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NDP leader Tom Mulcair rises during Question Period in the House of Commons, Monday March 24, 2014 in Ottawa.


NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair sparred for the first time with the new Finance Minister he recently branded an "embarrassment," as MPs returned to the House of Commons after a two-week constituency break.

Monday's Question Period marked Joe Oliver's first on his feet as Finance Minister, a post he assumed after Jim Flaherty resigned last week. Mr. Mulcair last week said the appointment was a "mistake" because Mr. Oliver "has a record of making things up and insulting people, from environmentalists to First Nations."

The 45-minute House debate hit on topics ranging from the Conservative's Fair Elections Act, to the Supreme Court of Canada's recent rejection of Justice Marc Nadon's appointment, to infrastructure spending and Ukraine. But with his third question, Mr. Mulcair put the attention on Mr. Oliver by asking about his views on a national securities regulator.

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Mr. Oliver, who for three years served as natural-resources minister, didn't address that question, instead expressing his gratitude for the chance to "follow in the footsteps of my great predecessor" and to quip that Mr. Mulcair should let new finance critic Nathan Cullen ask a question. "After all, he paid $40,000 for the privilege," Mr. Oliver joked, an apparent reference to the fact that Mr. Cullen would have lost a stipend he previously enjoyed as Opposition House Leader.

Mr. Oliver, a 73-year-old former Bay Street investment banker, also faced questions about income splitting, a hot topic ever since Mr. Flaherty questioned its merits – despite a Conservative promise that they would deliver income splitting once the budget was balanced.

"Once we have a balanced budget, the government will keep its promise to give even more tax relief to Canadian families," he said. "The Prime Minister has been very clear: This is a policy that is good for Canadian families."

It had been two weeks since Mr. Mulcair flexed his Question Period muscles, part of an NDP strategy to boost his national visibility and establish him as a would-be prime minister. A recent Globe and Mail analysis showed he asks at least five questions a day and regularly takes the first 14 questions allotted to his party when Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in the House of Commons.

But with Mr. Harper in The Hague for a nuclear-security summit and an emergency G7 meeting to discuss the crisis in Ukraine, Mr. Mulcair went only briefly toe-to-toe with Mr. Oliver, Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre and Justice Minister Peter MacKay, letting fellow MPs rise to ask questions of their own.

Monday's debate marked a return to the fight over the Fair Elections Act, which the Conservatives defend as a tool to combat voter fraud and the NDP condemns as a threat to democracy. The NDP had used their two-week break to fan out across the country for a series of town hall meetings on the proposed legislation, after the government rebuffed a request for similar hearings saying a tour would be a "costly circus."

In the House, Mr. Mulcair invited Mr. Poilievre to a town hall Saturday in Gatineau, an offer the Conservative minister said was "kind" but didn't accept.

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On Mr. Nadon's blocked Supreme Court appointment, Mr. Mulcair asked Mr. MacKay whether the Conservatives plan to try to "circumvent" last week's decision rejecting Justice Nadon's appointment on the basis that he wasn't legally qualified to sit as a Supreme Court judge representing Quebec. Mr. MacKay reiterated the government was "genuinely surprised" by the decision, adding "we will study the details of the decision."

Later, Mr. MacKay again defended the consultation process and opened the door to soon finding a new appointee. "It is our intent to proceed with the process for a new member of the Supreme Court," he said. "We have many people qualified for the position."

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was not in the House on Monday. His spokeswoman said he wasn't absent for a public event.

Follow me on Twitter: @KBlazeCarlson

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