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Grading the party leaders


There was a time in my remote childhood when handing out academic prizes — usually in the shape of books or religious pictures — was an important part of the end-of-year school ritual.

In those less secular days, mastering the Catholic catechism was rewarded on par with good marks in arithmetic and spelling. As in politics, being nice did not get you a prize but some students got brownie points for keeping quiet in class.

If my elementary school teachers had to assess Thomas Mulcair, Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper at year’s end, they would send each of them home with a prize in one of the three categories ... and much remedial homework in the other two.

Mulcair: If Canada’s democracy had a church, it would be the House of Commons and in 2013 the NDP leader seized control of the pulpit. Day in and day out, Mulcair kept the prime minister on his toes with a consistency that none of his recent predecessors ever achieved. In so doing Mulcair restored some meaning to the accountability function of Parliament.

But that did not translate into more support for the NDP. The party’s share of the vote melted in two Manitoba byelections last month. That more than cancelled out a modest increase in Toronto Centre.

As for Mulcair’s 2013 policy year, overshadowed by the Senate issue, it will mostly be remembered for the fact that he kept his powder dry on the Canada-Europe trade deal. He has also offered support for pipeline projects that could see more Alberta oil flow from west to east. Those were essentially defensive moves that were only groundbreaking because they went against the natural instincts of the NDP of the recent past.

Trudeau: The arithmetic of politics involves the ballot box and over the past year, the Liberals won more votes while their rivals lost some. With a victory over the Conservatives in the riding of Labrador last spring the party finishes the year with a net seat gain for the first time since Jean Chrétien retired.

But Trudeau’s star appeal on the road is not matched by gravitas in Parliament. Anyone would find it hard to measure up to Mulcair’s commanding question period performance. But if the NDP leader was half as good, he would still make his Liberal rival look mediocre.

On the policy front, the jury is still out on the wisdom of jumping ahead of the parade on marijuana by promising to legalize it. And Trudeau’s off-the-wall musings on China and the policy edge that results from running a dictatorship undid efforts to raise his policy game.

Harper: Notwithstanding the Senate scandal, the Conservatives managed to put some major policies on the books this year. An agreement-in-principle on a comprehensive trade agreement with the European Union was struck. An imminent return to balanced federal budgets was announced.

But the mismanaged Senate scandal took a toll on Harper’s image. The House of Commons is rarely the prime minister’s stage, especially during question period.

But the fall session was particularly brutal. There were times when Harper looked like a deer (or perhaps a moose) caught in the glare of the opposition’s headlights.

On the electoral front, the byelections confirmed national polls that suggest a cohort of 2011 Conservative supporters has left the fold. To speak in the marketing terms that Harper strategists understand best: when clients decline to return to a store after one buy, it does not speak well of the appeal of its merchandise and/or the quality of the service.

A final word: Elections are not won in question period. But nor can policy deeds provide an airtight cover for poor or unethical government behaviour. And even the best stump politician cannot sustain a six-week campaign on charm, good looks and empty words.

All of which is to say that 2013 ends more on a draw between Mulcair, Trudeau and Harper than polls would suggest, with none having earned enough laurels for their party to rest on.

Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

 
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