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Judging by the first day of the House after the winter break all sides seem to have decided to curtail the rhetoric and be more businesslike.

It was only day one, but one could detect a slightly more dignified tone, right from the Members’ Statements that precede Question Period.

Gone were the Conservatives’ usual partisan swipes at the NDP’s (fictitious) job-killing carbon tax.

Instead, there was heartfelt sorrow for the victims in Ile-Verte, hearty encouragement for Canada’s athletes — both the Winter Olympians and the Speaker’s brother-in-law who will play in the Super Bowl (for Seattle) — and solemn remembrances of the Holocaust.

There were also earnest comments on the current crisis of democracy and human rights in the Ukraine.

And the Ukraine was the subject of Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair’s entirely non-partisan opening question. He wanted an update from Prime Minister Harper on the Canadian government’s stance toward the Ukrainian crisis.

The NDP Leader even thanked the Prime Minister for his (careful, non-committal and guarded) answer, and kept a relatively non-partisan mood going when he asked the Prime Minister about the recent rash of armed forces suicides.

During the Parliamentary break, Mulcair wrote the Prime Minister about this issue, asking him to make it a personal priority. (There are some strong advocates for military personnel and veterans in the NDP caucus, not the least of whom is veteran Nova Scotia MP Peter Stoffer.)

Mulcair hopped from the military to the heart of the NDP’s new emphasis on “affordability,” with a question about bank fees. The government pledged, in the Throne Speech, to control bank fees, but seems to be backing away from that pledge.

Mulcair wanted to know if the Conservatives will keep their promise to “rein in” the fees, but the Prime Minister did not make any firm commitment.

“This government has expressed, on a number of occasions, our concerns with the effect of certain banking fees and practices on consumers and small business,” Harper said, choosing his words oh-so-carefully, “We have taken various actions in the past and we will continue to work with Canadians to take the appropriate actions in the future.”

From that mealy mouthed response it is easy to guess that the Conservatives are getting push-back from their friends in the financial sector. One certainly hears significant push-back on the idea of regulating bank fees from free market fundamentalists such as Andrew Coyne. That has to resonate with some powerful Conservatives.

Let me remind the Prime Minister that the Privy Council Office reports to him!

Mulcair’s relatively low-key and non-confrontational approach might have made Canadians think the Senate scandals were all over and done with.

Well, the Opposition Leader put pause to that thought when he (finally) asked the Prime Minister about the Privy Council Office’s outlandish refusal to release 27 of 28 documents related to the Senate affair the NDP has requested under Access to Information.

The Prime Minister sought his usual cover in this case, saying, in effect, that the decision to withhold the documents has nothing to do with him.

It was a decision taken by independent lawyers and public servants, Harper said.

Mulcair reminded the PM that those Privy Council public servants report to the Prime Minister, and that he (the PM) has the power to release whatever information he wants to.

The lawyers and officials can advise the Prime Minister as to what he is obliged to do legally. It is their role to give advice based on laws, precedents and regulations.

The buck stops at the Prime Minister’s desk, however, and nobody can prevent him from being fully transparent with Parliament and the public.

The PM was mum on this matter. Here, his stance eerily resembles Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s refusal to be interviewed by the Toronto Police. Ford’s lawyer gave his client the advice he gives anyone mixed up in criminal activity. You have the right to remain silent, and you don’t have to cooperate with the cops unless they charge you with something.

On the Senate business, Harper is always carefully legalistic in his choice of words. No one has suggested he knew anything, he always says. Only two people have been named in investigations, he says over and over again, Wright and Duffy, and they are, conveniently, out of the picture.

Was Senator Irving Gerstein willing to help Duffy with his expenses when it seemed those only amount to $32,000, not $90,000?

We don’t get an answer, only the same mantra: Senator Gerstein is “not under investigation,” we are told, and that’s that.

Trudeau was more focused and confident

As for the Liberal Leader, on this first day back after the winter break, and after a fall session during which he was frequently absent, he seemed, in his first series of volleys with the Prime Minister, to have found his parliamentary sea legs.

Justin Trudeau very confidently interrogated the Prime Minister about the Canada Jobs Grant, centrepiece of the last Conservative budget, which has been categorically rejected by all of the provinces.

It is more than a bit ironic to hear a Liberal upbraid a Conservative for being unmindful of the rights and concerns of the provinces.

Since Trudeau’s father’s time, the Conservatives have criticized the Liberals for their over-centralizing tendencies. Conservatives from Bob Stanfield to Joe Clark to Brian Mulroney routinely portrayed themselves as advocates of flexible and cooperative federalism and the Liberals as arrogant bullies, ready to push the provinces around.

Now, the shoe is on the other foot.

We’ll see how well Trudeau wears it.

What about the unemployed?

The closest Monday’s Question Period came to true partisan acrimony came just after Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, in response to a planned question from a Conservative Member, announced that the next budget will come on February 11.

The NDP’s Finance Critic, Peggy Nash, then rose to her feet and asked about the unemployed, and the Conservatives’ much-contested tightening of Employment Insurance requirements, introduced in the last (omnibus) budget.

In the coming budget, Nash asked, will this government do something for the growing legions of unemployed Canadians?

Flaherty ignored the part about Employment Insurance.

Instead, he harkened back five years to his 2009 budget. That’s when the Conservatives brought in major infrastructure spending as economic stimulus to counter the impact of the worldwide recession. That budget produced the first of a series of big deficits.

The 2009 budget, Flaherty said, “protected Canada from double-digit unemployment, much better than other western democracies.”

To which Nash’s riposte was: “It just shows what an effective opposition can do to force the government to take action.”

For those who do not remember it, a few months before the 2009 budget, in his fall economic update, Flaherty announced a chimerical small fiscal surplus — plucked it seemed out of thin air, and much to the embarrassment of finance department officials — and made no commitment whatsoever to any stimulus spending of any kind.

It took a Parliamentary crisis, and a near non-confidence vote that was thwarted by an unprecedented prorogation of Parliament just days after an election, to bring about a change of heart in the then-minority Conservative government.

But that was all a half decade ago.

On Monday, in response to Nash’s comment, Flaherty shot back that the NDP voted against his new, revised stimulus-laden budget back then, despite the billions of dollars of spending it contained.

And so there we were on Parliament’s first day back — arguing about what happened nearly five years ago. There’ll be lots more to argue about in the days and weeks to come.

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Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...