Harper at top of his game in the House

PM and his front benches are quickly growing into the job

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The Gazette, Wednesday, June 21, 2006

No one would have ever imagined, based on his indifferent performance in the House as opposition leader, that Stephen Harper would emerge as its dominant figure in his new role as prime minister.

But that has been the case in the first session of the minority Parliament, which is winding down to a summer recess this week. As awkward as he was as opposition leader, he appears to be in his element as prime minister. In question period, he's on top of his files to the point where he seldom refers to or even opens his briefing book. He has told aides he hates to miss question period, as he did on Monday because of a speech he was giving in Vancouver.

He is happy to take questions not only from the three party leaders, but from all opposition critics. Normally, critics' questions would be taken by ministers, but in many cases Harper has been answering for them, not just because he wants to keep his less experienced ministers on a short leash, but because he's enjoying himself so much.

Interim Liberal leader Bill Graham and Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe are among the most experienced and respected parliamentarians in the House. But they haven't really landed any serious blows, and Harper is proving to be surprisingly good on his feet in French.

In fact, there's more French being spoken in this House during question period than I've ever heard there. It's simple, the Liberals ask half their questions in French, the Bloc ask all their questions in French, and the NDP's Jack Layton asks half of his daily question in French. On some days, as much as two-thirds of question period is in French, with Harper as the main respondent for the government.

But surprisingly few anglophone ministers are unable to take questions in French. For example, Treasury Board President John Baird and Harper's parliamentary secretary, Jason Kenney, who answered for the PM on Monday, appear quite comfortable mixing it up in French. In fact, Trudeau's children, in the sense of young bilingual members, are now more numerous on the Conservative than the Liberal side of the House. Harper is himself one of Trudeau's children in that sense.

Then there is the question of how the Conservative front bench is doing. The answer is that more experienced ministers are usually quite agile in the House, while the new ones have struggled to find their feet.

First there are the Queen Park Three - Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Health Minister Tony Clement and Baird. Their front- bench experience in the Ontario legislature make them Harper's first line on the ice.

Flaherty is a revelation. In Queen's Park he was regarded as a sullen, dour figure, an unhappy loser of two provincial leadership races. Come to think of it, how did he lose to Ernie Eves? In Ottawa, Flaherty is a happy warrior who clearly enjoys the cut and thrust of question period more than anyone. He got his budget right, and saw it sail through to adoption, no mean feat in a minority House. As a former provincial minister, he knows enough to consult finance officials without being captured by them, also no small feat.

Clement is clunky but capable, just the person to negotiate the health-care guarantee with the provinces. He has a deputy minister's working knowledge of all the health-care files, and as a dull as he appears, his unflappable demeanour would come in handy in a bird-flu crisis.

Baird is the most combative of the Queen's Park Three, to the point of being chippy. While he has been very hands-on in steering Harper's signature Accountability Act through to its imminent adoption, he can also be a cheap-shot artist. The other most experienced minister is the imperturbable transport minister, Lawrence Cannon, the Quebec lieutenant and Harper's seatmate. Cannon learned his parliamentary tactics at the foot of the master, Robert Bourassa, and it shows. The big surprise along the front bench has been Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice, who is proving quite adept at handling sensitive aboriginal issues. Outside the House, he has emerged as Harper's go-to guy as chairperson of the cabinet committee on operations.

It is the younger cabinet members, notably Peter MacKay at Foreign Affairs, Rona Ambrose at Environment and Maxime Bernier at Industry, who have been struggling with complex files and steep learning curves. They are fortunate in that the system, and the town, want them to succeed. They are also fortunate in that they're about to start three months out of the House, where they can work on those learning curves.

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