The Commons: Opening salvos, politely spoken

Let the records show that some civility was seen here today

The Scene. Buttoning his jacket preemptively, Jack Layton did not bother to contain his grin as he looked up at the Speaker in anticipation of an invitation to stand.

Indeed, here the Speaker announced that the House had arrived at the time set aside for oral questions and called on the leader of the opposition to begin. And here Mr. Layton, having earned this hallowed and cursed title, thus stood to bask in the applause of his bountiful caucus.

When the ovation had subsided, he congratulated the Prime Minister and the members opposite on their recent election results. And yet, he noted, something like 60% of Canadians had not voted for a Conservative government.

“Ahh,” groaned various government members at Mr. Layton’s insistence on math.

The Prime Minister, Mr. Layton continued, had promised to work with all members of the House. But, in Mr. Layton’s estimation, the Speech from the Throne had failed to reflect this turn toward sweetness and light. “Where,” Mr. Layton wondered aloud, “is the government’s willingness to work with others?”

As if to demonstrate his own commitment to a new, more civil, House of Commons, the Prime Minister had excused himself from this day of normal business so that he might view the flooding in Quebec. In his place stood Peter Van Loan, that universally revered champion of noble discourse.

Mr. Van Loan congratulated Mr. Layton on his election and explained that the Speech from the Throne had set out all of the campaign promises the Conservative government was committed to honouring in its newfound stability.

Mr. Layton was typically undaunted. “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “in the election Canadians clearly voted for change.”

There were chuckles from the Conservative side.

“New Democrats have committed to work respectfully,” he continued, “to end heckling and to give this place the decorum that it deserves.”

There were chuckles from the Liberal corner.

“Will the government commit today to do the same?” Mr. Layton asked.

Here then came Mr. Van Loan to make a good show of seeming very interested in a full and mature discussion of public policy. “Mr. Speaker, we are, of course, looking forward to a mandate in which we can move forward constructively on the issues that we talked about with Canadians and to have in this House a debate which is meaningful, thoughtful and focused on policies and the values of Canadians,” he assured the House.

Thankfully here, before this tedious reasonableness could fully take hold, Mr. Van Loan managed a slip. “I know that with our clear mandate, having laid out exactly what we would do to Canadians—for Canadians, we certainly intend to carry through on those commitments and do exactly what we said we would do.”

Grinning once more, Mr. Layton stood to express his hope that the official record would reflect “the sentiment that was just expressed.”

There ended the day’s entertainment, unless one takes perverse pleasure in watching Peter Kent stand in his place and claim his government has a “plan” to deal with climate change.

Everyone was full of congratulations for everyone else and humble thanks for the Canadian voter. Moments of invective were few. Shouted outbursts were rarer still. Government ministers were keen to state publicly how eager they are to work with their opposition counterparts. (It took Bob Rae to offer the day’s first raised voice—and that may have simply been a matter of necessity given how far away the Liberal leader is now seated.) The official opposition was, as promised, studiously quiet. Their questions were entirely related to matters of substance and governance.

The challenge though for this new official opposition is the same challenge that so befuddled its more readily shouty predecessor: the existential crisis brought on by having to daily face a government that maintains an only blasé relationship between what it says and what it will say, what it thinks, what it has done and what it will eventually do.

It was Jack Harris, the wonderfully grumpy-sounding NDP defence critic, who best engaged the conundrum on this first day.

“Mr. Speaker, throughout 2009 and most of 2010 the Prime Minister repeatedly told Canadians that our military forces were leaving Afghanistan in 2011 according to the resolution of the House,” he recalled. “When the Minister of National Defence mused about extending the mission, he was quickly corrected by the Prime Minister’s Office. But in reality, as early as March 2009 the government had put all options back on the table despite what the Prime Minister was telling Parliament at the same time. Why did the Prime Minister not tell Canadians the truth about his plans for Afghanistan?”

John Baird, rising in his new role as Foreign Affairs Minister, answered with Jedi reassurance.

“Mr. Speaker,” he said, “I am pleased to tell the House that the Prime Minister has always told the truth on this issue.”

Mr. Harris tried again.

“Mr. Speaker, Canadians are right to question the government’s promises on Afghanistan,” he posited. “For over a year the Conservatives repeatedly denied being pressured to extend our military mission by the United States, and yet we now know the Americans made a formal request for Canada to extend the mission in 2009. Instead of saying ‘No,’ the government just asked them to have patience. How can we trust a Prime Minister who says one thing to Canadians and another to the American government?”

Now it was Peter MacKay’s turn to assure Mr. Harris that these were not the droids Mr. Harris was looking for.

“Mr. Speaker,” said Mr. MacKay, “as the member for St. John’s East knows full well, we have been open and transparent about Canada’s involvement in the mission in Afghanistan.”

As a result of their recent electoral success, the NDP can expect to be afforded something like two dozen questions each day now. We shall see how many of these answers they can hear in response before the urge to sneer and spit across the aisle becomes unbearable.

The Stats. Quebec flooding and the environment, four questions each. Libya, three questions. The new Parliament, the Middle East, Canada Post, health care, Afghanistan, ship building, the public service and affordable housing, two questions each. Poverty, aboriginal affairs, the Champlain Bridge, infrastructure, the military, taxation, trade, veterans, labour, small business and industry, one question each.

John Baird, six answers. Peter MacKay, Diane Finley and Peter Kent, four answers each. Peter Van Loan and Rona Ambrose, three answers each. Pierre Poilievre, Steven Fletcher, Leona Aglukkaq and Tony Clement, two answers each. John Duncan, Ted Menzies, Ed Fast, Steven Blaney, Lisa Raitt, Maxime Bernier and Gary Goodyear, one answer each.

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