Conservatives rising to new challenge in Ottawa

A year ago, the Conservative Party had become pretty lousy at government. A year later, the Conservative Party has become really good at opposition.

A year ago, the Conservative Party had become pretty lousy at government.

A year later, the Conservative Party has become really good at opposition.

That’s not to say they’ve redeemed themselves for running a ridiculous election campaign entirely about a hijab worn by very few women in Canada. Nor can they be forgiven for their leadership race, a contest between political pygmies, the prize apparently going to the one who sounds most like Donald Trump on refugees and immigrants.

But when it comes to being Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in the House of Commons? There, at least, they are really effective. In a very short time, they’ve transformed into the most effective opposition Ottawa has seen in quite a while. And they have done so employing that most old-fashioned of tactics: asking smart questions of the government.

It was the Conservatives who asked Health Minister Jane Philpott about the use of limousines — paid for by taxpayers — while on official business. Philpott initially denied it but it turned out she was employing a limousine-type service operated by a supporter. She apologized and paid back thousands of dollars.

It was the Tories who discovered that Environment Minister Catherine McKenna spent several thousand for a photographer to take pictures of McKenna and her staff at a conference in Paris. The Conservatives did some access to information requests and gave the results to the media. McKenna first defended the photographer decision, then ordered a review into the matter, saying there was a need to “reduce costs.”

It was the Conservatives who uncovered the $200,000 of taxpayer monies spent to move Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s principal secretary (Gerald Butts) and chief of staff (Katie Telford) from Toronto to Ottawa. At first, the Liberals defended the expenditure as within the rules, which it was. But when they saw the issue metastasizing into a flown-blown scandal, Butts and Telford hurriedly apologized and promised to pay back many thousands. Another review was ordered, this time by Trudeau.

It was the Conservatives who revealed that the cost of meals and booze on the prime minister’s first two international trips was a whopping $1,300 a person. Some of the beneficiaries of the largesse were journalists, and some real work was assuredly done at the G20 summit and a leaders’ summit. But again, it was the Conservatives who placed the government on the defensive.

There are other revelations, this fall, for a few thousand here and a few hundred there. Whether you think these demi-scandals are the biggest controversies since Watergate (as the Conservatives do) or that they are the sort of Ottawa navel-gazing that regular folks don’t really care about (as the Liberals hope), one thing is indisputable: the Conservative Party has clearly adjusted to the rigours of Opposition rather well. They look like they’re enjoying themselves, too.

This is not always the case. When the Liberal Party was reduced to a rump in 1984, just a few seats ahead of the NDP, those who had been cabinet stars speedily lost their enthusiasm for serving on Opposition benches.

In the next big change year, 1993, the Reform Party’s gaggle of MPs — plus the Bloc Quebecois — put the Liberals on the defensive. The Conservatives were reduced to just two seats and weren’t a factor. But the Bloc and the Reformers — often in tag-team — delighted in tormenting the Liberals and drew their share of blood.

But adjusting to the indignities of Opposition — after having grown used to the luxuries of government — is not easy. Only a few successfully make the transition.

The 2016-era Conservatives have done so with astonishing ease. While they may not have ended the protracted Team Trudeau stay in the posh honeymoon suite, the Tories have almost certainly signalled that an eviction notice is in the mail. The Conservatives have done what every good Opposition should always seek to do: raise the ire of the public. They have dented Trudeau’s gleaming armour.

Many Canadians believed this new crop of Liberals, a year ago, when they solemnly promised to never again become entitled. Many Canadians now wonder if that promise has been broken. And, for that, the Conservative caucus can give themselves a pat on the back.

They haven’t toppled the government yet. But they are chipping away at the foundations.

Troy Media columnist Warren Kinsella is a Canadian journalist, political adviser and commentator.

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