OTTAWA - Thomas Mulcair's New Democrats are moving to reclaim the opposition spotlight in the House of Commons after being overshadowed by the tiny Liberal team during their marathon leadership contest.
NDP finance critic Peter Julian used up all the time allotted Friday for debating the budget, speaking for several hours and preventing any Liberal voices from being heard the day after release of the fiscal blueprint.
The NDP said it was simply following the rules: the official Opposition's first two interveners during budget debate are given unlimited time to speak.
But interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae — who is widely thought to have out-performed Nycole Turmel, the NDP's interim leader for the last seven months — accused the NDP of petty "triumphalism."
"I think they're trying to shut us out of it for today," he said.
"Look, these are silly games but they won't work. They're a sign of petulance and, frankly, a little bit of insecurity."
Rae said the tactic is typical of Mulcair, the newly minted NDP leader. As House leader immediately after the NDP's historic breakthrough in last May's election, Rae recounted how Mulcair forced the 34 remaining Liberal MPs out of their parliamentary offices and refused to make room in the Commons for the even-more diminished Bloc Quebecois or Green party Leader Elizabeth May, who eventually found seats among the Liberal contingent.
He questioned what Mulcair "has to fear from members of the Liberal party fully participating in the debate."
Mulcair, elected to the top job last Saturday, was doing a round of media interviews Friday in Toronto. He is to give his maiden speech as official Opposition leader in the Commons next week, when he too will have unlimited time to speak on the budget.
Rae and other Liberals will get their chance after that.
New Democrats were unapologetic about effectively muzzling the third party on Day 1 of the budget debate.
"Listen, we're the official Opposition. We take our role seriously," said associate NDP finance critic Robert Chisholm.
"We have a job to do as the official Opposition to hold the government to account, to point out the flaws in the things that they're doing and we're going to take that seriously and we're going to work as hard as we can to stand up for Canadians."
Government House leader Peter Van Loan agreed that the NDP was simply following the rules for budget debate.
As for Rae's complaint, Van Loan said: "Well, I see lots of evidence all around that Bob Rae is feeling a lot of pressure and is pretty frustrated."
On Monday, Rae was rudely abandoned during a scrum as journalists rushed to capture Mulcair's remarks following his first question period as leader.
Mulcair hasn't been leader for a week yet but there are already signs that the NDP is under new management, one that is ultra-sensitive to the leader's home base, Quebec.
On Thursday, Mulcair's office issued two separate news releases on the budget — one aimed specifically at Quebecers, the other at Canadians generally.
It wasn't that there were budget measures that applied uniquely to Quebec, or that Mulcair had anything particularly different to say to Quebecers. The message in both releases was essentially the same.
A spokesman for Mulcair said the leader would be issuing other "regional" releases about the budget but those did not materialize until Friday.
New Democrats elected the Montreal MP in large part because he was seen as the candidate best able to maintain the party's newfound base in Quebec, which delivered 59 NDP seats in last May's election, vaulting the party into official Opposition status for the first time in its 51-year history.
Cultivating the Quebec base is Job 1 for Mulcair. But Liberals and Conservatives are poised to pounce on any evidence of pandering to the province.
Rae called the dual budget messages "strange."
"I think most of us who've been around for a long time find it surprising. I mean, we all respond to regional concerns and there are always going to be regional packages produced in response to a budget," he said Friday.
"But when it comes to the overall national response, we don't have two, we have one. We have one for the whole country indicating that's how we understand things to be."
Similarly, Andrew MacDougall, a spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said the Conservative budget is intended to "benefit all Canadians."
"We speak with one voice to all regions of the country."
Rae also raised the fact that New Democrat MPs voted Wednesday against a Tory private member's bill aimed at encouraging Canadians to fly the national flag. He called the move "incomprehensible."
"Why any party in this House of Commons would vote against a very — in the end, after it was amended — a very innocuous measure suggesting that people be encouraged to fly the flag and that property owners not discourage other people from flying the flag, I find that frankly bizarre."
Chisholm said New Democrats are all in favour of Canadians flying the flag but thought the bill was "a useless exercise."
"We don't think that we should be taking symbols as important as the Canadian flag and playing politics with them and that's what the government did and we said so."
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