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First impressions of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition Add to ...

First steps are important; first impressions can last; first moves in politics can telegraph intent and strategy. What then to make of the first, tentative sparring between the re-elected Conservative government and its fundamentally restructured opposition?

We can find a few preliminary entrails in the June 3 Hansard, as the grinding process of getting a session underway… well, got underway.

The government presented its Throne Speech; various enabling and routine motions were moved; and, finally, a bit of debate occurred in this new House.

First up for the opposition was Peggy Nash, MP for Parkdale-High Park and NDP finance critic. She went directly to the heart of the government’s economic strategy, asking the Conservatives why their sole priority was a corporate tax plan, when there is no evidence that this approach has created a single job. Why not put jobs rather than bank profits first?

Next up for the opposition, Françoise Boivin. Ms. Boivin last stood up in the House as a Liberal MP from Quebec. She is now a leading figure in the NDP’s not-small Quebec caucus, having played a leading role in getting it elected. How could it be, she wondered, that the government could offer not a single word about the status of women?

And then Robert Chisholm. Mr. Chisholm is a well-respected and senior figure in his party, having led the Nova Scotia NDP out of third party status and to the cusp of provincial government. He staked out a smart position for the New Democrats, offering that trade agreements have their role in building the economy, provided they are “strong.” Will the government work with the opposition on this issue – an implicit offer, with a barb?

Finally, Randall Garrison, the new opposition MP from the B.C. riding of Esquimalt–Juan de Fuca, took on the government on pensions. Where is the commitment to strengthening the Canada Pension Plan? Why are there not more serious proposals to being seniors out of poverty?

I would say, judging from all this, that the Official Opposition seems of a mind to do exactly what the government is doing – more of what worked for it in the last Parliament and in the recent election. In other words, the critics on the opposition front bench look set to bite into the substance of their briefs, and to take on the government on substantive issues – tax policy, jobs, women’s issues, trade, and seniors’ poverty, on that first day – attacking the government’s priorities and proposing alternatives.

Tabloid popcorn, scandal-mongering, and exchanges of mud and character assassination might therefore be playing a less prominent role in this federal Parliament – subject to events – since the Official Opposition actually disagrees with this government’s priorities and policies, and intends to say so.

Quite a change, on all counts, from the last Parliament.

* * * * * *

Speaking of which, as a footnote, Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae was also interesting in these exchanges. He too noted the small sum being invested in alleviating seniors’ poverty, and asked: “Why would there not be more, as has been proposed by the opposition parties?” As his first words of substance in the new House, this was not without interest. It spoke to some of the common themes on the broader opposition bench that led the parties there, only a few short years ago, to think seriously about building and supporting a progressive government together.

This isn’t the tone of most of the current discussion in the Liberal blogosphere. Blue Liberals are relying on Mr. Rae to focus on the destruction of his former New Democrat co-religionists, before handing the red team back to a more reliable corporate Liberal with (so the hope appears to be) a clear shot at the Tories, so that their priorities can then be continued under a different colour. As Friday’s exchanges demonstrate, this may not be a mission that will always come naturally to the new Interim Liberal Leader, particularly when the Official Opposition focuses on priorities that he might find himself agreeing with from time to time.

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