OTTAWA – Canada’s 42nd Parliament got down to business Monday, with the often-promised new era of civility sounding a lot like a brittle rehash of the federal election campaign.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair used debate on last week’s throne speech to refight some of the same election battles, with sparks flying between Liberals and Tories in particular.
Ambrose issued a scathing critique of the new Liberal government’s throne speech, which was itself a recap of Trudeau’s election promises.
Echoing the same criticisms levelled throughout the campaign, she called the Liberal plan a recipe for intrusive government that thinks it knows best how to spend Canadians’ money.
“What we did hear was a recipe for big government and big spending. So the question that every taxpayer wants us to ask this government is: where will the money come from to pay for all of this?” Ambrose told the House of Commons.
“It only comes from one place and that’s out of the pockets of Canadians.”
Treasury Board President Scott Brison questioned how Ambrose could make such an accusation when she had been a minister in what he termed “one of the biggest spending governments and the most wasteful governments in Canadian history.” The previous Conservative government added $150 billion to the national debt, he added.
The exchange prompted Ambrose to observe: “I think it’s been 25 minutes and the sunny ways are over.”
But Ambrose was no slouch when it came to partisan shots.
She took aim at Trudeau’s vow to withdraw Canadian fighter jets from the allied bombing campaign against Islamic radicals in Syria and Iraq. While the Americans, French, British and Germans are all ramping up their efforts, Ambrose accused Trudeau of believing that “posing for selfies at international conferences is a better use of his time.”
“Canada isn’t back. Canada is backing away,” she charged.
Mulcair struck a more conciliatory tone, promising to work with the government “when our values and our policies coincide.” But he took the opportunity to recycle a number of planks from the NDP platform, urging Trudeau to hike taxes on large corporations and introduce a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage and continuing to tout universal, affordable child care and abolition of the Senate.
As he did during the campaign, Mulcair criticized the centrepiece of the Liberal platform — the plan to cut taxes for Canadians earning between $45,282 and $90,563 while raising taxes on the wealthiest one per cent — as smoke and mirrors.
The plan will actually benefit wealthy Canadians the most and do nothing for 70 per cent of taxpayers, he said, urging Trudeau to expand the tax cut to those in the lowest income tax bracket.
After question period was over, Finance Minister Bill Morneau admitted in a news conference that the tax changes, originally touted as revenue neutral, will actually cost Canadians about $1.2 billion a year, starting in fiscal 2016-17.
“This is going to cost a bit more for the government, and we want to explain to Canadians exactly what the shortfall is,” Morneau said.
For his part, Trudeau essentially repeated the throne speech, in slightly greater detail. But he took a veiled shot at the previous Conservative regime, which campaigned on hot button identity issues, including a proposed ban on Muslim women wearing the face-covering niqab during citizenship ceremonies.
Extolling the virtues of diversity, Trudeau said some Canadians have, at times, “been the target of hateful words and deeds, simply because they look different, speak a different language, choose to wear different clothes or practice a different faith.”
But he argued that “intolerance stands little chance” in Canada and pointed to the recent election as proof that Canadians reject attempts to pit one group against another.
While there were some sparks, the tenor of Monday’s sitting was still far more civil than the toxic partisanship that became the hallmark of Commons debate in the months leading up to the election.
“Canadians want a government that acts honourably and that treats all others with respect. both inside and outside this House,” Trudeau said. “We will be that government.”
During the first question period of the parliamentary session later Monday, Trudeau maintained a respectful demeanour as Ambrose grilled him on the planned withdrawal from the bombing mission in Syria and Mulcair challenged him to reveal his plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
However, in keeping with past practice, the daily jousting match did not produce much in the way of detailed answers.
“I am disappointed to find out that question period is still question period and not so much answer period,” Ambrose said later.
“I did think that questions were tough, but respectful.”
Mulcair said the tone of question period was “refreshing” but the content of the answers amounted to “baffle gab” “avoidance” and “obfuscation” — as usual.