The Commons: The weight

The Scene. As the House settled in for another Question Period, John Baird wandered by for a chat with the Prime Minister. Stephen Harper nodded. James Moore stopped and dropped off a piece of paper. Mr. Harper looked it over and nodded. Jim Flaherty leaned over to say something. Mr. Harper nodded. Only when Rona Ambrose came over to retrieve a document from his desk did the Prime Minister offer an identifiable grin.

He rose twice, both times to join members in a salute to a distinguished individual of the public service who had suddenly passed. Otherwise, he sat with his hands folded in front of him, reviewing paperwork as he waited for QP to begin.

At just past 2:15pm, the Speaker called for oral questions and Michael Ignatieff rose to ask the first. Mr. Harper looked up impassively for a moment, but otherwise held his pose. 

“Mr. Speaker, the government continues to set records, but of the worst kind,” Ignatieff began. “December saw a 50% increase in personal bankruptcies. January was the worst month for job losses on record. Now in February for the first time in 30 years Canada is running a serious trade deficit … What steps will the Prime Minister take to regain our position as an exporting nation?”

The Prime Minister removed his ear piece, placed it on his desk in front of him and stood. He buttoned his suit jacket and fiddled with his left cuff. His answer was fairly perfunctory, perhaps a bit pouty.

“Mr. Speaker, you will know that these trade numbers are conditioned by a couple of factors: obviously the weaken in world trade markets and the sudden drop in the value of Canadian exports. At the same time we do expect the change in the value of the Canadian dollar to help that situation, but in the meantime we and all governments of the G20 are trying to stimulate the world economy through a series of coordinated measures that we are taking here in Canada and elsewhere,” he said. “I would say to the leader of the opposition, who has no economic policies of his own, to help us by getting on with passing these important measures.”

All of which may or may not confirm the reported suspicion that our Prime Minister is currently wrestling with a personal recession of sorts.

In truth, it is difficult to know. Or, rather, it’s difficult to say. Difficult to explain what’s changed. Aside, of course, from everything about the world around him.

Mr. Harper was asked not long ago, on the third anniversary of his government, what had changed in him over the course of these last thousand days.

“I guess I’d like to be able to say that after three years the job has become easier and you’re more used to it and you’re more accustomed to some of the aspects of it,” he said while in New Brunswick for a pond hockey tournament. “And, look, while I enjoy the job greatly, on a certain level, I can’t fool people… I feel the weight of the responsibility, as intensely now as I did then. Particularly, obviously, with the great challenges our country has in this global recession.”

He continued, perhaps in hopes of a summation. “So, look, it’s the best experience of my life. I know the day it’s over I’ll always look back on what an honour it’s been,” he said. “But it is an awesome responsibility. From everything to the economy to the people who serve our country in dangerous places like Afghanistan, it’s something, it’s a weight I feel regularly.”

You’ll notice that nowhere there did he acknowledge a change within. In fact, he sees none. Which seems about right.

Though inevitably every few months there are reports of an emerging new man, and though it has taken some awhile to pay notice, Mr. Harper is who he has consistently shown himself to be. He is steadfast, something his supporters admire. And the only people still periodically surprised by his words and actions are those who haven’t been giving him enough attention.

Today, for instance, you might’ve thought you saw despondence in him. For the most part he demonstrated only apathy. Head down, hands folded or flipping through paperwork. But then this is how he appears most days. His is a well-practiced show of disinterest—an act undermined only by his periodic smirks or frowns at the partisan debate around him.

At times it must be a difficult pose to maintain. At others it must seem the only possible response.

“Mr. Speaker, this week Léo Montpellier, his wife and their children were devastated by layoffs in Sudbury. Another 680 families are also in the same situation,” Liberal Anthony Rota reported in Mr. Harper’s direction. “Contracts and promises were made and broken, while the government stood idly by and watched these families lay abandoned. Why does the Prime Minister ignore thousands of families across northern Ontario like the Montpelliers?”

Harper, having answered Mr. Ignatieff’s three questions, left this one for Industry Minister Tony Clement.

Rota tried again. “Mr. Speaker, either the minister is not listening to northern Ontarians or he just cannot be bothered. The mayor of Sudbury says that they are not getting the help they need now and there is no hope of any help in the future from the government,” he said. “Last December the Prime Minister went to unprecedented lengths to save his own job. Will he explain to northern Ontarians why he has not done the same for them?”

Clement reported that he had met with the mayor of Sudbury and promised his government was working both “around the clock” and “over the weekend” to help.

Harper stood to take a question from Gilles Duceppe on funding for the arts, then turned the matter over to Moore. Jack Layton rose with questions on trade and stimulating the economy. Harper dismissed both.

The NDP leader changed tact then. “Since Friday the government has steadfastly refused to make any comment on why it has dropped its case against the Liberal Party on the Cadman affair,” he said. “In March, in this House, the Prime Minister said the issue would ‘prove to be in court the biggest mistake the leader of the Liberal Party has ever made.’ Does the Prime Minister now agree with the Liberal Party allegations on the Cadman affair, or is there something else that Canadians should know about why this case was dropped?”

Conferring with house leader Jay Hill, Harper at first appeared to assign this question to his parliamentary secretary, Pierre Poilievre. As Layton finished though, the Prime Minister changed his mind, calling off Poilievre.

“Mr. Speaker, I have already said all I have to say about this case,” Mr. Harper said. “I would note that the leader of the Liberal Party is no longer in his position. Maybe the leader of the NDP had something to do with that too.”

Harkening back to simpler times, the Prime Minister sat back down and laughed at his own wit. Layton, and even Mr. Ignatieff, smirked too.

But then Judy Sgro was up for the Liberals, telling the House about 61-year-old Sydney Banks.

“He is a proud man who never missed a day of work in the last 18 years, his wife is unemployed due to a long-term illness, and they are supporting an orphaned granddaughter through university. Unfortunately, Sydney was recently laid off with the closing of an auto parts plant in my riding,” Sgro reported. “So, with no pension, a minimum severance and EI clearly insufficient to pay the bills, what hope does the minister have to offer Sydney and the increasing number of families who are caught in similar situations?”

With this, the Prime Minister returned to his paperwork.

The Stats. Employment, nine questions. Arts funding, six questions. The environment and immigration, three questions each. Trade, federal jurisdiction, Afghanistan and fisheries, two questions each. Forestry, agriculture, the economy, Chuck Cadma, the flag, national heritage, free trade, citizenship and home renovations, one question each.

Stephen Harper, seven answers. James Moore, six answers. Tony Clement, five answers. Diane Finley and Jason Kenney, four answers each. John Baird, Jim Prentice, Lawrence Cannon, Josee Verner and Gail Shea, two answers each. Stockwell Day and Diane Ablonczy, one answer each.