to plan for getting through the pandemic.