Tom Mulcair shows off legal skills in question period

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair is using his practised skills as a lawyer to launch questions at Prime Minister Stephen Harper over the ongoing Senate scandal.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, a former lawyer, is using his abilities to full effect in the House of Commons

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair is using his practised lawyer skills to launch questions at Prime Minister Stephen Harper over the ongoing Senate scandal. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

In the early days of the Senate expense scandal, a senior adviser arrived in Tom Mulcair’s office to brief him, as usual, for question period. But this time, the adviser told the NDP leader, “Today I want you to cross examine the witness.”

The witness in this case? None other than Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The change in tactics was needed and it got Mulcair a standing ovation. Admittedly, the standing ovation came from his own MPs, but it wasn’t in the camera-laden House of Commons that they showed their appreciation. Instead, it was behind the curtains, in the party's private lobby area. The team was pumped.

And they think it’s paying off. They point to an EKOS poll released at the end of October. It tracked approval ratings for the leaders and Mulcair’s numbers clearly spiked upwards, above Harper’s, when the House returned and Mulcair got back to business.

Mulcair has years of experience taking on the Parti Québécois inside the National Assembly in Quebec City — not to mention a previous career as a lawyer. In spite of that experience, when Mulcair first entered the House as leader, he used a small lectern for his notes and sometimes read his questions. He seemed oddly uncomfortable.

In some ways, it is the Senate expense scandal that has allowed him to come into his own.

Gone is the lectern. The stilted questions. Now, it’s just Mulcair: doing his lawyerly best to drill down into the incoherence of the story.

Day after day he stands to ask questions of the prime minister.

Most NDP questions to go Mulcair

Mulcair’s research team presents him with possibilities depending on where the story is going. He reviews them, edits them, drops some. Then, an hour before question period, the team meets with the leader again. They go through what the prime minister might respond, what the follow-up would be. It is almost daily debate prep.

Since Oct. 17, the leader of the Official Opposition has asked 123 questions in the House of Commons: 106 of them directly to the Prime Minister. To his credit, Harper has answered most of them, although perhaps not to Mulcair’s liking.

Mulcair goes beyond the first round of questions typically reserved for the leaders, and gets up a second, a third time to ask Harper again.

A senior source in the NDP says Mulcair was initially reluctant when they suggested he take up more space in question period. He knows the strength of his bench and wanted to let them shine. But he also realized getting a back and forth between him and the prime minister was critical.

And the only way to get Harper to answer the questions was to get Mulcair to ask them.

So, take this exchange from Oct. 30: Mulcair takes full advantage of the parliamentary privilege that protects MPs from the threat of libel lawsuits.

"Did the prime minister offer Mike Duffy a guarantee that, in turn for going along with the repayment scheme, the Conservative-controlled Senate would let him off the hook?”

The question didn’t get a straight answer from the prime minister. 

“Mr. Speaker, I am not quite sure what the question is there,” Harper said.

To which Mulcair responded, “Mr. Speaker, that is why the previous, clear question was so important and that is why Canadians notice that the prime minister did not answer it. I will repeat it.”

Trying to expose cracks

Of course, this too is part of Mulcair’s tactic: ask simple questions, expose the cracks in the government’s narrative, point out contradictions. Do it again and again, with the hope that people watching begin to see it for themselves.

The NDP believes this has increased Mulcair’s profile and reputation. They also say it is in stark contrast to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, who has fewer allotted opportunities to ask questions, but also doesn’t use the same direct style.

Conservative strategist Tim Powers recognizes Mulcair is having some success, while also taking a dig. 

“Mulcair has been a good performer in the House. He is an effective prosecutor of the Conservatives and their alleged transgressions. However, his challenge seems to be connecting with the public outside of the House and that has to worry him.”

Pollster Nik Nanos agrees and says Mulcair now needs to work on translating this opportunity into real support. 

"This time when he's leader of the opposition and attacking and cross-examining Stephen Harper, he has to take advantage this time to define himself beyond just being an effective cross-examiner of the prime minister because a full quarter of Canadians still can't form an opinion of Thomas Mulcair."

The byelections to be held in four ridings at the end of November may be a good first litmus test for Mulcair’s performance. 

Until then New Democrats are pretty pleased with their guy and what they say has a been good few weeks in the office.


Rosemary Barton is CBC's Chief Political Correspondent, based in Ottawa.