MPs' fall sitting ends with conflicting reviews

The fall sitting of the House of Commons wrapped up Thursday, with the government touting its record and opposition MPs expressing frustration with the majority Conservatives' tactics and direction.
Speaker Andrew Scheer rises at the end of question period in the House of Commons Dec. 15. After a tumultuous end to the fall sitting, MPs will break until Jan. 30, 2012, when the House is scheduled to return. Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press

The fall sitting of the House of Commons wrapped up Thursday, with the government touting its record and opposition MPs expressing frustration with the majority Conservatives' tactics and direction.

Conservative House leader Peter Van Loan said the government accomplished what it set out to do during its first full sitting since winning a majority mandate on May 2. There was little time to govern in the Commons before MPs left Ottawa for the summer and when they came back on Sept. 19, the Conservatives began introducing their high-priority bills.

"This has been a productive, hard-working and orderly session where our government has made progress on job creation, economic growth and tackling crime on behalf of Canadians," Van Loan told reporters following the final question period of 2011.

He also touted the government's accomplishments during question period, saying MPs passed important economic measures in the budget, the omnibus crime bill, and legislation to add more seats in the Commons and to dismantle the Canadian Wheat Board's monopoly. Some of those bills are expected to pass through the Senate before Christmas while others will be dealt with early in the new year.

Van Loan said the economy was the government's priority this fall and that passing the budget bill was a highlight. He said the economy will continue to be a priority in 2012.

"Canadians expect their government to make decisions to take actions and that is what our government has done in the House of Commons and around the world," said Van Loan.

The NDP and Liberals take a very different view than the government when it comes to its performance this fall.

NDP interim leader Nycole Turmel said her caucus has proven its strength during this fall sitting in the House of Commons which is ending Thursday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
The NDP's interim leader, Nycole Turmel, said Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his team have shown themselves to be ineffective and embarrassing.

She cited Defence Minister Peter MacKay, Treasury Board President Tony Clement, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, Environment Minister Peter Kent and International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda as weak members of Harper's team. "I'll put my front benches up against this crew any day," Turmel said, as she reviewed her party's performance this fall.

The NDP's temporary leader, who took over the party following Jack Layton's death in August, boasted that her party was the effective one in Parliament and fought for Canadian families on health care, pensions, the environment, and also battled the government on scrapping the long-gun registry, its crime bill and on its handling of the housing crisis in Attawapiskat.

Attawapiskat 'Canada's Katrina moment'

Charlie Angus, the NDP MP who helped get the crisis on the First Nations reserve in the national spotlight, said the issue emerged as a defining moment of the sitting of Parliament.

"I think people will look back on this session and remember Attawapiskat as Canada's Katrina moment — when a government could have risen to the occasion but there was bumbling, there was confrontation, there was unnecessary acrimony and people were suffering all through it," Angus said.

Turmel said the NDP has done a good job of showing Canadians that in the next election — which she predicted the NDP will win — voters will have a clear choice regarding the direction they want Canada to take.

"Quite simply, 2011 is the year that Canadians changed Ottawa forever," she said. Canadians put their trust in the NDP and its 102 MPs delivered on their promise this fall to change Parliament Hill for the better, she said.

The NDP won a historic 103 seats in May and moved over to the Official Opposition benches, but the jubilation was short-lived. Layton announced in July that he had been diagnosed with cancer for a second time and though he was hopeful for a return to Ottawa in the fall, he died in August.

Turmel assumed the role, a leadership contest got underway and one of nine candidates — seven of them MPs — will be elected March 24, 2012 in Toronto as the NDP's next leader.

The MP candidates who had critic roles had to give them up for the campaign, but the NDP says their absence hasn't had an impact on the party's overall strength.

"Our record shows that we're strong, we're disciplined, dignified and we're united as an opposition to a very conservative government. And we're getting results," NDP House leader Joe Comartin said at a Thursday news conference with Turmel. "If Stephen Harper thought he was going to get away with an easy ride during this session of Parliament, we showed him otherwise."

"Whether it's his job-killing inaction on climate change, his reckless, costly prisons agenda or his attack on our farming community, New Democrats have been there to hold Mr. Harper's feet to the fire, day in day out," said Comartin.

Both the NDP and Liberals have complained about how Harper's government proceeded with legislation this fall, saying Conservatives abused Parliamentary procedure and shut down debate in the Commons and in committees.

They are particularly incensed with the government's use of time allocation, which can be invoked to shorten the length of debate on bills, and by its forcing of committees to do work in camera so the public and media aren't allowed in the room.

Earlier in the week, the Liberals held their own end-of-session news conference and accused the Conservatives of abusing power, shutting down democracy and acting with excessive partisanship. Misleading calls to Montreal MP Irwin Cotler's riding in recent weeks have particularly galled the Liberals.

Van Loan defends government tactics

Van Loan rejected the claims and said Thursday the government has allowed plenty of debate on its legislation.

"The way we use time allocation isn't to shut down debate. We use it to manage debate and ensure that decisions are made," he said in an interview with CBC's Julie Van Dusen. "Canadians sent us here to make decisions, not to be forever gridlocked."

Despite opposition claims that the government is overly-partisan, Van Loan said Parliament is more relaxed now and less partisan because it is no longer a minority situation.

He gave an ounce of credit to the NDP on its performance at the beginning of the session but said the Official Opposition has begun sliding.

"The NDP as the opposition made a big difference initially because they were more focused on policy and ideas. They've started going down the same path the Liberals were doing before the last election, trying to chase imaginary scandals and so on. I think that hasn't served them well," he said.

Van Loan acknowledged there are frustrations among the opposition parties, and said he thinks the Liberals are having trouble adjusting to being the third party in the Commons.

Liberal MP Justin Trudeau, who swore at Environment Minister Peter Kent Thursday during question period, said his outburst is symptomatic of the growing frustration.

He said Thursday he is hopeful that the tone will change in 2012.

"I think Canadians beginning to wake up as to what this government is actually doing, and the way it's doing it as much as what they're doing, is going to make Mr. Harper see quite rapidly that his continued reign after 2015 is in jeopardy if he doesn't radically change not just the substance, but the tone of his government's behaviour," the Montreal MP said.