Question Period Live

Stephen Harper pounces on Justin Trudeau's gaffe

This parliamentary fumble is the stuff of future attack ads

Justin Trudeau spoke loudly and clearly in question period of the ills of Conservative tax policy. “Mr. Speaker, benefitting every single family isn’t what is fair,” he opened. The Liberal leader must have bungled his script, or maybe he lost his place in his notes and winged it. Maybe he said exactly what he’d planned. It really didn’t matter that Trudeau’s next words spoke of “giving help to those who need it the most.” The next attack ad might already be written. “Trudeau doesn’t want to help everybody,” they’ll gripe. “He said it himself.” It’s a race to the recording studio.

Trudeau’s actual question, of course, was the same one he and his party have asked for weeks: would the government cancel an income-splitting plan that he claims only helps the richest Canadians? (Note: that math might not add up). Prime Minister Stephen Harper predictably defended his plan as good for every family everywhere, period, full stop.

The first words out of Harper’s mouth, even before he defended his own ideas about taxation, are worth remembering. “You see what happens when someone goes off-script,” was his first response to Trudeau’s apparent misfire. The identity of that someone was obvious, but to the untrained ear, the Prime Minister’s phrasing sounded like a rousing defence of the message control for which he is so infamous, and which his critics so deride. Don’t go and abandon your script, he seemed to be hinting, or you might get burned.

There’s the daily dose of political theatre.

Now, about that promised experiment about parliamentary priorities. I said I’d track question period’s repartee, noting the issues of the day about which so many grown adults scoffed and moaned. The exercise produced a long table of points. Allow me to explain how it all adds up.

Thirty-nine questions comprised today’s session. Each question was assigned a point value: 39 for the first question, and one for the 39th. Add up all the points per topic, and you get a weighted ranking. By that measure, jobs and the economy dominate, taxes places second, and the everlasting Mike Duffy saga, with a side of broader Senate scandal, rounds out the top three. (The NDP kept jobs and Duffy on the agenda, while the Liberals stuck to their now-traditional argument with the Tories about taxes.)

That first ranking does a fine job, but sort by the “points per question” column and the results trade places slightly. The Duffy affair, which led NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s first round of questioning, jumps into first place given its priority in the issues queue. This is how it all breaks down.

Topic Points Points per question
Jobs/Economy 189 31.5
Taxes 156 22.3
Duffy/Senate 114 38.0
Youth 94 23.5
Infrastructure 41 20.5
Aboriginal affairs 37 18.5
Veterans 33 16.5
Trade 27 13.5
Childcare 23 11.5
Royal Baby 15 15.0
Public safety 15 7.5
Immigration 10 10.0
Development 9 9.0
Justice 6 6.0
Public service 5 5.0
Canada 150 4 4.0
Pensions 2 2.0

The context

We woke up to a bit of news about federal election debates, those political showdowns on the campaign trail traditionally organized by a media consortium that works with political parties to set the rules. A few weeks ago, Maclean’s explained why that system is broken. “Everyone in Canada has a stake in a federal election,” read our editorial. “And while we know some of the people who work in television and they’re nice people, there’s no reason they should have a monopoly over the design of leaders’ debates, the subjects addressed or the leaders invited.”

So we pitched our own debate.

Maclean’s is happy to get the ball rolling. We will be happy to host a debate, in English, anytime after June 15, with the leaders of the Conservative, Liberal, New Democratic and Green parties. We’ll carry a video feed on our website; any broadcaster who wants the signal is free to carry it live too. A Maclean’s journalist will moderate, and have a mandate to push back with follow-up questions to leaders who don’t give clear or detailed answers the first time they’re asked.”

Canada’s political parties sound like they’re listening. Cormac MacSweeney reports on news that the Conservatives, NDP and Greens will jump aboard the Maclean’s debate—and the Liberals haven’t said no.

Today’s experiment is this: I’ll watch question period and furiously record all the questions, as well as the answers, that fly back and forth—both on the opposition benches and the Conservative side. The tally at the end of the show will give a sense of the House of Commons’ priorities. Check back here later today and see how those priorities line up with your own. Yours, after all, are what ultimately matter.