The Commons: Of taxes, toplessness and Justin Trudeau

The Second Trudeau Era begins
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is applauded by fellow MPs rises in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Monday, April 15, 2013.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

On the matter of RBC, Thomas Mulcair leaned forward and loudly conveyed his indignation. The Prime Minister stood and accused the New Democrats of hypocrisy, reporting that NDP MPs had previously advocated for temporary foreign worker permits. Mr. Mulcair returned to his feet and sketched a thorough denunciation of the government’s attitude toward the working class. And Mr. Harper stood and ventured that it was the NDP who needed to explain.

Not that much of anyone was here to see any of this.

In the moments before Question Period, the man on the front page of today’s newspapers sat in his new spot along the front row at the far end of the room. Wearing a high white collar, his wavy hair parted to the side, Justin Trudeau resembled somewhat the fellow who played John A. Macdonald in that movie. The press gallery was nearly full to capacity, as was the front row of the Prime Minister’s gallery. On the floor, Joyce Murray stopped by to give Mr. Trudeau a hug. Tony Clement and Randy Hoback and Pat Martin and Nathan Cullen shook his hand. On his way to his new seat, Bob Rae stopped in front of Mr. Trudeau and presented him with a small wooden box, within which was a pen that once belonged to Wilfrid Laurier. Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner stood and, as is his habit on special occasions, read aloud an original poem.

And then everyone waited for the sixth, seventh and eighth questions of the afternoon.

When the Speaker finally called on the member for Papineau, Mr. Trudeau stood straight and tall and his caucus gave him a good cheer. His question was straightforward and his delivery unaffected, but his necktie was tied an inch or so short.

“Mr. Speaker, in terms of international trade, this government lacks judgment, particularly in regard to the new $350-million tax on the middle class,” he said, en francais.

There was a problem with the House translation and the Speaker had to interrupt. Service was quickly restored and the floor returned to Mr. Trudeau.

“Does the government not understand that to increase the price of hundreds of commodities represents a heavy burden for Canadians who suffer?” he asked.

Over then to the Prime Minister.

“Mr. Speaker,” he said, “I wish to begin by congratulating the new leader of the Liberal Party on his election.”

In lieu of a present, Mr. Harper had already made a donation to the nation’s television networks in Mr. Trudeau’s name.

“The government has reduced tariffs for Canadians by over half a billion dollars per year, which is one of our reduction in taxes for Canadians,” Mr. Harper now explained. “Of course, the Liberal Party voted against all these reduction measures for Canadian families.”

Mr. Trudeau tried again, a bit more demonstrative with his hand gestures this time. “Mr. Speaker, because of these new tariffs on imports, middle class Canadians will pay more to buy tricycles, school supplies and clothes for children,” he reported. “How can the government justify this insane new tax to the millions of Canadians who have a hard time making ends meet?”

Mr. Harper now tried to turn this all around. “Mr. Speaker, the government has greatly reduced tariffs for Canadians. In addition, we do not think it is effective or just for firms in emerging countries like China to earn special cuts from Canadian taxpayers.”

For his third intervention, the new Liberal leader appealed to the authority of the dictionary.

“Mr. Speaker, according to Collins English Dictionary, a tariff is a ‘tax levied by a government on imports.’ ”

As rhetoric, this was lazy. And for a man whose substantiveness is subject to question, it seemed unwise.

“So the Prime Minister can couch this in any terms he likes,” Mr. Trudeau continued, “but the fact is when middle-class Canadians go to a store to buy a tricycle, school supplies or a little red wagon for their kids, they will pay more because of a tax in this government’s budget.”

Blessed with the advantage of facts, Mr. Trudeau ventured a confident question. “Now that the PM knows what is in his budget, will he show good judgment, admit it is a tax and repeal this tax on middle-class Canadians?”

He jabbed his finger and the Liberals stood to applaud.

“What the Liberal Party seems to stand for is that somehow we should give special tax breaks to emerging economies like China,” Mr. Harper offered by way of response. “We think that is inappropriate. That is why we will make sure there is fair taxation for all companies and lower taxes for Canadians.”

For at least this first day, it seemed that of these two it was Mr. Harper who had talked himself into a spot of trouble.

In the foyer afterwards, a crowd awaited—more reporters than there presently are Liberal MPs crowded around the middle microphone. Shortly after 3pm, Mr. Trudeau strode out of the opposition lobby, past the portrait of Mackenzie King and toward the whir of a dozen cameras. The first question concerned those attack ads.

“I made a commitment last night to spend—to start to spend, to end every day focused on the concerns of Canadians, particularly middle class Canadians,” Mr. Trudeau said. “That’s what I did in the House. That’s what I will continue to do, talking about the issues that Canadians are sharing with me. If Mr. Harper and his Conservatives want to change the channel like that, want to talk about anything other than their record, it’s no surprise, but I’m going to keep talking about what matters to Canadians.”

Eventually someone summoned the courage to ask the question that hung over all of this: Why had he taken his shirt off in that video?

“The What a Girl Wants Charity is a charity that features … firefighters from a calendar here in Ottawa to raise money for the Canadian Liver Foundation particularly and for women’s issues. And I hope that all the attention drawn to that today and my willingness to have a little fun with it will actually lead them to receive more donations today. I hope people are donating to the Canadian Liver Foundation and I was glad to offer them my shirt.”

If there was history in this day it was surely in that a leader of the Liberal party had to account for this much.