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The Bad News Bears of the Hill

[PoliticsWatch posted 5:05 p.m. May 5, 2006]

The Liberals in opposition are beginning to resemble the Bad News Bears. 

OTTAWA  — Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his famous five priorities have been attracting headlines in the first 100 days of the new government, but scratch the surface a little more and a potentially even larger story has also been emerging in the background. 
It is the struggling, listless and leaderless Liberal opposition in the House of Commons. 

While it is still early in this Parliament, question period is becoming more and more difficult to watch as the Liberals in opposition resemble a struggling Little League baseball team whiffing at pitch after pitch. 

There are some strong performers, but the usual question period exchange between the official opposition and the government usually ends with the Liberals with their head lowered walking back into the dugout after striking out. 

You can visibly see the Liberals shoulders sink at times when they ask their supplemental question. 

When constructing his cabinet Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided to put MPs in cabinet who had previous cabinet experience at either the provincial or federal level. 

A number of veteran Tory MPs were pushed aside to make way for rookie MPs with provincial experience, such as Jim Flaherty and John Baird, who both served in former Ontario premier Mike Harris' government.  

That decision is paying dividends now, especially when one observes Flaherty in the House of Commons fielding questions and pushing back with his own retorts with a good natured smile.  

When Liberal finance critic John McCallum attacks Flaherty for reversing a Liberal tax cut in the budget, Flaherty fires back and renders the Liberal impotent, referring to McCallum as the "President of the Save the GST Club."

Flaherty also enjoys referencing in his responses McCallum's denial when he was revenue minister of a severance deal with former mint president David Dingwall.

"Mr. Speaker, the budget will reflect the commitments of our party during the election campaign," he said last week.

"What it will not reflect is the requirements to join the save the GST club where one has to be on both sides of the GST issue: want to abolish it in 1993 and want to save it now. It will not be on both sides of the Dingwall issue about was it voluntary or involuntary. It will not be talking about people being entitled to their entitlements."

McCallum followed up Flaherty's response by calling the budget flawed -- even though it had not been tabled -- and calling on Flaherty to resign.

"Mr. Speaker, I have not even presented the budget yet and I am incompetent and I am supposed to resign?" Flaherty asked in astonishment.

Another swing and another miss for the opposition. 

The Liberals based their opposition to the budget mainly on the Conservative decision to effectively cancel the Liberal early childhood learning program and replace it with a commitment to childcare spaces and a monthly cheque to parents. 

But that backfired this week when the Liberal child-care critic, Carolyn Bennett, went on Mike Duffy Live and suggested that cancellation of the early learning program would create more criminals. 

"There's actually no plan for early learning and child-care spaces," she said. "So it's a good job they're putting more money for prisons in the budget, because we're going to need them if we don't get this early childhood right." 

With the memories of former Liberal spin doctor Scott Reid's beer and popcorn comments still fresh in their heads, the Tories capitalized on Bennett's comments and used it against her in question period the next day. 

"I hear a lot of indignation from the member opposite about our proposal to give people money," said Human Resources Minister Diane Finley. 

"If there is cause for indignation it is because of what that member said on national television yesterday. She insulted every single Canadian who chooses to raise families at home. She insulted every one of us who was raised at home by implying that parents who want to raise their children at home will be bringing up future criminals."

Strike two.

When the Tories don't have it so easy in the House, they can always rely on their strikeout pitch when responding to questions. This usually makes reference to how the Liberals had 13 years to fix whatever problem they are now complaining about at the top of their lungs in opposition, but never did anything about it while in government. 

"They're floundering in trying to find their sea legs as opposition," says NDP MP Pat Martin. 

"It's a little embarrassing to watch ... They've been spoiled rotten for years as the ruling party. It's an uncomfortable transition for them to make."

The Liberals also appear to be weak from a strategic angle. 

For whatever reason, the Liberals spent two days this week with their lead questions being about criticism of the Conservative government's Access to Information package in the Accountability Act. 

Perhaps they had polling showing that issue would help them win votes in Quebec and rural Canada. 

Or perhaps not. 

There are also some rumblings within Liberal circles regarding how the Liberals are spreading the questions around to as many MPs as possible. 

When the Conservatives were in opposition, you could count on Stephen Harper and his attack dogs Peter MacKay, Jason Kenney, James Moore, Monte Solberg and Diane Ablonczy getting a question virtually every day, even if the issue didn't fall within their critic portfolio. 

Not so with the Liberals. 

For whatever reason, the Liberals are using as many of their MPs as possible to ask questions. Last week while the flag flap and the softwood lumber deal dominated question period, 36 Liberals were given the opportunity to ask questions. 

The only MPs to get a question each day were Interim leader Bill Graham and McCallum. 

Ujjal Dosanjh, the defence critic, asked just two questions the entire week, and only one regarding the government's controversial decisions to not lower the Peace Tower flag for troops killed in Afghanistan and to bar reporters from covering soldiers bodies returning to Canadian soil.  

If the Tories and Liberals in opposition were Little League teams, then the Tories would be a team that fielded its best players, while the Liberals are the team that has the feel-good, Barney-The-Dinosaur, "everybody gets to play" philosophy. 

The latter teams usually get blown-out on a regular basis.

Of course this is not surprising for a party that has 11 people running in a leadership race and has a shadow cabinet consisting of 78 critics and associate critics. 

For the post-Martin Liberals, it seems everyone can be a critic and anyone can be a leader. 

"There's a lot of competing egos at play there," says the NDP's Martin. "I don't know who's driving that bus. It remains to be seen who's taking charge."

But things could be changing for the Bad News Liberals.

The Globe and Mail reported Friday that Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale was considering creating a "SWAT team" of five or six MPs who were quick on their feet in the House and could be used on a regular basis. 

The Globe compared Goodale's idea to the 1980s Liberal Rat Pack consisting of Sheila Copps, Don Boudria, Brian Tobin and John Nunziatta. That group of opposition MPs became relatively famous for their daily tormenting of then prime minister Brian Mulroney in the House of Commons.

According to the Globe, potential SWAT Team members include Liberal MPs Jean Lapierre, Wayne Easter, McCallum, Dominic LeBlanc and Mark Holland. 

But question period viewers may have to wait because Goodale says the SWAT Team won't be in place until the fall. 

LeBlanc said he had never heard the phrase "SWAT Team" until it appeared in the Globe article on Friday. 

However, he seemed reluctant to be in a Rat Pack remake. 

"Lord Beaverbrook once said you never try and repeat a success."

The Tories meanwhile are chuckling at Goodale's plan. 

Tory MP James Moore said he'd be cautious about getting involved in a Rat Pack. 

"It didn't work out in the long-term for John Nunziatta, didn't work out in the long-term for Sheila Copps. Don Boudria wasn't treated very well by Paul Martin and Brian Tobin was slapped by Paul Martin and had to quit politics twice.

"I think joining a Rat Pack is a dangerous career move."

"I find it humourous that they say it's going to start in September," said Tory MP Jason Kenney. "It takes them a summer break to get ready for question period?

"We'd be delighted with that line up, including Mr. McCallum, any time to be asking us questions." 

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