Hébert: Sunny ways fading as Liberals hit halfway mark

Nov 17 2010- Chantal Hebert Toronto Star Staff Staffheadshot for logo headshot . DAVID COOPER/TORONTO STAR

So much for sunny ways. As Justin Trudeau’s government nears the halfway mark of its first mandate, finding some willingness to engage in adult conversation on either side of the House of Commons is almost as hard as it was on the worst days of the previous Conservative government.

Since the new year, the tone has steadily deteriorated and if this week is anything to go by, the climate is bound to become more toxic until Parliament finally breaks for the summer.

In question period, debate has essentially defaulted to a dialogue of the deaf that allows for little or no reasoned arguments. The opposition squawks loudly at a flock of government parrots.

This week, the government rescheduled a Conservative opposition day from Thursday to next Monday. The official Opposition wants to use the time to turn up the heat on Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan for having aggrandized his role in the planning of a major military offensive in Afghanistan. Conservatives and New Democrats have spent the week calling for his resignation.

All this is unfolding against the backdrop of a procedural war over a clumsy Liberal attempt to tweak some of the rules of the House to the government’s advantage. Such is the bad blood between the opposition and the Liberals that when the latter waved a white flag and abandoned their most contentious proposals, none of the other parties would pause long enough to claim victory.

While the parties wrangle, the government struggles to advance its legislative agenda. Not that it is particularly impressive. The spring sitting will mostly be remembered for broken or missing-in-action Liberal promises. Take Trudeau’s commitment to give the parliamentary budget officer (PBO) more independence. The legislation brought forward by the government would instead further clip the already short wings of the PBO.

The malaise that has overtaken Parliament Hill has root causes on both sides of the House. For all the talk about running a more collegial operation, Trudeau’s government is as centralized as its predecessors.

Since Donald Trump’s election, Trudeau’s inner circle has had its hands full trying to keep up with the changing moods of the American president. Just last week, the prime minister’s top aides flew to Washington in a hurry to take stock and, if possible, mitigate a Trump-induced NAFTA storm.

But while Trudeau’s brain trust is watching the White House, it can’t always have its eye on the many other balls that a cabinet dominated by political rookies is liable to drop.

Liberal strategists believe the price to pay for having dumped the commitment to change the voting system will not be high in the next election. Perhaps, but they may have underestimated the parliamentary cost of squandering a serious amount of opposition goodwill and trust in the process.

With the election of Stephen Harper’s successor less than a month away, the Conservatives are not looking to tie the hands of their next leader. While they pile on an embattled minister or engage in procedural warfare, they are spared having to come up with a caucus consensus on divisive issues such as the future of Canada’s supply management approach to dairy and poultry or the government’s cannabis legislation.

Over on the NDP side, Thomas Mulcair’s prolonged last hurrah as party leader is turning into an outlet for a lot of pent-up anger. Much of it is directed at Trudeau, a counterpart that Mulcair saw as a political weakling when they sat side-by-side in opposition and, by all indications, still sees him that way now that he is prime minister. The animosity between the two is not just for show.

With every passing week, Mulcair’s tone seems to become more strident – to the point that it sometimes overtakes the substance of his arguments. On Tuesday, the NDP leader had to apologize for calling Liberal House leader Bardish Chagger a buffoon.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, it may take the arrival of two permanent opposition leaders to bring a small measure of sunnier ways back to Parliament Hill.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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