Justin Trudeau's first day as Liberal Leader in the House was inevitably a challenge for him.
It was also a challenge for Official Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair.
The NDP leader gets to lead off in Question Period, and there might have been some who wondered whether Mulcair would trot out the new friendlier Tom his Party had featured at the Montreal Convention.
Mulcair decided to be himself and show some of his legendary anger.
What skills does Tim Horton's need that it cannot find in Canada?
The Opposition Leader honed in on the temporary foreign worker program, pointing out that the Royal Bank has apologized, but the Harper government has neither apologized for nor tried to explain the abuse of the system.
Mulcair explained that the 340,000 temporary foreign workers now in Canada are equal to four out of ten of the jobs created since the recession. These temporary foreign workers are "taking jobs from Canadians," the Opposition leader railed -- and they are jobs of all kinds, from clerical workers to plant workers to food service workers to miners.
With 1.4 million unemployed in Canada, Mulcair wanted the Prime Minister to explain what skills Tim Horton's needs that it could not find in Canada.
Prime Minister Harper was uncharacteristically meek in his response. He barely defended the temporary foreign worker system and said his government will "make sure the program is reformed so it cannot be misused in any such way."
That, of course, is a very different line from the one the government has been peddling to the business community for quite a while.
As reported in this space, the Harper government's handpicked Red Tape Reduction Commission -- a body that bypassed the House Committee process and included only business representatives and Conservative MPs -- successfully advocated for a streamlined and simplified system for businesses that use temporary foreign workers.
The Commission did not even bother to consider the potential for abuse that the Prime Minister now decries.
As well, through a Human Resources Department Labour Market "Opinion" issued in 2012, the government effectively made it possible for employers to pay "guest workers" 15 per cent less than they must pay Canadians doing the same work.
None of this came up in Monday's Question Period, but considering how big this program has grown it might be time for a Parliamentary Committee to have a good look at it. Not much chance of that, in this time of centralized political control of everything Parliament does.
'Work for less or you will be replaced'
Mulcair didn't stop at the issue of "guest workers."
He pushed further, and put the current controversy in the context of the government's broader policy thrust:
"Let us look at their record: attacking collective bargaining rights, forcing seniors to work an extra two years, kicking workers off EI unless they take a 30 per cent pay cut and now they are taking jobs away from Canadian workers and legislating lower pay for the foreign workers who replace them. It seems that the Prime Minister's message to Canadians is clear: work for less or you will be replaced."
The Prime Minister's only riposte to that was to say "there are so many falsehoods in that preamble I do not know where to begin." He did not bother to enumerate any of those falsehoods, however.
On Tuesday, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley is supposed to make some sort of announcement about the government’s plan to reform the guest worker program. We might get an idea of what the government has in mind, though it is likely the announcement will only hint at reforms to come.
Trudeau echoes his Liberal predecessor of "sunny ways"
When it came time for Trudeau to make his debut, he borrowed an issue the NDP has been pushing for a while and, at the same time, echoed the Liberal Leader to whom he likes to be compared (hint -- it's not his father).
The issue is the impact of the higher tariffs the government announced in its most recent budget on goods from countries such as China. The NDP has been calling this measure an “iPod tax” and chiding the notionally anti-tax government for, in effect, raising taxes.
Trudeau picked up that argument, making sure to include fulsome reference to his favourite social class -- the middle class, of course.
"When middle-class Canadians go to a store to buy a tricycle, school supplies or a little red wagon for their kids," the new Liberal Leader said, "They will pay more because of a tax in this government's budget."
In this gambit, the great Liberal of long ago whom Trudeau is channeling is Wilfrid Laurier.
Prime Minister Laurier -- he of the "sunny ways" Justin Trudeau seeks to emulate -- was, as were most small-l liberals of his time, a committed free trader.
He advocated what he called "reciprocity" (reciprocal lowering of tariffs) with the United States, while the Conservatives, in line with their founding leader John A. MacDonald's "national policy," were protectionists.
The Conservatives of more than a century ago wanted to protect a burgeoning Canadian manufacturing sector, even if that meant higher prices for Canadian consumers.
Liberals of that time worried more about farmers’ and small entrepreneurs' access to cheaper goods -- especially those, such as farm machinery, that were necessary to production -- than the profits of big manufacturers.
Trudeau hit the right middle class note; Mulcair was stronger and tougher
Today, the Harper government says the just-abolished preferential tariff for a number of developing countries was, in essence, a form of development assistance. That assistance, they say, is no longer necessary, now that such economies as China's and Brazil's are thriving.
Both the NDP and Trudeau have focused more narrowly on the cost to consumers of these new tariffs.
The NDP has often been skeptical of trade liberalization because, like the use of temporary foreign workers, it can serve to lower labour and environmental protections all around. In the case of these new tariffs, however, NDPers are foscused only on the increased prices Canadians will pay for iPods and other goods, such as, believe it or not, caskets.
The Laurier Liberals were the party of what some used to call the "petit bourgeoisie": crafts people, farmers and small business people. The Conservatives of Macdonald and his successors were the party of big business. Workers did not have a party, back then.
Now, Trudeau wants to make like Laurier and make his party the champion of long-suffering "middle class" Canadians.
In that sense, he made a good choice for his inaugural question.
On this day, however, Mulcair was more forceful, effective and comprehensive in his attacks – certainly from a policy point of view.
From an optics and theatrics point of view, on the other hand, much of the national media were more preoccupied with the crude and offensive new Conservative anti-Trudeau attack ads than any questions of policy.
Political thuggery has a way of stealing attention from all kinds of more serious considerations
And then, by day's end, all Ottawa news was dwarfed by the stories of the bombings in Boston. Actual violence -- especially suspected terrorist violence -- will trump verbal political thuggery any time.
In any case, it may have been Trudeau’s first day as Leader, but it was just one day.
As Mulcair tried to point out to reporters after Question Period, there are more than two years to go to the next election.
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