Mr. Harper is not pleased

Recent incidents suggest a marked and sudden tightening of discipline on the government benches

Sean Kilpatrick/CP Images

Let us connect the dots. I think it’s been a damned interesting week.

It ends, or nearly, with the Chief Government Whip and designated general-purpose government hardass Gordon O’Connor shutting down a Conservative private member’s motion on abortion, or something distantly related to a motion about the circumstances within which a debate about abortion might arise (readers are invited to parse the fine print themselves.) Earlier the prime minister had said it was “unfortunate” that a parliamentary committee even deemed the thing votable, but it was, and it proceeds. But when the Chief Government Whip speaks in specific detail about his problems with a motion, the word should be considered to be out: the government has a strong preference that members not support it.

This comes a couple of days after Bev Oda, caught swanning around the finer orange-juice vendors of the old Commonwealth capital, was made to pay up, stand up and fess up in Question Period. Sure, other ministers have covered for her since. But the clip on TV will be Oda apologizing “unreservedly” for her own high living.

Taken together the two incidents suggest a marked and sudden tightening of discipline on the government benches. Of course, discipline is never perfect, and it was Harper himself who let slip a perfect illustration of Godwin’s law when he answered NDP questions about his intentions for Afghanistan with claims about the NDP and Hitler.

“Okay, CCF, same difference,” he said when corrected. Kind of sloppy there, big guy.

I’m struck, incidentally, by one of the more innocuous bits of his answer on Afghanistan: “Unlike the NDP we are not going to ideologically have a position regardless of circumstances.” Two things about that. First, having a position regardless of circumstances was precisely what Harper did on Afghanistan from 2008 until Remembrance Week in 2010. He was going to pull troops out in 2011 and that was that, and if Hillary Clinton herself came to town to ask for that plan to change, she was out of luck, because Stephen Harper had a position regardless of circumstances. A position which changed, making him look a bit goofy.

Second thing. “Unlike the NDP.” Harper is certain to keep portraying the NDP as the only bunch of witless ideologues in sight. In quiet moments Conservative strategists say that, if they ever tire of whacking Bob Rae, they will seek to portray the NDP as either extremist or incompetent. And indeed the newest feature on the Conservative party website is about “Mr. Mulcair’s NDP Team.

But in the Commons, it is not the NDP who have been looking like circus geeks. Tom Mulcair reads his questions from his little wooden lectern. Unlike generations of Liberals, he almost never yells up a lung in Question Period. Peggy Nash, same story. Paul Dewar, probably more methodical now than a year ago. Finally this week a New Democrat confirmed to me that this is strategy, and it is designed precisely to blunt the expected Conservative attack to the effect that only Conservatives are fit to be let near the good china. The New Democrats want to put restraint, method and diligence in their own column.

When I used to ask the Liberals, when they were the Official Opposition, why they didn’t calm down a bit in QP, they would complain that gesticulating was the only way to get on the news. And indeed the calmer New Democrats are not getting a lot of space on the news. What is getting space is Bev Oda’s global OJ adventure, Stephen Harper’s 70-year digressions, and private members’ bills that seem inspired by the Danielle Smith playbook of political success. Which may explain why the NDP does not begrudge the government its time in the spotlight.

The sharply reduced tolerance at Langevin Block for Oda’s expense account, once it became public, and the clear signal of disapproval for Stephen Woodworth’s motion, suggests Harper is realizing he is no longer facing the ineffectual histrionics the Liberals threw at him for five years. One suspects we’ll be seeing further steps to restore the internal discipline of the Conservatives’ first few years in office. One telling detail was that when O’Connor spoke tonight, he read from notes on a desk-mounted wooden lectern. Just like Tom Mulcair.