NATIONAL

THE MAN WHO ATE QUESTION PERIOD

Is Tory ‘answer man’ Peter Van Loan bad for democracy?

AARON WHERRY June 23 2008
NATIONAL

THE MAN WHO ATE QUESTION PERIOD

Is Tory ‘answer man’ Peter Van Loan bad for democracy?

AARON WHERRY June 23 2008

THE MAN WHO ATE QUESTION PERIOD

NATIONAL

What we will not do is what the agent for the Taliban intelligence wants us to do

The official Opposition... won't even let other MPs work

Is Tory ‘answer man’ Peter Van Loan bad for democracy?

AARON WHERRY

The other day, in the midst of another testy exchange between Peter Van Loan and one of his myriad foes on the opposition side, Liberal House leader Ralph Goodale shouted a rhetorical query across the House’s centre aisle. “Do you know,” he asked, “how stupid you look, Peter?” The government House leader did not directly respond to this off-microphone question. But if he was at all chastened, it was impossible to tell.

“I’m very happy to have a role where I get to step up and protect my colleagues,” Van

Loan explained in an interview with Maclean’s earlier this year.

“Other than doing the stuff when the Prime Minister’s not there, the bulk of what I do is basically respond to what are really unacceptable and inappropriate personal attacks, character assassination stuff that has no basis and is inaccurate and is really just designed to attack the character of very fine people who are working very hard for their country.”

Goodale, no surprise, sees it differently: “In the relationship among House leaders, there are bound to be tensions because House leaders see things through different ends of different telescopes. But, quite frankly, Mr. Van Loan is not very helpful to the House.”

So the relative value of Van Loan’s contri-

bution to Canadian democracy is subject to some dispute. But if the quality of his work depends on who is assessing it, the quantity and prominence of his efforts are beyond debate. Other ministers may claim more relevant portfolios (officially, Van Loan’s cabinet post is democratic reform). Some—Jim Prentice, Peter MacKay, the late Maxime Bernier— may more readily flirt with stardom. But none, excluding perhaps only the Prime Minister, have more personified this unruly Parliament and indeed this entire Conservative government over the past year. And for those who would object to both the tone of debate and the party in power, there is perhaps no greater villain.

He is surely not the most obvious or magnetic of choices. By his own admission, he could stand to lose a little weight. One profile famously likened him to Barney Rubble. But by one recently published count, Van Loan has risen in question period this year at nearly twice the rate of Stephen Harper. (“The Prime Minister, one of his views on me, is that I have a broad interest on a broad range of issues,” Van Loan relates. “When he talked about the government House leader job with me, he said, ‘This will suit you a little bit in that you get to put your hands on everything.’ ”)

And the aforementioned count was conducted before Van Loan completed one of the more impressive feats of parliamentary athleticism witnessed in recent times. Beginning with the Monday on which Bernier resigned and running through that feverish weekincluding five sessions of question period and one late-night interrogation—the government House leader took a total of 129 questions. Most, with the Prime Minister in Europe, concerned the unravelling of the former foreign affairs minister, but by week’s end he was also speaking to economic development in northern Ontario, the Prime Minister’s travel schedule, mining in Sudbury and diplomatic relations with the

That's what real Canadians are. and those are Conservatives

United States. At one point, he accused the Liberals of Communist sympathies. At others, he was nearly profound: “It is not the fault of the rules that they were broken.”

Though prominent politicians have filled the post in the past—Allan MacEachen, Don Mazankowski and Herb Gray, among others— perhaps none has inhabited the role like Van Loan. “What the government House leader does is deal with the other parties and work out a way of handling the business of Parliament that gets the government what it wants, with some compromises, and keeps the opposition in line and reasonably happily,” says Queen’s University professor Ned Franks. “But that’s not how Van Loan has handled it.” Though now charged with defending Bernier’s honour, Van Loan, 45, seems very much the anti-Maxime. Not only in style and presentation, but in career arc. A lawyer by training, he articled under Liberal David Smith and served as the future senator’s “right-hand guy” for more than 15 years. “We always got along fine,” says Smith, the Grit stalwart now charged with preparing the party’s next campaign. “But we weren’t arguing politics all the time. Because he’s not going to convince me and I’m not going to convince him.” Reportedly a Tory supporter from the age of 12, Van Loan was elected president of the Ontario Progressive Conservative party in 1994 and then president of the federal PCs in 1999. He left the latter post in a dispute with Joe Clark, but was then enlisted by Peter MacKay to help ratify a merger with the Canadian Alliance. Still, the sum total of his interaction with Stephen Harper before running for office amounted, Van Loan says, to a handshake at an event in Barrie, Ont. And while elected in 2004 (a volunteer boasted of more than 2,800 lawn signs) and re-elected in 2006 (apparently with the help of a 400-person campaign team), he was left out of Harper’s first cabinet, only receiving a portfolio when Michael Chong, then minister of intergovernmental affairs

and sport, resigned in November 2006. Two months later, Harper shuffled the ministry and Van Loan succeeded Rob Nicholson as government House leader.

Two days after the House resumed, he was called to defend Wajid Khan—the Liberalturned-Conservative whose switch was alleged to have been abetted by a patronage appointment. Van Loan has since stood similarly to enthusiastically defend everyone from Harper (against accusations that he employs a cosmetician-slash-psychic) to Saskatchewan MP Tom Lukiwski (when an ancient video of him making homophobic comments was unearthed). “If you had an opposition that was more focused on policy, then you wouldn’t see me doing as much of that,” he reasons. “I think you’ll find that almost always I’m responding in proportion to the attack that was launched.”

Opposition members will no doubt choke on this assessment. For if the Van Loan era has proven anything, it’s that often the bestor at least easiest—defence is a merciless and vicious offence. He once dismissed Liberal Mark Holland as “the agent for the Taliban intelligence agency.” And after Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty dared question the government’s plans for Senate reform, he was infamously tagged the “small man of Confederation.” Indeed, whenever decorum in the House turns particularly gruesome, Van Loan can usually be spotted red-faced and giggling in the middle of it all.

Liberal deputy Michael Ignatieff has deemed defeating Van Loan in York-Simcoe to be the “Lord’s work.” Taunted recently for some misstep or another while premier of Ontario, Bob Rae only sighed. “I have,” he said, “heard worse from better people.” But the distaste is not only partisan. “He’s a fascinating character,” says Franks. “I confess that for various reasons I stopped watch ing question period and he was one of them.”

There is, no doubt, some method to this daily madness. Whenever an issue has troubled this government, it has moved quickly to distance valued ministers from the mess. Dutiful parliamentary secretaries have been dispatched to throw themselves on various political grenades. And whenever there is a particularly pointed question of individual misconduct, there is Van Loan. As one Liberal heckled recently, “Is anybody else over there working?”

Which no doubt raises various questions surrounding such matters as, well, ministerial accountability and democratic responsibility. Herb Gray, the legendary Gray Fog, was a first-rate obfuscator, but he was not nearly

the all-purpose bodyguard Van Loan has proven for cabinet, nor is he remembered as quite the gleeful partisan. “Most people enjoy the theatre. But then there’s also a desire to have a fairly serious discussion of important political issues,” Franks says. “So it’s more than theatre, it’s also, ultimately, a discourse about the most serious decisions facing us collectively as a nation. And it doesn’t do to trivialize that discussion.”

Not that this is entirely the fault of the honourable member for Bedrock. As Senator Smith notes: “These are decisions made by the Prime Minister, of course. And obviously he felt that Peter could take the heat.” And, for sure, the blame for a rhetorically bloody session must be shared by various interests (“The opposition’s questions have all the subtlety of a dead octopus on your face,” Franks suggests). But there remains no more obvious symbol of the dysfunction than the man seated just behind the Prime Minister. And if that bothers Van Loan, if he feels diminished as a result, the frequent smile on his face would seem to suggest he’s made peace with it. “Peter has never shied away from argument or debate,” Smith says. “He will never be a shrinking violet, in any sense of the word.” M

That’s what I mean [by] ‘the small man of Confederation’

It is not the fault of the rules that they were broken