Pierre Poilievre’s speech to the Conservative caucus last week was an assertion that Justin Trudeau was spreading suffering throughout the land. Mr. Trudeau told his caucus this is a pivotal moment.
But by the time MPs assembled for the first Question Period of the year, nothing appeared particularly pivotal. Or urgent. Far from engaging in a fight for the ages, Mr. Trudeau’s ministers appeared listless, delivering rote answers with low energy.
The first jab from Mr. Poilievre was to ask Mr. Trudeau to tell Canadians how much money the federal government has paid to consulting firm McKinsey & Co. – which, according to the government’s last, probably incomplete, tally, was $116-million.
Mr. Trudeau’s answer was to ignore the question entirely and assert that the Liberals spent seven years helping the middle class while Conservatives opposed it.
When Mr. Poilievre and other Conservative MPs posed the same question over and over, well, the answers didn’t get more informative. They did get more bureaucratic.
Eventually Public Services and Procurement Minister Helena Jaczek stepped in to drown out the question in process, asserting there are controls in government procurement for value, risk and complexity, and a review of contracting will take place, wherein Treasury Board President Mona Fortier will focus on policy while … well, nobody listened to the rest.
If anyone thought the return of Parliament would pit two opponents clawing at each other in high-pitched frenzy, well, that was nothing like Monday in the Commons. The speeches that Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Poilievre gave to pump up their own MPs last week suggested they were itching for the kind of toe-to-toe combat that would make us wonder how long it could go on before it would break out into an election campaign.
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But there was no grand clash. The Liberals looked mostly like they are trying to smother the prickly questions served from all sides.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet asked for a meeting with Amira Elghawaby, whose appointment as special representative on combatting Islamophobia has raised complaints in Quebec that she called a majority of Quebeckers anti-Muslim. Mr. Trudeau said yes to a meeting. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh complained Mr. Trudeau is not opposing privately delivered health care, and Mr. Trudeau deflected by saying he would always defend the principles of the Canada Health Act.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland’s first answer to Conservative MP Jasraj Singh Hallan’s question about overspending was delivered in an unusually quiet voice, albeit with the standard content about recent benefits. Only one Liberal applauded Transport Minister Omar Alghabra’s lame answer when New Democrat Taylor Bachrach said the government rarely fines airlines for mistreating passengers.
The Conservatives were in better spirits. The McKinsey contracts, and the allegation that they stemmed from Liberal connections to the firm’s former managing partner, Dominic Barton (also Canada’s ambassador to China from 2019 to 2021), gave them a topic of the day. Mr. Poilievre pressed his fingers to his lips looking for an opening in the non-answers. But he wasn’t at fever pitch, either.
Still, the Tories came armed with a better stock phrase. Nearly every question included the phrase “after eight years,” to underline that Mr. Trudeau’s tenure is long in the tooth, and suggest that he is responsible for all that ails the country. That’s a big improvement on the cheesy TV-ad trick Mr. Poilievre’s MPs had used previously – asserting the Liberals plan to “triple, triple, triple” the carbon tax. It helps make the case that any problem now belongs at the feet of Mr. Trudeau.
Even so, the urgency seemed to have lifted. Last week, Mr. Poilievre seemed to be saying Mr. Trudeau must be stopped, now. In Question Period, Conservative MPs seemed pleased with the wear and tear on the Liberal brand and you got the feeling they’d wait for more.
In fact, it is Mr. Trudeau who might need to show some fight, since some of his own Liberal MPs are getting a little nervous that he might be past the peak of his political powers. The PM might have the greater interest in picking a fight that spills out into an election campaign this year. But on Monday, the Liberals were looking to tamp things down, and there was no urgency in the Commons.