The Commons: Why is Stephen Harper smiling?

It is surely not because of what has played out in the House over the last three weeks

<p>Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduces Brigadier-General John James Grant as Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia at his office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Thursday February 16, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld</p>

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduces Brigadier-General John James Grant as Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia at his office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Thursday February 16, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

The Scene. Not typically one to acknowledge a question from anyone without the rank of party leader, Stephen Harper stood only too happily to answer Francoise Boivin’s provocation.

“I would simply put it this way, I thought yesterday was a great day for law-abiding Canadians,” he said of last night’s vote to eliminate the long-gun registry. “If the NDP really believes and the Liberal Party really believes in the long gun registry, then I challenge them to come here in the House every day from now until the next election and tell Canadians they will bring it back. We would be happy to take them on.”

The Conservatives present found this delightful, leaping up to express their triumphant joy. “Hear, hear!” sang a beaming John Baird. “Whoops!” mocked a voice on the government side. “Ouch!” yelped Mr. Baird. “Ouch!”

The Prime Minister seemed positively giddy for most of his hour in the House this afternoon. He smiled to the point of beaming. He chatted up his seatmates and chuckled at the displays of various opposition members. He seemed to be having something like actual fun.

But why exactly is this man smiling?

It is surely not because of what has played out in the House over the last three weeks. Indeed, ever since Davos, Mr. Harper’s side has seemed to struggle to live up to its own hype. Those major transformations? Erm, yes, maybe something at some point, but surely nothing to worry about. Those fighter jets necessary to stave off a Russian invasion? Yes,  sure, there will be planes, but only so many as can fit within the budget. The legislation that was to determine who stood with angels and who stood with child pornographers? Poor Vic Toews was left today to stand and defend the righteousness of a bill that is being sent off to committee to be fixed.

Across the way for all of this is something of a work-in-progress, but one that has seemed to enjoy itself of late. As official opposition, the Liberals assumed a vaguely Victorian air. They seemed regularly besmirched. They pleaded for reason. They were last heard begging for everyone to come to their senses. (As the third party, they’ve flipped two successive unpoliticians for a man who has spent his entire life revelling in this stuff.) But there is a different feel to this new official opposition. The NDP is a bit more excited for the fight. Or a bit less encumbered by shame. Or a bit of both. They have also happened upon the utility of asking actual questions. And so they have piled up several dozen demands for a yes or a no and with each failure by the government to answer directly there has seemed more reason to ask.

All of which has made for an interesting few weeks. And all of which has left various cabinet ministers periodically sputtering about fearmongering and misconstrued facts. (Sounding, in other words, just a bit like the last two opposition leaders they happily pounded.)

Today’s trouble was the aforementioned matter of the F-35. Peter MacKay was only too happy to stand and preen and flex and sing of supporting the troops. “NDP really means no defence party,” he happily declared.

The NDP’s Matthew Kellway attempted a rejoinder. “Mr. Speaker,” he ventured, “of course on this side of the House we support our troops.”

His next sentence was better. “Mr. Speaker, in fact, our commitment to our pilots would be to procure planes that actually work.”

The New Democrats presented enjoyed this and Mr. Kellway now exploited the opposition’s newfound advantage on this file. “Let us talk about budget for a moment,” he offered. “The chief financial officer of the U.S. department of defence released new numbers on the cost of the F-35. These planes will be rolling off the line at a cool $200 million. That is more than double what the Conservatives have been claiming. With production delayed by several years, taxpayers have the right to know, how many planes will the government buy and how much will each one cost?”

The Defence Minister had no answers for these questions. “Mr. Speaker, who is sounding defensive now?” Mr. MacKay attempted to beg instead.

Mr. Kellway pressed harder. “Let us talk about what the chiefs of staff have told the government,” he proposed. “They have said the CF-18s need to be replaced by 2020, and they have said we need at least 65 new planes. However, basic math tells us we are getting far fewer and much later. Yesterday, the minister said he had a plan B, just stay tuned. Then we learned from DND that in fact there is no plan B. With respect to the F-35, we know that the minister has serious problems with managing his department, but does he also have a problem with basic math?”

Now it was Peter Julian, the gawky NDP finance critic seated in the front row, who looked giddy.

“Mr. Speaker,” lamented Mr. MacKay, “no, what I have a problem with is the blind partisan criticism that comes from the uninformed member opposite on this program.”

There was laughter from the NDP side.

All that aside, one imagines Mr. Harper now looks forward to a week away from this place with the same sort of serenity he has projected while seated here of late. Leaning back in his chair one imagines he knows and understands two things: he is still the Prime Minister and it will be, if he so chooses, for another three years. And so, for all the fussing over other things, he still gets to do things like what he did last night.

The Stats. Military procurement and immigration, six questions each. Online surveillance, firearms and government spending, four questions each. The environment, employment, bilingualism and affordable housing, two questions each. Pensions, aboriginal affairs, science, sealing, asbestos, Bahrain and freedom of the press, one question each.

Vic Toews, seven answers. Peter MacKay and Diane Finley, six answers each. Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney, four answers each. Ted Menzies and Dave Anderson, two answers each. Michelle Rempel, James Moore, Lisa Raitt, Gerry Ritz, Gary Goodyear, Gerald Keddy, John Baird and Gail Shea, one answer each.