John Baird is keeping quiet these days as part of a deliberate strategy by the Harper government to tone down in hopes of surviving the budget vote, the Liberal House Leader says.
"My instinct is that it's play it down, it's keep it quiet, it's keep our progressive patina, don't bring controversial bills, don't rock the boat, we have a budget to deliver here and we need to get support," David McGuinty told The Globe Tuesday of Tory conduct in the Commons.
And leading in the good behaviour department is the Government House Leader. Last year, Mr. Baird was up on his feet for most of daily 45-minute Question Period.
He was front and centre, fielding questions on every issue and in a very partisan way that often angered the opposition. Mr. McGuinty recalled that it was Mr. Baird who answered 70 to 80 per cent of questions all the time.
"That has changed," the Liberal House Leader said. Now, Mr. Baird is sitting on his hands while other ministers answer questions on their portfolios.
"It's a deliberate attempt to tone it down and tone him down," Mr. McGuinty said. "They have completely re-evaluated their conduct in the House and committees. For the first time in five months we have ministers answering questions. They are trying to behave."
Chris Day, the Government House Leader's spokesman, dismissed the Liberal MP's charges. "Mr. McGuinty appears to be seeing smoke where there is no fire," he said. "The mandate the Prime Minister gave Minister Baird when he asked him to serve as Government House Leader was to make Parliament work. Since August 6, Minister Baird has worked daily to that end and with positive results for Canadians."
Expectations were there would be fireworks in the Commons when MPs returned to Ottawa last week after a lengthy winter break. Although there was much liveliness during those break weeks – attack ads and speaking tours – the return of the House has been anything but. In fact, it's been positively ho-hum. That goes for the legislative agenda as well, which Mr. McGuinty describes as "thin gruel."
Last week, he asked the Tories when they would bring back Bill C-49, the anti-human smuggling bill. When it was first introduced last October, the government had trumpeted this a top priority of Canadians. Mr. Baird would not bite, however, accusing the Liberals of wanting to kill it before it even got to committee.
Mr. McGuinty doesn't buy it, suggesting that keeping this bill off the floor of the House is an attempt by the Tories not to rock the boat by bringing in anything controversial. He said everything is being downplayed in anticipation of the budget as the government attempts to negotiate support for it – "and their target group is the NDP."
The Liberals have not formally decided how they will vote on the budget, expected next month. But their support is unlikely given the lines in the sand drawn over the issue of reversing the government's corporate tax cuts.
Mr. Day also dismissed the "thin gruel" accusation. The Baird spokesman said 10 pieces of legislation were passed into law last session and that some priority bills are advancing through the House now.