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NDP House performance a question mark

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OTTAWA -- Canada's Parliamentarians put the summer barbecue circuit to bed today and return to their seats in the House of Commons.

It is a much-changed world the 307 MPs return to for what will be the first real glimpse of the new Harper majority government and the NDP world without Jack Layton.

Though MPs sat in the spring for a few weeks, the session was barely noteworthy, coming soon after the election and without any real substantive legislation. Much of the spring session was spent reforming committees and finding where the bathrooms were.

Today is the real start of the post-election Parliament and the government has a whack of legislation ready to go. Many of them are controversial bills Prime Minister Stephen Harper and crew wanted to pass for years but couldn't without a majority in the House.

Expect to see bills to eliminate both the gun registry and the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly, for example. It also won't be long before we see an omnibus crime bill with mandatory minimum sentences and tougher penalties for sex and drug crimes.

All three will see starkly different ideological positions from the government and the official Opposition.

Add the precarious state of the global economy and Canada's own sputtering economy to the mix and the stage is set for intense, emotionally laden debates that could easily lack the civility and professionalism many MPs pledged to display after the May 2 election.

How intensely the NDP works will depend on how much of a distraction the leadership contest becomes and how well the party rebounds from the immense loss of Layton.

A tribute to Layton will take place Monday before most other activities begin.

Many feel with the NDP looking for its new leader and the Liberals still wondering what the heck happened to them in May, Harper & Co. will have a lot more freedom and a lot less hassle in the House this fall.

Exactly how he and his caucus handle the stronger mandate will be interesting. Harper is a pragmatist in many ways so don't expect him to stray from his plan or his message even with more votes in his corner. He may have his precious majority but he's unlikely to squander it by making too many bold moves that could see his own monopoly on power wither by the time Canadians next go to the polls.

The fact he has a very busy travel schedule in the coming months perhaps speaks to the lower pressure of a majority government and a sign he does not expect much of a challenge from two opposition parties with interim leaders.

What is equally, if not more interesting, is watching the NDP turn into the official Opposition. Inherent in the new role is more scrutiny than ever before to the NDP policies and activities, both by the media and the Conservative war room.

And there have been growing pains, like scrambling to fix a mistake in donations solicited in Layton's memory that ran afoul of Elections Canada rules.

Last week it was confusion around the rules for sitting MPs who choose to join the leadership race. There are also fast-growing fissures in the NDP caucus as MPs start to line up behind leadership candidates.

There is a clear under-the-radar campaign to discredit Quebec MP Thomas Mulcair. Within a week of Layton's death, anonymous sources badmouthed Mulcair in the media as an angry man who is hard to get along with. Many saw the comments as cowardly (because whoever said them wouldn't do so in the open) and politically motivated by people who support someone else for the leader.

Someone like party president Brian Topp, who is one of only two declared candidates so far and the one with the most high-profile endorsements.

Romeo Saganash is the other committed candidate, and will be the first aboriginal Canadian to run for the leadership of a major national political party.

It will be up to a rookie MP to hold everyone together for the next six months. Interim leader Nycole Turmel was first elected in May and had just a few weeks in June to get her feet wet in the House of Commons as the critic for public works. Now she will tackle the opening question in question period.

Nope. No pressure there.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 19, 2011 A6

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