Liberals lethargic in opposition

The federal liberals are not used to being out of government and their performance in the House of Commons shows a lack of drive and focus

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The Gazette, Monday, June 19, 2006

Just as there is a learning curve in government, there is also one in opposition. And the Liberals, schooled as a party of government, have been having difficulty finding their feet in this minority House.

The first session of the new Parliament, which breaks for the summer after this week, can't end soon enough for the Liberals. Their performance in question period, any opposition party's main chance, has varied from lethargic to lamentable.

Every time they ask a question, they get it thrown back in their faces on Liberal corruption or inaction. Any time Stephen Harper or one of his ministers says the Conservatives are acting, say, on climate change, "unlike that party which did nothing for 13 years in office," the Liberals sag back into their seats.

The Liberals have also found themselves inconveniently positioned on issues such as their opposition to the softwood lumber deal with the United States. For one thing, the deal is supported by Liberal governments in the three main producing provinces of British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario. For another, it's well known in trade policy circles that similar terms were available to the Liberals in government last summer, but Paul Martin declined to call B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell for his support. On that issue, as on many others, there is simply no moral high ground for the Liberals to occupy.

But their worst moment came two weeks ago with the unanimous adoption of the budget on third reading. The Liberals and the NDP both opposed the first Tory budget since 1993, but the NDP had no members in the House as debate resumed, and the Liberals had only four members, none of whom rose to speak. And when no other members did so, the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois being in favour, the speaker declared the budget passed unanimously.

It's one thing not to want to force an early election, but it's another to not even show up.

One parliamentary habitue later suggested that Jerry Yanover, the master Liberal parliamentary tactician, must have crossed the floor to the Conservatives. (Good line, although he's not an MP.)

The Liberals' disarray is understandable under the circumstances. They've just had their heads handed to them by the voters, and they're still trying to figure out what happened. It's going to take them a while to get over it, before they can get on with it.

And then there's a normal period of adaptation in the transition from government to opposition. You mean, we don't have public servants to write our briefing books any more? We have to rely on something called opposition research?

What do you mean, we're not invited to the state dinner?

Like any party united by the perks and privileges of government, the Liberals are fighting over the spoils of defeat. Their caucus is divided not only by a leadership campaign in which members have to pick sides, but by issues such as the mission in Afghanistan.

For example, interim Liberal leader Bill Graham and House leader Ralph Goodale agreed to the process of a same-day debate and vote on extending the Afghan mission, only to be confronted with a full-blown caucus revolt. In the end, fully three- quarters of the Liberal caucus voted against extending a mission authorized only last summer by their own government.

How could Ken Dryden and Belinda Stronach, former ministers who voted in favour of the mission, now turn around and vote against it? John McCallum, a former defence minister, also opposed it. And the former prime minister, Paul Martin, who took the decision to put Canadian forces in greater harm's way, didn't even trouble himself to show up for the vote. Graham, defence minister at the time of the decision to redeploy from Kabul to Kandahar, did not bother to conceal his contempt for his former ministerial colleagues.

The lacklustre performance of the Liberals in the House cannot really be laid at Graham's door. He understands the rhythms of the House quite well, as does Goodale. They can both take considerable credit for the relatively civil tone of this House, compared with the murderous mood of the previous one. Graham asks solid lead questions, right on the news cycle. From his days as defence and foreign minister, he has a commanding knowledge of top files, as does Goodale, the former finance minister. But they also are weary of the battle, and unable to control the troops behind them.

It isn't that those troops are restive or unruly, they're just phoning it in. There is no equivalent of the Rat Pack, the young Liberal backbenchers who joyfully savaged the first-term Mulroney government after 1984. That's not a bad thing, and some of those former members, notably Brian Tobin and perhaps even Sheila Copps, would tell you today that those days weren't necessarily the proudest of their careers.

The opposition's role is to criticize, to be sure, but it's also to attack. In the first session, the Liberals have failed on both counts. What's missing is a bit of Grit gusto.

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