IN THE NEWS ~ New party dynamics in question period

New party dynamics in question period

Chantal Hebert TORONTO STAR (ONT), NEWS, Page: A10

Despite the restrictions on camera angles, it ultimately provides those
who do not enjoy a perch in the House gallery with a depressingly clear picture
of the dynamics of the 41st Parliament.

For the record, it is just as disheartening to see otherwise smart men
and women deliver dumbed-down distortions drafted by 20-something spin doctors
in person as it is to do so via a television set.

On that score, the return of Parliament this week brought neither an
improvement in the tone, nor a rise in the level of debate that sucks much of
the energy out of the Hill for 45 minutes every day.

But there were other revealing changes.

The most obvious is the NDP is now comfortable in the lead opposition
role. Its caucus no longer looks like an amateur troupe auditioning for a spell
on Broadway.

The NDP front bench boasts solid performers. The B.C.-Ontario tandem of
Peter Julian and Charlie Angus consistently stands out.

For better or for worse, Montreal's Alexandre Boulerice is rising out of
the Quebec ranks to become the French version of Manitoba attack dog Pat
Martin.

The first question periods of the fall session featured leader Thomas
Mulcair asking more questions than usual and focusing exclusively on the
economy.

But unless Mulcair raises the party's game on issues upon which the NDP
has been chronically weak, he will not have a real shot at beating the
Conservatives in 2015.

As an aside: If Justin Trudeau is to become party leader, the NDP has a
better than fighting chance of beating the Liberals at the economic game.

It seems Conservative strategists have come to the same conclusion.

Since Parliament reopened on Monday, the Conservatives have thrown
everything but an imaginary kitchen sink at the NDP.

So far, the main casualty in the war of words with the NDP has been the
truth.

When one looks back on Harper's first years in power, no one will argue
that he did not lead by example in the Commons.

He is hardly the first prime minister to inject a dose of partisanship
into his question period demeanour.

Jean Chrétien used to crow about putting his sharpest verbal jabs in his
last answer - so that his counterpart would have no chance to reply.

But even on the Chrétien scale, Harper's ardour as he led the charge
against the NDP this week bordered on religious zeal.

Watching the prime minister go on the attack, a stranger to the ways of
parliamentary democracy could have been forgiven from thinking that he and not
Mulcair was the leader of the opposition.

One measure of opposition performance is its success in exposing weak
links in the government's chain of command.

Finance's Jim Flaherty and Treasury Board President Tony Clement are
political pros and International Trade Minister Ed Fast is turning out to be an
effective addition to Harper's economic line-up.

But Parliament Hill veterans would be hard-pressed to remember a less
enlightening industry minister than Christian Paradis. He is apparently lost
without talking points.

That's a feature that probably keeps Paradis in the good books of his
handlers. But if the NDP had asked central casting for a minister to star in a
narrative designed to showcase the Conservatives as hapless keepers of Central
Canada's manufacturing base, Paradis would have won the role.

The absence this week of Liberal interim leader Bob Rae provided an
opportunity to peek into what the not-so-distant future might hold for the
third-place party.

If the picture seemed familiar to some older parliamentary hands, it was
because the Liberal wheel-spinning in question period was reminiscent of the
days when a rump Progressive Conservative caucus was failing to convince
Canadians it had not become the fifth wheel of the federal carriage.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday,
Thursday and Saturday.

© 2012 Torstar Corporation