National Column: Some stars shine on the hill, some not so much

by Chantal Hebert

With the House of Commons adjourning for the summer, time for a look in the rearview mirror at four leading MPs who were on their game over the first half of the parliamentary year … and at one who was off.

1. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale took almost two years to come up with a revamped national security framework, but it was worth the wait. The act he put forward in the dying days of the spring session is not perfect, but it is a comprehensive attempt at improving the legislation he inherited from the previous Conservative government.

Goodale’s bill will disappoint civil rights advocates who had hoped the Liberals meant to repeal most of the contentious sections of Stephen Harper’s Bill C-51. But inasmuch as a party’s actions speak louder than its election rhetoric, the Liberals’ proposed national security act is in line with their qualified support – in opposition – for the controversial Conservative law.

This Liberal bill will be debated for months. If the opposition parties want to engage in the discussion on a serious basis, they will have to move off their talking points. It is clear that Goodale knows the file inside out. Indeed, in a cabinet replete with rookies, Goodale is very much emerging as the prime minister’s go-to minister, a valuable and polyvalent player.

2. It is not an easy balancing act to highlight – as Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland did in the House of Commons earlier this month – Canada’s clear and profound differences with the current American administration without coming across as inflammatory. Set within long-standing Canadian foreign policy parameters, her speech managed to sound like a declaration of independence without sounding like a declaration of war.

Freeland’s appointment was the centrepiece of Justin Trudeau’s January shuffle and, as it turns out, as good a fit for the job as he could have wished. In the Trump era, the prime minister has as great a need for an outstanding foreign affairs minister as Jean ChrÈtien and Stephen Harper had for larger-than-life finance ministers.

Think of Freeland’s supporting role to Trudeau in the current Canada/U.S. and global environments as one as essential as those played by Paul Martin or Jim Flaherty in previous eras.

3. It is a rare party that is more gracious in opposition than it was in government. Under interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose, the Conservatives succeeded in transitioning to a more civil tone without sacrificing their take-no-prisoners approach to parliamentary politics.

In so doing, Ambrose cleared a path that new leader Andrew Scheer is clearly comfortable on. On her watch, the Conservatives also demonstrated that the sum of their caucus talents is not limited to their extensive leadership lineup.

4. Based on Scheer’s first weeks in the lead opposition role in question period, that part of his new job will not be his most problematic. All those years spent in the Speaker’s chair during Harper’s majority mandate are paying off in spades.

Scheer was wise to give himself more time to craft a shadow cabinet. It is no simple task to reward loyalists and to soothe the bruised egos of defeated rivals without weakening the team.

Finding ways to keep his main rival Maxime Bernier occupied and out of mischief will be a challenge. But the placement of Kellie Leitch is even more problematic. Her dog-whistle approach to immigration and refugee issues is toxic for a party that needs to rebuild bridges to Canada’s ethnically diverse communities.

5. In Scheer’s place, outgoing NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair used to dominate question period. Day in and day out, he commanded the attention of the House with a mix of righteous anger and flashes of good humour.

But over the past year, humour has given way to sarcasm and righteous anger has morphed into contemptuous wrath. Based on his recent exchanges with Trudeau, Mulcair’s sense that he was defeated by an apprentice sorcerer who conned voters into buying snake oil is not abating. But as the Harper Conservatives learned the hard way in government, tone transcends content, usually to the detriment of the latter.

This has been Mulcair’s last long stretch in the lead NDP role. Come next fall, he will relinquish the commands to a successor. But the persona who earned, in the previous Parliament, the well-deserved reputation of most effective official Opposition leader in decades has already left the building.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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