Asked yesterday about a report that, from here on, he is planning to not attend question period as much as he has, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair assured the assembled journalists that he’d still be there more often than Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. What’s more, Mulcair’s commitment to the institution would endure, even if he is somehow able to occupy the Prime Minister’s chair. Indeed, the NDP leader guarantees it.
“I can guarantee you,” he said, “that when I’m prime minister, I will be here for question period.”
Something like Garfield (the cartoon cat, not the 20th president of the United States), Stephen Harper does not typically appear for QP on Mondays, generally restricting himself to Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Perhaps Mulcair would show up four times per week. Or perhaps he’d make every effort to arrange his schedule so that he was in town and available at the appointed hour as often as possible. Maybe we might simply expect that a Prime Minister Mulcair would appear more often than has Prime Minister Harper.
So that’s something to think about.
The next 13 months (or less) will, of course, be full of things to think about. Mulcair and Trudeau will be asking us to think about them as prime minister. Harper will be asking us to think of same, only with a decidedly more unflattering spin. The NDP leader is already eagerly putting down markers: a new federal minimum wage, billions more in health care spending, higher corporate taxes of some degree. There will be more of that. And Trudeau will have his markers and Harper will have his and each will have complaints about the other’s.
That Mulcair and Trudeau would be different prime ministers is inherent. The former would be some kind of NDP prime minister, the latter some kind of Liberal prime minister. But those are differences of ideology, partisanship and choice. And while those differences matter, they don’t tell us whether either would be a different kind of prime minister. Whether, beyond policies and priorities, either would govern any differently. And, if so, by how much.
If you have spent any time complaining about how the current Prime Minister conducts things, this might matter.
This afternoon, Mulcair charged the current Prime Minister with breaking his word by not bringing this country’s current involvement in Iraq before the House for a vote. Unless the NDP leader’s charge here was merely hypocrisy, we might thus expect that a Prime Minister Mulcair would ask the House to approve such a mission.
As to the question of the exact number of members of the Canadian Forces to be deployed to Iraq, Opposition Leader Mulcair ventured that Canadians “deserve” complete openness and honesty from their Prime Minister. So, presumably, a Prime Minister Mulcair would be so direct in his disclosure—at least on matters of military deployments.
On the matter of Mike Duffy and the $90,000 cheque from Nigel Wright, Opposition Leader Mulcair wondered if Prime Minister Harper would invoke parliamentary privilege to avoid testifying at a trial. So one might expect that a Prime Minister Mulcair would submit to examination under oath—at least in the event that his chief of staff ended up cutting a cheque to a sitting senator to repay questionable expense claims. (Mulcair also wondered why Harper hadn’t fired every single official who was involved in the transaction, which at least puts Prime Minister Mulcair’s hypothetical PMO on notice.)
Both Mulcair and Trudeau wondered this afternoon if the Prime Minister would release a newly uncovered report on the Champlain Bridge, which connects the island of Montreal with the South Shore. So surely both Prime Minister Mulcair and Prime Minister Trudeau would be more proactive with government research, perhaps even with matters unrelated to the Champlain Bridge.
These are all good things to know (and write down and keep handy on the off chance either ever does anything as prime minister to betray these principles).
But what else?
Trudeau entered the House just before 2:15 p.m. today through the front door, coming to within visual and shouting distance of the cameras and reporters gathered in the foyer. (Mulcair, if memory serves, does likewise each day.) Would he do similarly as prime minister, or would he avoid the foyer and slip in through the back door? For that matter, would he maintain his fondness for open town-hall gatherings at which the electorate can question him?
A year ago, Mulcair proposed a bill to strengthen the mandate of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. Presumably, he’d have to be fairly shameless not to enact such a bill upon forming government, but would he also increase the PBO’s budget to allow for a more robust check on public spending?
Trudeau has tabled access-to-information reform and Mulcair supported NDP MP Pat Martin’s bill on the same subject, so surely that would be among the first acts of either’s government. But what else?
Would either submit to regular news conferences in Ottawa? Would they permit reporters to pose follow-up questions? Would they make speeches in the House? Would they publicize the times and locations of cabinet meetings so that reporters might regularly question ministers? Would they have the finance minister present the fall economic update directly to Parliament? Would they themselves submit to periodic appearances before parliamentary committees? (The Liberals having moved a motion to have the Prime Minister testify about the Duffy affair and the NDP having supported that motion.)
Would their answers in QP be more straightforward? Would their power to prorogue Parliament be curtailed? Would they have their House leaders make great effort to avoid the use of time allocation? Would they amend the standing orders to limit the use of omnibus bills? Would House committees be prevented from too easily moving their proceedings in camera? Would those committees and their members be made independent of the party whip? Would we get a full accounting of budget cuts? How would Supreme Court appointees be selected? Would these prime ministers be less partisan somehow? Less controlling someway? Would either be pleased to see their caucuses vote in favour of the Reform Act’s rules?
Before question period this afternoon, three Conservative backbenchers were sent up to mouth attacks against the leader of the third party (and a NDP frontbencher was sent up to deliver an NDP infomercial). Would Prime Minister Trudeau or Prime Minister Mulcair refrain from asking the members of his caucus to do such stuff? During QP, Conservative backbenchers were sent up to lob pre-arranged questions—one a direct attack on the leader of the third party—at ministers. Would Prime Minister Trudeau or Prime Minister Mulcair spare their backbenchers this task?
(Of course, we might ask whether they should do any of these things, in particular.)
Not all that might be lamented about the manner in which we are governed can be blamed on the current occupant of the Prime Minister’s chair. He did not start the larger fire that is periodically said to be engulfing our Parliament—and, credit where it’s due, he did introduce the Accountability Act and create the Parliamentary Budget Officer—even if he could otherwise be accused of fanning those flames. But what of Mulcair and Trudeau? The NDP leader’s least flattering moments have been his periodic displays of a certain zeal in battle—his comments about the privacy commissioner, for instance, or his reference to race in the case of Conrad Black—but he and his party have also shown a certain fealty to the institution (even if there has been political gain in that for them). For the Liberal leader, it is still too early to say how serious he is about doing things differently, or, at least, what exactly and precisely that could all mean, even if his Senate gambit is probably the best chance we have of doing something different with the other chamber.
That both men have used their single opportunities for private members’ bills in this Parliament to table proposals for reform is something. But soon, enough one of them might be prime minister—at which point they would face all of the pressures that make expediency so alluring.
That an opposition leader might himself feeling differently upon attaining higher office is perhaps not quite unprecedented. But perhaps, after some years of teeth-gnashing over the state of things, we might hope for some marked change, whenever the opportunity arrives.
Showing up for question period is something. But it is also not much.