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Don Martin: Question Period sleeper turning into slugfest between Poilievre and Trudeau

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There’s been a 20-year series of middleweight clashes in the parliamentary fight club - Chretien vs. Day, Martin vs. Harper, Harper vs. Mulcair, Trudeau vs. O’Toole - but nothing comes close to the slugfest now raging between Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

After three grudge-settling matches this fall, which is all the prime minister has managed to show up for in the dozen days since the House returned to normal Question Period operations, my scorecard is Pierre Poilievre 2, Justin Trudeau 1.

For their first two encounters, the fledging Official Opposition leader clearly had the upper hand.

But give Thursday to the prime minister for his neck-wrenching topic switch. Answering a question about the rising cost of Thanksgiving dinners, Trudeau segued to the story about a boneheaded Poilievre staffer who had linked their boss’s YouTube messaging to a misogynistic online movement.

Poilievre knew it looked bad, particularly given his reputation of playing footsie with extremist elements. He stood silently to endure 20 seconds of high-volume Liberal shaming after Trudeau demanded an apology.

But he didn’t apologize, merely condemning the movement before swinging wildly into the past to attack Trudeau’s sins, be it wearing blackface or firing Jody Wilson-Raybould as attorney general.

It didn’t quite connect as an emergency defensive strategy, but sometimes it's best to flail away and move on as quickly as possible.

The reality of Question Period in Canada is that it hasn’t produced a political bombshell since March 2003 when then-prime minister Jean Chretien revealed Canada would not go to war in Iraq without a United Nations Security Council resolution.

That suggests a thousand-question gap filled with huffing and puffing since the House was last blown away by any major revelation from a prime minister.

But breaking news is not its primary purpose. In this age of social media, Question Period has become a mine for YouTube quips, a sentence or two for the nightly newscasts or a couple quotes for print media.

Yet there’s something about these two leaders, at least going by their first trio of matches, which makes the stakes seem higher.

Poilievre does not recite questions from a piece of paper. He hurls them into the prime minister’s face, rubs in the political salt and levels a sneering sidebar or two, usually involving Trudeau’s use of government jets which, to be fair, is the only way he’s allowed to fly.

Trudeau for his part has upped his usual going-through-the-motions performance, which was noticeable on Wednesday when he stickhandled every question fairly well without reading his cheat sheets or sliding into a stammer.

Now for my media friends rolling their eyes at this attempt to build drama out of dogma, let us concede that the duelling themes between these two leaders are fairly repetitious.

Poilievre sounds the alarm about a future where the tripling of carbon taxation prices pumpkin pie out of the Thanksgiving food budget.

Trudeau retorts how the hurricane, flooding and wildfire climate catastrophes he has seen are grounds for a hefty pricing of pollution.

Poilievre snarks that boosting the carbon price is a tax plan, not a climate change plan, which has yet to meet lower emission targets.

Trudeau insists average Canadians get all the carbon tax they pay back and more.

And so it goes, blah, blah and more blah, but there’s a noticeable uptake in intensity between these two leaders.

(Unfortunately, there’s no corresponding improvement from Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who continues to excel at irritating, arm-waving, talk-down double-speak – pleading with the Conservatives to support her government’s social programs in one sentence and ridiculing them for doing so in the next. The more you watch her, the harder it is to see her as future prime ministerial material.)

Trudeau seems to be rising to take on Poilievre as if he’s in a boxing match with a pugilistic senator or something.

This combat arena is not just political, it’s personal. It’s Pierre’s whine versus Justin’s woke; spontaneity versus scripting; the rising cost of potatoes versus the catastrophe of Fiona; bad hair versus good.

It will never win a ratings battle against any afternoon soap opera, but this fall’s editions of Question Period, after a long run as a theatrical bomb begging for the curtain to come down, is now a semi-entertaining clash of leadership styles, beliefs, personalities and policy.

That’s the bottom line.

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