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Question period returns: 7 political matchups to watch


Ceremonial traditions turn to raw politics today as the new Liberal government faces its first grilling in question period.

The parliamentary landscape has changed dramatically, with a fresh cabinet, a new Official Opposition and 30 extra MPs crammed into the House of Commons.

Many of the Liberal ministers who will be forced on their feet are political rookies — set to be challenged by veteran MPs, including former members of the Conservative cabinet.

The first question period in the House since the Oct. 19 election begins at 2:15 p.m. ET today. CBCnews.ca will livestream coverage.

How will the new ministers and opposition critics match up in terms of style, experience and political savvy?

Michael Behiels, a political historian at the University of Ottawa, said while all camps have promised to adopt a more constructive approach, he expects it will remain a very partisan Parliament. He believes the Conservatives are determined to return to office in 2019 before Justin Trudeau’s government can dismantle the policies and programs brought in under 10 years of Stephen Harper.

“The lineup of Conservative Party critics confirms that (interim Leader Rona) Ambrose’s promise of a new tone is dead in the water,” Behiels said. “It is a mere camouflage of the Conservative Party’s continued adherence to its ideology and policies. There is not a shrinking violet among these ministerial critics.”

‘Promise to be nice’

Melanee Thomas, assistant professor of political science at the University of Calgary, also expects minimal change in the tone of Parliament.

“I don’t see any substantive changes beyond a promise to be nice,” she said.

Ottawa-based communications consultant Barry McLoughlin said all parties will be under pressure to demonstrate a healthy, kinder approach as the Canadian public has grown weary of partisan bickering.

But how long it will last will depend on how well it’s working for the parties politically.

“It would be foolish to abandon it in early days. I think all three parties are committed to a whole new tone and approach,” McLoughlin said.

Here are the key question period matchups to watch:

1. TrudeauAmbrose: Government vs. opposition

After leaping from third-party leader to the top job, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is set to square off with veteran cabinet minister Rona Ambrose, the interim Conservative Party leader who held eight different portfolios 2006-15.

“Ambrose is good with satire and ridicule and she loves taking jabs and swings with a steel fist cloaked in a velvet glove,” Behiels said. “I am not so sure how Trudeau will react to this sort of approach. But he will have to be on his toes and be able to bob and weave with the skills of a veteran political boxer.”

McLoughlin said Ambrose will need to hook questions to the values she and the party believes are the aspirations and concerns of Canadians.

“Conversely, Trudeau has to tie these into the big themes of his government,” McLoughlin said. “He has promised hope and change and almost everything he says will be through this lens of hope and change — it can’t be the same old, same old.”

2. Morneau–Raitt: Finance

Bill Morneau and Lisa Raitt

Rookie Finance Minister Bill Morneau, left, will face questions from Conservative Finance critic Lisa Raitt, a veteran of several portfolios in recent Conservative governments. (Canadian Press photos)

Newbie Bill Morneau will spar with veteran former minister Lisa Raitt in the critical finance portfolio, and McLoughlin expects it will be a pretty even match-up.

“Lisa Raitt is very experienced in the House, and has a nice style and tone. Bill Morneau has no experience in the House but has already demonstrated significant experience in taking some pretty tough questions,” he said.

Behiels has a different take.

“Morneau is a political novice with a steep learning curve facing him,” Behiels said. “He will learn quickly and keep his composure as he faces Raitt’s criticism on substance, but criticism often clothed in her nasty personal attacks.”

3. Dion–Clement: Global Affairs

Two seasoned parliamentarians are paired to fight in the key foreign affairs file.

“This battle will be a clash of ideas and substance concerning Canada’s branding and actions on the world stage,” Behiels said.

The newly named global affairs post is high-profile at home and abroad, and affords both politicians a renewed opportunity to showcase their prowess.

“I think Tony Clement will demonstrate a new tone and approach and I’m pretty confident Mr. Dion will be able to handle it,” said McLoughlin.

4. Wilson-Raybould–Nicholson: Justice

From doctor-assisted dying to a national inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women and girls, the justice portfolio has a full plate of sensitive issues.

Rookie Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould will square off with the man who once held the same post for the Conservatives, Rob Nicholson.

“He knows all the files, he knows the process and is deeply engrained and tuned to that. He has the natural advantage of being very experienced in the House,” McLoughlin said. “Ms. Wilson-Raybould is brand new to this, but she brings a freshness and she’s already demonstrated to the media that she doesn’t duck a challenge.”

5. Sajjan–Bezan: Defence

Canada’s changing role in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria will be another pressing issue in the Commons, and hawkish critic James Bezan will hold former military officer Harjit Sajjan to account.

Behiels describes Sajjan as a “soft-spoken but determined” minister whose background gives him deep understanding of complex files around procurement and missions.

Behiels sees Bezan as a strong communicator, but said “he will not get away with his bobbing and weaving based on a limited understanding of the Canadian Armed Forcespast, present and future.”

McLoughlin noted that Sajjan did not retreat when confronted with tough questions on hot files, even in the early days.

“I think he already exceeded expectations,” he said. “This will be one to watch in terms of House performance.”

6. Brison–Poilievre: Treasury Board

Both seasoned and scrappy, Scott Brison and Pierre Poilievre will go head-to-head over issues related to government management and the bureaucracy.

“This is going to be a political gong show between Brison and Poilievre, with both of them shouting at each other over the heckling in the House of Commons,” Behiels predicted. “Poilievre has not changed his pitbull attack mode and will use it often and to some effect.”

McLoughlin said Poilievre, once a strong arm of the Harper government, will be a “true test” of the change of tone for the Conservatives.

7. McCallum–Rempel: Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship

John McCallum and Michelle Rempel

Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship John McCallum, left, will face critic Michelle Rempel, who was a frequent voice in the media for the Harper government. (Canadian Press photos)

The Liberal plan to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees will continue to be a key issue in the coming months, and one of the ministers in charge, John McCallum, will be kept on his toes by Conservative up-and-comer Michelle Rempel.

“This is her chance to shine, to show that she can really take on the big guns. McCallum is an experienced minister who has already quite deftly handled the refugee file with some very complicated things and is showing himself to be not shakeable.”

Behiels agrees.

“McCallum is a veteran and will not be rattled by Rempel,” he said.

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