Smart Commons debut shows O’Toole is wiser than predecessor

The contrast could not have been more striking.

Mere hours after an American presidential debate that will go down in history for the infamous performance of the incumbent, the five parties in the House of Commons came together to unanimously endorse the latest federal pandemic-related relief package.

That united vote should not be confused with an abdication of opposition duty. It is a reassuring sign that adults are running Canada’s federal parties.

In the lead-up to the bill’s adoption, the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois had argued vehemently against the Liberal decision to again rush a multibillion-dollar relief package through Parliament.

The point was worth making. But it did not — at the end of the day — make the content of the bill so fatally flawed it did not merit support.

Holding up the legislation would have put thousands of Canadian families at risk of finding themselves in financial limbo.

In the midst of a public health crisis, most voters have little tolerance for political gamesmanship and the reciprocal finger-pointing that attends it.

Based on the first round of the new parliamentary session, it is a message all parties seem to be taking to heart.

Take the Liberals. By all accounts, their latest throne speech was a toned-down version of the ambitious intentions the prime minister had talked about when he prorogued Parliament in August.

If that is because the government concluded that Canadians were not necessarily as hungry for a social revolution as many leading policy activists, the early evidence is Trudeau’s team read the room correctly.

Polls this week by Abacus and Leger reported a consolidation of the Liberal lead in national voting intentions.

Leger further found 52 per cent believe the Liberal plan will create jobs and speed up the country’s economic recovery.

That passing grade actually looks pretty decent when one considers it is 12 points higher than the proportion of voters who told the same pollster they would support the Liberals in an election held this month.

Notwithstanding rising concern over the deficit, there is still a large audience within the electorate for an aspirational progressive agenda.

Trudeau’s Liberals have a pressing interest in hanging on to that audience — and not just so their minority government survives in the House of Commons.

Fear of the alternative, in the shape of Stephen Harper and Andrew Scheer, played an essential part in Trudeau’s two election victories.

That fear drove a critical number of progressive voters who otherwise might have preferred to support the NDP or the Bloc to the Liberals.

It’s early days, but Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole looks like he will be harder to paint with the same brush as his two immediate predecessors.

On the way to supporting the speech from the throne and ensuring the survival of the Liberal minority government, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was able to claim he wrestled two key concessions from the government.

By demanding changes to the financial relief package rather than attacking a throne speech the New Democrats could have written themselves, Singh managed to carve a place for his party in the parliamentary dynamics.

If the recent New Brunswick provincial campaign and the ongoing one in British Columbia are any indication, voters’ appetite for the stability that majority rule is on the rise.

Given that, Singh cannot waste any opportunity to demonstrate minority rule offers the NDP leverage it can put to constructive use.

O’Toole’s first appearance as party leader in the House was delayed by COVID-19. On Wednesday, he wasted no time in signalling the official Opposition is under new management.

His maiden speech sacrificed partisanship to substance and the result was a solid performance.

And then it is hard to think of the last time the Conservatives, in opposition, opened question period by pressing the government on Indigenous reconciliation.

On the national day of remembrance for the victims of Canada’s residential school system and against the backdrop of the disturbing fate of Joyce Echaquan, the Quebec Atikamekw woman who was subjected to racist slurs by hospital staff even as she lay dying this week, O’Toole’s choice of topic could be construed as a no-brainer.

Except that, under its previous leader, the Conservative party did not always let larger realities get in the way of its partisan game plan.

To wit, on the day the World Health Organization officially declared the COVID-19 pandemic, the official Opposition left the task of questioning the government about its emergency readiness to the other parties, so as to focus on a push to reopen the SNC-Lavalin file.

For those who see partisan politics as a blood sport, one that requires someone to lose for someone else to win, this was a pretty poor week.

The rest of us can only hope the three main federal parties stay on their current game.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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