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Mali mission signals brief, passing moment of co-operation as Commons returns

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OTTAWA - For a brief moment Monday, the House of Commons was in harmony.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair began the first question period of 2013 with an inquiry that was not partisan or snide, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper responded in kind.

"Can the prime minister please update the House on Canada's involvement in the ongoing mission in Mali?" said Mulcair.

"As I think most parliamentarians will know," Harper responded, "the government has been very clear that it will not undertake a Canadian combat mission in Mali....

"Of course, through this chamber and through committees, we will be consulting with parliamentarians on any further steps that need to be taken."

And with that, the ray of parliamentary sunshine had passed.

Few had expected it to last.

Following a six-week Christmas adjournment, MPs are back in the capital for a winter run that will include a federal budget, ongoing native protests, more criminal justice legislation and lots of partisan posturing.

Monday dawned benignly enough, with the prime minister posting a picture of himself on Twitter having breakfast, his family cat sitting nearby.

As Conservative marketing measures go, Harper's day-in-the-life social media exercise — which included his drive to work and a high-five for up-and-coming MP Michelle Rempel — was a welcome slice of humanity.

But by mid-day, the same familiar caricatures were emerging.

The Bloc Quebecois debated its bill to repeal the Clarity Act on Quebec succession, a transparent effort to goad New Democrats, who rose to the bait by promising their own bill that would make any vote on Quebec separation a matter of 50 per cent plus one.

Peter Van Loan, Harper's House leader, held a news conference to report the government's "top priority is creating jobs, growth and long-term prosperity."

Asked if Conservatives would revisit their omnibus legislation opposed by First Nations, who feel it puts resource development ahead of the environment on their lands, Van Loan was unmoved.

"Among the greatest beneficiaries of those changes will be First Nations," he said.

Outside, a cold huddle of a couple of hundred Idle No More protesters on Parliament Hill's windy, snow-swept front steps served as a dispiriting metaphor, the words of over-amplified speakers echoing off surrounding buildings to an audience of no one but the protesters themselves.

As the clock wound down to the start of the afternoon question period, three Conservative backbenchers in a row got to their feet to reprise a phantom opposition non-policy that was thoroughly debunked last fall.

"Over the past six weeks I have had the opportunity to speak and consult with hundreds of constituents and hard-working Canadians, and one thing is very clear," intoned Conservative Costas Menegakis. "They do not want to see the NDP's $21-billion carbon tax."

No such NDP carbon tax proposal exists.

Following Harper and Mulcair's brief Mali mission detente, question period returned to its pre-Christmas harangues, with a new emphasis on First Nations relations being the only notable departure.

"We will continue to work with those positive partners who seek to make progress," the prime minister noted.

Alleged Conservative mismanagement, changes to employment insurance, the virtues or faults of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, even Defence Minister Peter MacKay's long-past helicopter ride to work were flogged around the Commons.

Relatively late in the proceedings, New Democrat Alexandre Boulerice asked a question that somehow segued from Senate abolition to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's problematic lobbying of the CRTC.

Conservative Pierre Poilievre's response meandered through Boulerice's past donation to a separatist party, "Gangnam Style" and the Mayan apocalypse — prompting another NDP MP to blow a valve.

"Even when he does have his clown nose on, he still does not really make any sense," Charlie Angus spat at Poilievre, earning a gentle rebuke from the Speaker.

And with that, Parliament had returned to last fall's lowest common denominator.

Afterwards, NDP House leader Nathan Cullen sounded almost wistful when asked about the Mali co-operation.

"Wouldn't it be nice if the government would set that tone for so many other issues that the country is facing?" he said. "Parliament is meant to be a conversation, where you struggle with ideas and come to the best idea you can possibly find."

Cullen said New Democrats will present the House with ideas Tuesday for giving the Speaker more power to curtail unparliamentary language and behaviour.

But what about the Angus outburst?

"There's nothing saying we want this place to be quiet as a library," Cullen responded. "There's moments where you go to the line, and maybe cross over.

"We can do better."

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