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judith timson

Here they come again - Steve, Mike, Jack and Gilles! The four horsemen of the Canadian apocalypse - otherwise known as Question Period. That daily dose of political theatre that, as a recent poll showed, a majority of Canadians think is out of control and needs to be reformed. Most of us apparently believe politicians use Question Period to "get their faces on TV and score cheap political points." ("No! Really?")

So let's take a look at these very familiar, perhaps overly familiar, faces. Are these faces capable of change? Are we capable of changing our opinions of them? If summer is a time of rest and renewal, of figuring out new ways forward, what new qualities are Steve, Mike, Jack and Gilles bringing to the fall parliamentary session, set to start Monday?

(Note: I will add Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, to this merry mélange if and when she actually gets into Parliament, although by then, after the next election, surely one of these four horsemen will be heading to pasture.)

First up: Steve. He is wearing a spiffy new pair of glasses, making him look, I think, rather more intellectual and more modern. But enough about looks. What is the Prime Minister, impenetrable at the best of times, really thinking after a summer of party unrest and dipping polls? Census flap, arbitrary fighter jet purchase and general it's-my-way-or-the-doorway mien aside, this is the often implacable face of a man who has been PM for four years but has still not done what he needed to do - secure a majority government for his Conservative Party.

Is he frustrated by the prize always moving just elusively out of his grasp? Is he annoyed at us for not understanding that with topnotch banks and an economy that didn't swerve completely into the ditch, we should be anointing him in the polls? But we're stubbornly not.

So perhaps he has another Beatles song or sweater vest (or renovation tax credit) up his sleeve, something that will finally make Canadians like him, really like Stephen Harper. Or maybe he will carry on exactly as before, standing up in Question Period and - like a pitcher on the mound - routinely buttoning his jacket before he answers a question, then giving a typically strategic, steely and combative response. At 51, he is the youngest of the four leaders and yet in some ways, the least flexible. If you're looking for transformational change, as they say in the leadership biz, he may not be it.

Mike, on the other hand, seems to have had an epiphany, perhaps brought on by bus fumes and the smell of fired up barbecues across the country. Watching excerpts of an interview with the CBC's Peter Mansbridge, you could believe it is possible, after the Liberal leader's cross-Canada bus tour this summer, to teach an old dog (well, 63 year old) new tricks. Michael Ignatieff looks lighter and sounds tighter. On point, no fluty academic hoo-ha, the self-reference (and reverence) kept firmly in check. He's been through one of the most searing crucibles there is - political embattlement, public judgment of every possible aspect of his being, from his laugh to his voice to his words, to his thoughts, not to mention his leadership skills. Has he gone from privately thinking, "Why oh why did I get into this and when can I go back to being me?" to a triumphantly determined, "I think I can, I think I can, I know I can, I know I can?" If you're looking for change, Mike will be the most fun to watch.

On to Jack. His face is dramatically thinner now, after being treated for prostate cancer (diagnosed last December) and losing at least 15 pounds, partly by making what he described in one interview in June as "radical" changes to his diet. At 60, he seems fit and is said to exercise regularly. Jack Layton has been steadily accruing across the political spectrum approval and moral authority (although he never rises substantially in the polls). But his stance on the coming vote to end the long gun registry has been a rocky passage. Still, he may have shown a more dynamic style of leadership by making it a free vote in his party and then working hard to convince his own members to keep it because he believes it is right. He says he now has the votes to save it. (A mixed blessing.) Jack seems and sounds more sincere that he used to - less showy, more authentic. When you've faced a serious health scare, something changes inside of you. But what exactly has changed for Jack? Is he pressing on indefinitely or looking ahead to a more relaxed post-political future?

And finally Gilles. Gilles Duceppe at 63 is the bluntest, the most straightforward and the least likely of all four leaders to cater to any political whim outside his base. But then he can afford to be a solitary gunslinger. As leader of the Bloc Québécois, he has a narrow constituency to keep the faith with and, at best, an erratic interest in what's necessary and good for the health of the entire country. He's been in the House of Commons for almost 20 years. That is a long time in a smart man's life. Isn't there anything else he dreams of doing?

All four of these men are brainy and well-spoken, none of them a political embarrassment to their own party or to the country. Hey, you could probably have a beer with any of them and not go wrong.

But where is the passion and reverence for democracy? Where is the post-recession plan for a country as great as ours? Where is the sense that the next decade belongs to Canada? One thing is for sure: It's not yet written across any of these faces. Cue the cameras, let the next session begin.