The man who ate question period
Is Tory 'answer man' Peter Van Loan bad for democracy?
AARON WHERRY | June 11, 2008 |
The other day, in the midst of another testy exchange between Peter Van Loan and one of his myriad foes on the opposition side, Liberal House leader Ralph Goodale shouted a rhetorical query across the House's centre aisle. "Do you know," he asked, "how stupid you look, Peter?" The government House leader did not directly respond to this off-microphone question. But if he was at all chastened, it was impossible to tell.
"I'm very happy to have a role where I get to step up and protect my colleagues," Van Loan explained in an interview with Maclean's earlier this year. "Other than doing the stuff when the Prime Minister's not there, the bulk of what I do is basically respond to what are really unacceptable and inappropriate personal attacks, character assassination stuff that has no basis and is inaccurate and is really just designed to attack the character of very fine people who are working very hard for their country."
Goodale, no surprise, sees it differently: "In the relationship among House leaders, there are bound to be tensions because House leaders see things through different ends of different telescopes. But, quite frankly, Mr. Van Loan is not very helpful to the House."
So the relative value of Van Loan's contribution to Canadian democracy is subject to some dispute. But if the quality of his work depends on who is assessing it, the quantity and prominence of his efforts are beyond debate. Other ministers may claim more relevant portfolios (officially, Van Loan's cabinet post is democratic reform). Some — Jim Prentice, Peter MacKay, the late Maxime Bernier — may more readily flirt with stardom. But none, excluding perhaps only the Prime Minister, have more personified this unruly Parliament and indeed this entire Conservative government over the past year. And for those who would object to both the tone of debate and the party in power, there is perhaps no greater villain.
He is surely not the most obvious or magnetic of choices. By his own admission, he could stand to lose a little weight. One profile famously likened him to Barney Rubble. But by one recently published count, Van Loan has risen in question period this year at nearly twice the rate of Stephen Harper. ("The Prime Minister, one of his views on me, is that I have a broad interest on a broad range of issues," Van Loan relates. "When he talked about the government House leader job with me, he said, 'This will suit you a little bit in that you get to put your hands on everything.' ")
And the aforementioned count was conducted before Van Loan completed one of the more impressive feats of parliamentary athleticism witnessed in recent times. Beginning with the Monday on which Bernier resigned and running through that feverish week — including five sessions of question period and one late-night interrogation — the government House leader took a total of 129 questions. Most, with the Prime Minister in Europe, concerned the unravelling of the former foreign affairs minister, but by week's end he was also speaking to economic development in northern Ontario, the Prime Minister's travel schedule, mining in Sudbury and diplomatic relations with the United States. At one point, he accused the Liberals of Communist sympathies. At others, he was nearly profound: "It is not the fault of the rules that they were broken."
Though prominent politicians have filled the post in the past — Allan MacEachen, Don Mazankowski and Herb Gray, among others — perhaps none has inhabited the role like Van Loan. "What the government House leader does is deal with the other parties and work out a way of handling the business of Parliament that gets the government what it wants, with some compromises, and keeps the opposition in line and reasonably happily," says Queen's University professor Ned Franks. "But that's not how Van Loan has handled it."
Though now charged with defending Bernier's honour, Van Loan, 45, seems very much the anti-Maxime. Not only in style and presentation, but in career arc. A lawyer by training, he articled under Liberal David Smith and served as the future senator's "right-hand guy" for more than 15 years. "We always got along fine," says Smith, the Grit stalwart now charged with preparing the party's next campaign. "But we weren't arguing politics all the time. Because he's not going to convince me and I'm not going to convince him."
Reportedly a Tory supporter from the age of 12, Van Loan was elected president of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party in 1994 and then president of the federal PCs in 1999. He left the latter post in a dispute with Joe Clark, but was then enlisted by Peter MacKay to help ratify a merger with the Canadian Alliance. Still, the sum total of his interaction with Stephen Harper before running for office amounted, Van Loan says, to a handshake at an event in Barrie, Ont. And while elected in 2004 (a volunteer boasted of more than 2,800 lawn signs) and re-elected in 2006 (apparently with the help of a 400-person campaign team), he was left out of Harper's first cabinet, only receiving a portfolio when Michael Chong, then minister of intergovernmental affairs and sport, resigned in November 2006. Two months later, Harper shuffled the ministry and Van Loan succeeded Rob Nicholson as government House leader.