Tories target Trudeau’s stand on terror

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau (MATHIEU BELANGER/REUTERS)

The Conservatives are making sure that Justin Trudeau continues to be grilled on his thoughts about terrorism, hoping to keep the new Liberal Leader on the hot seat after his tough first week under the media microscope.

In a surprise move Friday, the Harper government said it will launch a two-day debate on its proposed anti-terrorism legislation starting Monday, hoping to capitalize on the controversy surrounding Mr. Trudeau’s call after the Boston Marathon bombing to fight the “root causes” of terrorism.

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The government’s announcement appeared geared to overshadowing and stalling the Liberal Leader’s effort to change the rules of the Commons to give greater powers to backbench MPs.

Just hours before the change was ann ounced, Mr. Trudeau had unveiled a plan to ask the House on Monday to vote on whether to amend the standing rules so that party whips no longer have control over which MPs are allowed to deliver 60-second statements – a major debate within the Conservative caucus.

The new schedule to debate terrorism on Monday and Tuesday pushes Mr. Trudeau’s motion to Wednesday, which is when MPs meet with their caucuses –– meaning Prime Minister Stephen Harper will have time to counsel his MPs against voting with the Liberal Leader.

The Harper government’s move fuelled the impression in Ottawa that it’s afraid of showcasing divisions in its caucus. About 10 Conservative MPs asked the Speaker in recent weeks to allow them to deliver statements free of party whip control. Mr. Trudeau’s motion could succeed if all opposition MPs and the Tory dissidents vote in support of the proposed change – but that is far from certain.

The Conservatives cast their focus on terrorism in contrast to that of Mr. Trudeau, whom Mr. Harper has harshly criticized for what he felt was a weak response to the Boston bombings.

“There is no question that this happened because there is someone who feels completely excluded, completely at war with innocents, at war with a society. And our approach has to be, where do those tensions come from?” Mr. Trudeau told the CBC earlier in the week, saying it was essential to look at the root cause of the attack.

“Leadership requires decisive and serious action in response to the serious threats of violent terrorism,” Government House Leader Peter Van Loan said Friday in announcing that the Commons will debate Bill S-7, which would beef up counter-terrorism law. “We don’t need further study – we need action.”

The clash of priorities left both sides claiming victory Friday, showcasing the new dynamics in Ottawa now that Mr. Trudeau has taken the helm of the Liberal party and become a prime target.

Some Liberals say privately that Mr. Trudeau must adapt his speaking style to his new position and adopt a “more disciplined” approach now that he is being asked to comment more often. Some in the Trudeau camp believe he can sometimes “say the right things, but in the wrong way,” one Liberal said.

Still, Liberals boasted on Friday that Mr. Trudeau’s motion had the Conservatives on the defensive.

Liberal MP Marc Garneau said the Conservatives gave no indication throughout the week they wanted to expedite debate on their counter-terrorism legislation, and pointed out the government announced it only after the Liberal motion was unveiled.

“This is a political exploitation of a tragedy,” Mr. Garneau said.

It’s not clear if the NDP will support Mr. Trudeau’s motion.

And some of the Conservatives agitating for greater freedom aren’t happy with the proposal. One MP speaking on background said they did not like Mr. Trudeau’s idea of scheduling members’ statements in alphabetical order, and would prefer the Commons Speaker to resurrect his power to decide who speaks.

Mr. Trudeau won the Liberal leadership with 80 per cent of the votes last Sunday. The next morning, the Conservative Party unveiled attack ads that questioned his judgment and experience, in part by using slow-motion images of him performing a mock striptease.

Some of the initial reaction was negative, with people noting that Mr. Trudeau was at a charity event when he took off his shirt in 2011.

The backbench issue

Justin Trudeau’s motion is problematic for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is facing a rebellion among backbenchers fed up with not being allowed to speak their minds during the daily 15 minutes allotted for members’ statements.

The revolt was triggered last month when British Columbia MP Mark Warawa was removed from the Tory roster because he intended to talk about abortion — an explosive subject that divides Conservatives and which Mr. Harper is determined to keep a lid on. Mr. Warawa has asked Speaker Andrew Scheer to rule that his privileges as an MP were breached; at least eight other Conservative MPs have openly backed his complaint.

The Liberals have not weighed in on the issue until now.

Mr. Trudeau, who made democratic reform the centrepiece of his successful leadership bid, intends to remedy that with his motion.

It calls on MPs to support changing the rules governing members’ statements.

Instead of the current practice of having party whips supply the Speaker with a list of MPs approved to make statements on any given day, the motion would require the Speaker to recognize MPs in alphabetical order, by party. MPs would be able to trade their speaking orders, providing some flexibility for those who might be out of town when their turn comes up or who want to address an issue in their ridings urgently.

Independent MPs would be considered as a group, in alphabetical order.

A majority vote of MPs is required to change the rules of procedure for the Commons, so Mr. Trudeau’s motion could have real effect if passed., pre-empting Mr. Scheer’s ruling on Mr. Warawa’s complaint.

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