‘Stephen Harper’ surprisingly popular in first question period of season

OTTAWA — The new fall season of question in the opened Monday without some current and former stars while the remaining cast dropped hints at where the big stories likely will be going in the months ahead.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a frequent star of the 45-minute show that plays most weekdays, was not there and will make his season debut at a future date. He’s busy this week in New York City at the United Nations attending the annual “leaders’ week.”

But Jason , still a House of Commons star though not for much longer, was there, taking a break from his campaign to be the next leader of the Alberta PCs. showed up to attack both the Notley NDP back home and the Trudeau over carbon taxes.

Also not there was the star of so many seasons over the past decade: .

Harper resigned his seat Aug. 26 which meant that New Democrats and Liberals were finally able to use two words in the House that they have not been able to use for more than 15 years: “Stephen Harper.” MPs are forbidden from referring to other members by their actual name and must refer to them by what might as well be their parliamentary stage name. Thus, Harper was most recently known only as the “member for Calgary Heritage” and, before last fall, as “the prime minister.”

Jonathan Hayward/CP
Jonathan Hayward/CPNow that Stephen Harper is retired from politics, his name may now be said openly in question period.

But now all members were free to refer to the former PM by name. New Democrats seemed positively tickled to wield that name as a weapon.

“The minister has just confirmed that (the Liberals) are in fact continuing with the cuts imposed by Stephen Harper,” NDP Leader Tom Mulcair thundered as he accused Health Minister Jane Philpott of failing to provide enough cash for health transfers to the provinces.

“Canadians learned yesterday that the Liberal government, which was granted power on promise of change, will be keeping the same Harper government’s (greenhouse gas) emission in place,” New Democrat Alistair MacGregor said before question period got started.

Later, Minister Catherine would reply to that charge: “The Harper targets were fake targets.”

The word “Harper” — never used like that in more than 15 years — was used eight times during Monday’s session.

New Democrats seemed keen to paint the Liberals as “-lite” in the hope progressive voters who deserted them last fall could be shown how they were sold a bill of goods by the Liberals, particularly regarding environment or health care.

As for the Conservatives, their big push this fall will be to show that the Liberals are unfit for office on economic grounds.

Interim leader Rona Ambrose opened question period by reeling off the indictment: unemployment is rising, Canadians have record household debt and payroll taxes are about to rise in the form of higher CPP premiums.

“Canadians do not believe that the prime minister can manage the economy,” Ambrose said, despite dozens of polls that say precisely the opposite.

The prime minister being absent, Finance Minister Bill Morneau rose to rebut and cited cuts to the income tax rate for middle-income earners and a new, richer Canada Child Benefit. “We are going to make sure that we find a way to have the next generation of Canadians better off than the last one.”

Morneau, Ambrose, Mulcair and McKenna all spoke from their usual places in the House but many others have different spots to sit this fall.

The new government , Bardish Chagger — the first woman to hold that post — now sits at the prime minister’s left elbow. That move bumped several others in the Liberal front bench to new seats including Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

On the opposite side, Ambrose, too, has a new house leader and seat mate: Candice .

Bergen replaces Conservative leadership hopeful Andrew Scheer who, along with six other Conservative MPs who want to succeed Harper, has been moved to the back row. There, they are out of TV camera range and so their absences while campaigning will be less noticed.

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