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john ibbitson

For political junkies, there is no greater fun than watching a rookie prime minister handling the first Question Period of a new Parliament. Bottom line: Justin Trudeau performed reasonably well, though there is plenty of room for improvement. Mr. Trudeau has come a very long way from the day in April, 2013 when he first stood in the House of Commons as Leader of the Liberal Party and asserted that the Conservative government's policies would make it harder when "middle-class Canadians go to a store to buy a tricycle, school supplies or a little red wagon for their kids." The "little red wagon" line became mildly notorious.

His performance improved little with time: the questions scripted, his reading of them stilted. The leader of the third party was demonstrably less comfortable or competent in grilling the government than NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, which contributed to Mr. Trudeau's frequent absences from the House.

His debut as Prime Minister was considerably more assured, though far from impeccable. Questioned by the Conservatives on the Liberal decision to withdraw Canada's CF-18 fighters from the mission against the Islamic State – or ISIS, the acronym often used in the House – Mr. Trudeau replied repeatedly that the government was not diminishing its commitment, only transitioning that commitment to a different form.

His tone was poised and confident, if at times a bit breathless. His biggest problem is his syntax: "Ongoing, right now, continue to be air strikes. We have committed to end those air strikes and to transform our engagement in a different way, equally militarily, to ensure that Canada continues to be a strong member of the coalition fighting against ISIS."

The substantive question is, what does "equally militarily" mean? What is equal to firing missiles at the enemy? In terms of sentence structure, Mr. Trudeau's answers will doubtless become more assured over time. What matters is, he never tripped himself up or was caught saying anything contradictory or, worst of all, newsworthy.

Interim Opposition Leader Rona Ambrose was under pressure, as well. In the past, she had been lacklustre as a minister in Question Period; now, to her falls the burden of holding the government to account until a permanent Conservative leader is chosen. To show her determination to offer this new Prime Minister not even one day of grace, and perhaps to buck up the morale of those seated behind her, Ms. Ambrose took an uncompromising line from the get-go.

Dispensing with the customary congratulations to the new government and its Prime Minister, the Opposition Leader launched into a strongly accusatory line of questions on Mr. Trudeau's decision to withdraw the CF-18s.

"Stepping back from the fight against terrorists is not stepping up," Ms. Ambrose declared. "Will the Prime Minister just admit that he is more committed to his ideology than he is to our allies in the fight against ISIS?"

But she asked all her questions in English, leaving it to deputy leader Denis Lebel to repeat the attack in French. If Ms. Ambrose is not able to handle herself in the House of Commons in both official languages, it will count against her.

For Mr. Mulcair, Monday was a difficult day. The Conservatives dominated as the Official Opposition, leaving the NDP Leader to impatiently cool his heels before finally having a chance to speak. This is not sufficient canvas for such a prosecutorial artist.

In the event, Mr. Mulcair asked three different questions on three different topics – climate change, environmental reviews and Canada Post – repeatedly dismissing Mr. Trudeau's response as inadequate. He was in typically fine form, but what did that form get him in his bid to unseat Stephen Harper?

The tone of the House, as all sides had promised, was mostly respectful, but then it always is on the first day of a new Parliament. We will have to wait until the first big brouhaha hits the fan before we can truly judge whether MPs are prepared to abide by the admonition of Geoff Regan, the new Speaker, that he will not tolerate heckling.

Mr. Trudeau also confirmed that House Leader Dominic LeBlanc was in conversation with his opposition counterparts over whether to consolidate the PM's appearances in the House to a single, weekly, extended Prime Minister's Questions, which is the current practice at Westminster.

In tone, in performance, even in the shape of the debate, we won't have a proper handle on the 42nd Parliament for some months to come.