The Commons dynamics shift with a majority government in power

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The Gazette, Thursday, February 9, 2012

Here's the difference between a minority and a majority House of Commons.

In a minority House, to which we've become all too accustomed, ministers are chained to their desks for fear of the government falling at any moment.

In a majority House, such as the one we've got now, cabinet members can come and go as they please.

The prime minister is in China all this week, leading a trade mission. Stephen Harper's only Ottawa event of the week was at Rideau Hall at noon on Monday, when medals were presented to 60 community heroes on the occasion of the Queen's diamond jubilee. After that, it was wheels up for Beijing. No need to stick around for Question Period at 2: 15. In a minority House, the trip would have been scheduled during a break week.

In the run-up to next month's budget, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was out of the House for the entire first two weeks of the winter session. First he was in Davos at the World Economic Forum, and then he had other meetings in Europe, before winding up in Israel on a visit with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird in a Mutt and Jeff show.

As for Baird, he hasn't set foot in the House in 2012, having flown out of Israel to connect with Harper in China.

On his return to the House on Monday, Flaherty was in high form. Not only is he the government's best parliamentary actor, with a surgical sense of humour, but he has a narrative of success.

New Democratic Party front-bencher Peter Julian was understandably in high dudgeon over Caterpillar closing a plant in London, Ont., where Harper had a campaign stop last year. Now, said Julian, the PM just drives by in his limousine.

"Mr. Speaker," Flaherty replied, "my car is actually a Chevrolet Impala from Oshawa, Ont. The member opposite will recall voting against our plan to save General Motors and the jobs in the auto sector across this country."


Then when Liberal Scott Brison noted that 60 per cent of the jobs created in Canada last year were in Alberta, but that outside the oilpatch, cities like Toronto and Montreal are reeling from nine-per-cent unemployment, Flaherty pointed to Brison and the third-party Liberals sitting in the far corner. "I look forward to offering a budget that concentrates on jobs and economic growth," he said. "In fact we did that last year, and the member opposite voted against it. That is why he is sitting way down there, rather than (in the official opposition), where he used to sit."

Even Brison had to laugh. It's not clear when Flaherty will be presenting the budget. During his absence there was no sense of budget urgency at the Finance Department; people were going home at 5 p.m. last week. The best guess for a budget date is either the week before or the week after the break week of March 19.

That will be the last week of the NDP leadership campaign, which can't come too soon for the New Democrats. While the campaign drags on without lighting any fires across the country, the NDP is seriously underperforming in the House. And it's not just that interim leader Nycole Turmel is firing blanks. To a certain extent that's to be expected. But several of the NDP's best performers are out of the House, on the campaign trail. Tom Mulcair may be a junkyard dog, but he's an effective one. Peggy Nash, Nat Cullen and Paul Dewar are also among the party's best parliamentarians.

This is par for the course for a party going through a leadership campaign. In 1968 there were eight MPs in the running for the Liberal leadership: Pierre Trudeau, Bob Winters, John Turner, Paul Martin Sr., Allan MacEachen, Paul Hellyer, Joe Greene and Eric Kierans. So many Liberals were absent from the Commons that Lester Pearson's minority government was defeated one day on a supply motion, which notionally meant the fall of the government. Pearson himself, who was in the Caribbean on vacation, had to fly home to the rescue.

In the 1984 Liberal leadership campaign the party was in government with a majority, so the absence of Jean Chrétien, Don Johnston and John Roberts, among others, really made no difference to the functioning of the government in the House.

But for the NDP, as a government in waiting, Question Period is everything, even if hardly anyone is watching.

For New Democrats, their leadership race has already gone on too long - yet it still has seven weeks to go.

They must be wishing the Conservatives had prorogued at Christmas.

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