Politics Analysis

Trudeau's sunny Liberals trying to rain on Andrew Scheer's day

Amid talk of 'positive' politics, the Liberals display a certain ruthless streak

Aaron Wherry - CBC News

September 27, 2017

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, June 5, 2017 as Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, left, looks on. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Andrew Scheer has now been leader of the Conservative party for a full four months.

By this point in the life of the previous three leaders of Her Majesty's opposition, disparaging video ads were already in circulation.

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Stéphane Dion was "not a leader." Michael Ignatieff was "just visiting." And Tom Mulcair was a man of "risky theories" and "dangerous economic experiments."

For good measure, the Conservative party declared Justin Trudeau was "in way over his head" a mere day after he became leader of the third party in 2013.

Scheer, by that standard, has had it easy.

But that's not to say the Liberals are, in their sunny ways, playing an entirely genteel form of politics.

Turning question period on the opposition

Scheer, for instance, stood in the House of Commons one recent afternoon and called on the government to abandon its proposed tax changes.

But Jim Carr, the natural resources minister, wanted to talk about Gerry Ritz.

"Mr. Speaker, all week the Conservatives pretended to stand up for business women," Carr said, ambitiously attempting a segue from the topic raised by Scheer.

"Members on this side were deeply disappointed by comments made by the Conservative member for Battlefords—Lloydminster about the minister of environment and climate change."

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As Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer went after the Liberals' tax changes Wednesday in question period, Liberal Jim Car asked him to denounce a tweet by Conservative Gery Ritz.  2:37

The night before, Ritz had tweeted the derisive moniker "climate Barbie" in reference to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna.

"Will the leader of the opposition stand here today, do the right thing, denounce his member's comments, and ask him to issue a full apology to the House?" Carr asked.

Technically, of course, question period exists so questions can be asked of the government, not by the government. But there is no real rule against inverting that convention. And when Scheer tried to pretend he hadn't heard the challenge, Carr stood up a second and third time to castigate the Conservative leader. 

Four hours later, Scheer issued a statement denouncing Ritz's comments.

Taking advantage of opportunities

The time reserved each day for oral questions also allows a few opportunities for members of the governing party to ask questions of their own side.

In an ideal world, backbenchers might use the time to independently quiz ministers on matters of interest.

But even with Trudeau's promise of a more enlightened approach to Parliament, these questions still generally remain the stuff of scripted flattery.

The questions are at least required to pertain to government business, but, phrased the right way, the preamble can still be used to embarrass the other side.

So last week, Liberal MP Mike Bossio asked the Indigenous Affairs Minister to comment on the "impact" Conservative Sen. Lynn Beyak's latest comments would have "on the efforts of all Canadians toward reconciliation."

Two days later, after the Globe and Mail questioned a fundraiser Scheer had participated in, Liberal MP Pam Damoff asked the minister of democratic institutions to explain what she was "doing to pull the curtain [back] on these types of fundraisers."

And then, on Tuesday, Liberal MP Bernadette Jordan was sent up to ask Damoff, vice-chair of the House committee on status of women, about her decision to lead a boycott of the committee after the Conservative side nominated Rachel Harder, who opposes abortion, as chair.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he supports Liberal MPs walking out on a status of women committee meeting Tuesday morning to oppose the Conservative pick for chair, Rachael Harder, a parliamentarian who has previously said she is anti-abortion. Trudeau says the committee chair should be someone "who would be able to stand up and unequivocally defend women's rights."  0:45

Sunny with a chance of roughhousing

None of the above packs the punch of "not a leader" or "just visiting," but these are little jabs meant to hurt and test.

Of course, one should never be shocked to learn that there is politics going on in this establishment. For that matter, if you view politics as a deeply consequential clash of policies and ideas, you might accept some roughhousing by the side you support.

But there is still some novelty in the party of "positive" politics openly displaying a certain ruthless streak.

Had the Liberals launched actual attack ads against Scheer, they no doubt would have been castigated by the press gallery, and perhaps some of their own voters, for acting like Stephen Harper's Conservatives. And so long as Liberals think they are on the right side of the argument — on climate change, abortion or misogyny — they might feel they have some latitude to take advantage of parliamentary procedure.

But then Harper's Conservatives were also happy to use every opportunity that Parliament provided to mock and castigate their rivals. The time immediately before question period, reserved for minute-long statements by MPs, became the scene of daily live-action attack ads. Paul Calandra, Harper's parliamentary secretary, famously apologized to the House after using question period to assail Tom Mulcair​.

And even if the Liberals have not yet displayed quite the same zeal, they might still be asked whether a decent government should engage in such stuff.

The greater challenge is that as time goes on, particularly if the polls tighten, there will only be more reasons to play rough — both inside and outside Parliament. And, unlike its predecessor, the current government has set some expectation that it will mind its tone.

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Power Panel - Supriya, Brad and Tim discuss  10:40

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aaron Wherry
Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail.

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