It’s almost become part of the lingo lately amongst political commentators and TV hosts – that somehow, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has morphed into the “master of QP.” It has a catchy ring to it, and it’s something that can be used as an example of a strength he can demonstrate – except it’s not really true. At best, it’s an exaggeration, and at worst, it’s a reflection of how terrible the state of QP really is in the Commons these days.
It stems, of course, from a few good days that Mulcair had around this time last year, when he went into prosecutorial mode against Harper around the allegations of the payment that Nigel Wright made to Senator Mike Duffy for him to repay his improper expenses. Mulcair did away with his mini-lectern, his obvious script, and was relentless in asking questions round after round in short, sharp deliveries that were really impressive. And for a couple of days, it was gripping to watch.
The problem, of course, is that it only lasted a couple of days. Mulcair got sloppy, started reading from scripts again – albeit not from the mini-lectern, which has thankfully never been seen on his desk since – and he had no stamina for the delivery. He would try the prosecutorial delivery every now and again, but he could never quite make it land for any other issue, and in some cases, it came off as bizarre and over-reaching to the point of conspiracy theory. But nevertheless, he had been granted this new moniker based on those couple of days’ performance, and it has started to stick.
To be fair, it’s not like he has a lot of competition for the title these days. Justin Trudeau was starting to make progress in terms of his QP delivery a year ago, and was even getting confident enough to the point of occasionally going without notes, but that has fallen by the wayside, either as a result of his frequent absences from the House, or by design as he seeks to cultivate the image of being an anti-politician, and he wants to give the appearance that he’s not getting too comfortable in QP.
Stephen Harper, on the other hand, is a very skilled QP debater – when he can be bothered to make the effort. The problem is that he not only doesn’t often show up for it, two days per week being his new average for attendance, but he also barely bothers to give a good performance. He shrugs off questions and mutters quiet assurances most of the time, throwing the odd jab but not with any particular force or grace. The last time he gave a masterful performance in QP was the day after the budget, when he took almost every single question for the day (and leading the commentariat to suggest that Jim Flaherty was in the political dog house for his comments about income splitting a couple of days previous). Nevertheless, Harper was on fire, answering questions with not only a smile, but with a sense of glee at being able to bat back at any question that was thrown at him. It was glorious, and I only wish that we could see more of that kind of performance on a regular basis. Harper, however, doesn’t judge it to be an important use of his time, so we really won’t.
I’m not sure when there was a golden age of debate when it comes to QP, though if you look back to some of the exchanges between Pierre Elliot Trudeau and Joe Clark when QP was first televised, it was pretty decent back then, with flashes of wit and humour among the serious questions being asked. In recent memory, however, it was tough to top the performance that Bob Rae gave each and every day when he was in the House. It was often stated that when he was the interim leader that Question Period wouldn’t really get started until Rae got up to speak, and it was true. Remember that these were also the days of Nycole Turmel’s tortured delivery, or Thomas Mulcair’s lifeless recitation of scripts delivered from the mini-lectern perched on his desk.
Rae, on the other hand, eschewed scripts. He would ask his questions off the cuff, often with a bit of a quip or some humour involved, and more than anything, he would be able to pick up on the threads that Mulcair dropped when he stuck closely to his scripts, and call out either the non-answers of the government, or the absurdity of an answer that had been provided. He was easily able to react to the flow of the debate as it happened around him, and as a result, could do a better job of holding government to account because of it.
Sadly, there is no one able to fill that role in the House now that Rae has resigned. Mulcair still hews to his scripts, often flailing from topic to topic in a scattershot fashion and not following up on whatever Harper tells him, because he’s more concerned about getting clips on each of those topic on the evening news than actually doing the job of accountability that his position as opposition leader demands of him. His backbenchers are almost all universal in their own obviously reading scripts, and their inability to either follow up on answers or to change from repeating questions when they are provided with an answer. The need to repeat those questions in English and French, for the sole purpose of getting clips on the networks of each language, makes it all the more obvious that it has nothing to do with actually trying to get answers or to hold the government to account.
So when the columnists or TV hosts start trying to come up with an identifying characteristic for Mulcair, they really should drop the “master of QP” reference. Currently QP has no master – and Parliament is poorer for it.
Other articles by Dale Smith
Chong’s Reform Act is a step but not a panacea
NDP satellite offices and expanding the definition of “parliamentary” work
Showing up for QP
Mandates and the names on the ballot
Make parliament more “efficient” for MPs
Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale