Stephen Harper's low Question Period attendance record an example of his 'shrewd' politics: professor

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Canada Politics
Stephen Harper's low Question Period attendance record an example of his 'shrewd' politics: professor

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s attendance in question period — or lack thereof — is an example of his shrewdness as a politician, says one political science professor.

Nelson Wiseman, director of the Canadian studies program at the University of Toronto, told Yahoo Canada News that the prime minister recognizes question period is, essentially, a forum for the opposition, and not for the government.

“In question period you play defence.” As government, you get questioned within a frame you can’t control, he said.

Better to be outside the House of Commons, on stages away from opposition parties and the parliamentary press gallery making policy announcements that don’t generally happen in the House these days, he added.

This week the Ottawa Citizen reported that Harper has skipped question period more often in 2015 than at any other time under his leadership.

According to the Citizen’s analysis, the prime minister has only attended 35 per cent of daily question period sessions this year. That’s his lowest attendance record since the Conservatives formed government in 2006.

But the optics of being outside of the House may play better for the prime minister than the optics of fielding questions inside the chamber of the House of Commons.

Although members of the government aren’t required by any hard and fast rules to answer questions put to them during question period — and for the most part, they don’t — they’re still put on the spot. Hansard keeps track of everything said in the House and there are cameras rolling each hour the House is sitting.

“So if it’s an uncomfortable question [where the prime minister] would be put in a tough spot, from an optical point of view wasting political capital on it, you let a fall guy like Paul Calandra do it.”

That gives regular question period watchers more time with Calandra, the prime minister’s parliamentary secretary, who to put it lightly is considered by many a frustrating individual to deal with in the House of Commons.

“That’s what that dynamic is all about,” Wiseman said.

There are some risks to this strategy however, beyond the view that Harper is increasingly inaccessible as a prime minister — holding few press conferences and rarely speaking to media, as well as trying to do leaders debates during the upcoming federal election on his own terms.

“If there was one exchange in the last leaders’ debate that put the nail in the Liberal and Ignatieff coffin, it was when Jack Layton pointed out that Ignatieff had the worst attendance record in the House,” Wiseman pointed out. 

“The calculation of the Liberals was it was important to get out there and build the party up in various ridings and get more exposure,” he said. “So there’s that tradeoff too.”

The Citizen also looked at the attendance records of the other two main party leaders.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has shown up for 39 per cent of the daily question period sessions since he took the party’s reins in April 2013.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair has the best record of the three, and has attended 61 per cent of question periods since he became leader in March 2012 and just above half of them in 2015, according the the Citizen.