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NDP, Liberals skirmish over Trudeau's absences from House of Commons

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OTTAWA - Who's the hardest working federal opposition leader, Tom Mulcair or Justin Trudeau?

The two are engaged in a pre-election skirmish over that question, offering a glimpse of the pitched battle to come between New Democrats and Liberals next year, when each leader will attempt to persuade voters that he is more deserving than the other to replace Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

And it's no frivolous question. It's the same one late NDP leader Jack Layton raised to devastating effect during the 2011 election campaign, helping to sink the Liberals and vault his party into official Opposition status for the first time in history.

During the televised English-language debate, Layton pointed out that then Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff had missed 70 per cent of the votes in the House of Commons, the worst record of any MP.

"If you want to be prime minister, you'd better learn how to be a member of Parliament first," Layton admonished Ignatieff. "You know, most Canadians, if they don't show up for work, they don't get a promotion."

Voters evidently agreed. They fired Ignatieff and demoted his party, which was relegated to a third-place rump.

Since Trudeau took the helm a year ago, the Liberals have bounced back into the lead in most opinion polls while Mulcair's NDP has sunk back to its more traditional third-place slot. Trudeau has accomplished that feat primarily by playing to his strength — his ability to connect with people, who more often than not, behave in his presence like gushing adolescent groupies meeting a rock star.

That's meant plenty of travel across the country. And that's opened him up to the same charge of being an absentee MP that finished off Ignatieff.

In an apparent attempt to head off a reprise of that unhappy experience, the Liberal party this week sent out a fundraising email which proclaimed "The Real Hard Work (doesn't always happen in Ottawa)." It came on the heels of a Quebec television network report revealing that Trudeau has shown up just 41 per cent of the time for question period in the Commons so far this year, slightly ahead of Harper but well behind Mulcair's 66 per cent.

The email boasted that Trudeau has attended 520 events in 105 cities in the 387 days he's been leader of the Liberal party. "And he's spent: 141 days on the road in 115 ridings and 35 townhalls."

"So," the email asked, "when Thomas Mulcair asks five questions in the House and gets the usual Conservative non-answers ... but Justin Trudeau speaks to 600 university students about their future, which leader engages more Canadians?

"Let others focus on the political circus. Because Justin Trudeau is focused on you," it concluded.

The NDP countered late Friday with a "showing up to work" website, which mimics the Liberal email's format and graphics, proclaiming that "Standing up to Stephen Harper (happens in our communities and in Ottawa).

It goes on to boast that Mulcair has spent 146 days out of the past 387 on the road, visiting 124 ridings at 394 events in 94 cities — numbers close to or even better than Trudeau's.

"And despite all that time on the road, Tom Mulcair still showed up to work on the Hill. Meanwhile, Justin Trudeau expects Canadians to promote him for ducking his responsibilities in Parliament? Aren't you glad someone's holding the Conservatives to account?"

The website doesn't mention the leaders' respective voting records — the issue that Layton used so effectively against Ignatieff. But the NDP has been keeping track: since Trudeau became leader, Mulcair has been in the Commons for almost 83 per cent of the votes, Trudeau for 61 per cent and Harper for just 54 per cent.

Mulcair's impressive stats both on the road and in Parliament show an opposition leader "can walk and chew gum," says Karl Belanger, the NDP leader's principal secretary.

"There's no real excuse for not showing up in Parliament and holding Stephen Harper to account."

Mulcair excels at question period so it's little wonder he makes the most of the opportunity. He's won plaudits for his prosecutorial style used to grill Harper over the Senate expenses scandal and the government's widely-panned overhaul of election laws.

Trudeau, by contrast, has never seemed comfortable in the role of grand inquisitor and tends to read scripted questions. Little wonder he'd rather be out on the road.

"If he doesn't have the strength to hold Stephen Harper to account, to stand up to Stephen Harper, why would Canadians expect he can replace Stephen Harper?" asks Belanger.

Deputy Liberal leader Ralph Goodale counters that Trudeau has done an effective job of balancing his parliamentary duties with his road work and his responsibilities as a father to three young children — a demand on his time that Mulcair, whose children are grown, no longer has to meet.

That said, he argues the rules of Parliament are such that Trudeau's time can be more effectively used outside the Ottawa bubble than in it.

As the official Opposition, the NDP gets to ask the lion's share of the questions during the daily 45-minute question period, including the opening five. The Liberals get only nine, the first of them coming around the 15-minute mark, when most viewers will have tuned out the jousting match.

Mulcair frequently asks most, and sometimes all, of the NDP questions on any given day, "shouldering everybody else (in his caucus) aside," Goodale notes. He can dominate question period in a way that the third party leader simply can't.

While he believes Liberals use their limited time in QP effectively, Goodale says Trudeau has more impact on the road, trying to "motivate Canadians, to engage Canadians, to get traction with Canadians."

"Our most valuable resource is Justin and his ability to make human connections and you do that best of all face to face with Canadians across the country."

As for Mulcair's claim to have spent as much time on the road as Trudeau, while still attending to his parliamentary duties, Goodale is dismissive.

"Mr. Mulcair may conduct some invisible, anonymous tour but Mr. Trudeau gets traction."


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