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Once the hot seat of the Conservative cabinet, the environment portfolio is well on the way to becoming a question period La-Z-Boy.
In sharp contrast with his two immediate predecessors who were regular targets of opposition attacks, Jim Prentice is lucky if he gets to stretch his legs once over the course of the opposition’s daily 45-minute grilling of the government.
Indeed, more often than not these days, Prentice has to rely on the kindness of his own colleagues for a chance to speak up during question period.
Forty days into the session, backbench Conservatives have put more questions to the environment minister than the Liberals and the NDP combined.
Prentice’s comparatively quiet Commons watch reflects the dramatically changed climate of Stephen Harper’s second mandate.
The economy has become the overriding priority of Canadians, pushing the environment off the public opinion radar.
According to the latest Toronto Star/La Presse Nanos poll, the economy is now the priority of 55 per cent of Canadians, far ahead of the environment or health care – that other former red-button issue – at barely 10 per cent.
The shape of public opinion always looms large in the priorities of the opposition parties, but the demise of the environment as a top-of-mind question period issue has also been accelerated by the changing of the Liberal guard.
One of Michael Ignatieff’s first acts as Liberal leader has been to do away with Stéphane Dion’s carbon tax and send the party’s green plan back to the drawing board. Since then, the environment has not been a top-tier Liberal issue in the House.
In this session, the Liberals have put four questions to Prentice and only one of those was asked by Ignatieff himself, on the eve of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Canada.
There was a time when the NDP would have rushed to pick up the Liberal slack, but that was before the environment became the signature issue of the Green party.
For a minister, a sharp drop in opposition attention can be a mixed blessing. It can translate into less sway at the cabinet table, since a squeaky wheel usually gets the grease.
But the climate change file is very much at play on the international scene and it stands to become a central part of Canada-U.S. relations once the Obama administration fills in the blanks of its environment policy.
The upcoming publication of a report on carbon pricing by the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy is also bound to stir things up.
When all is said and done, the environment is not so much a dormant issue as one that no longer acts as a wedge between the main federal parties. That always results in less question period ice time.
Take health care. Rookie minister Leona Aglukkaq has answered a grand total of four opposition questions since January.
By the numbers, culture is the emerging hot-button question period issue.
It was a major election theme for the first time ever last fall, when a mishandled round of cuts led to the unravelling of the Conservatives in Quebec.
Even since then, culture has enjoyed an unprecedented high profile in question period. If the past is any indication, the cultural community should take advantage of this moment in the Commons sun. As health and environment activists can testify, the federal attention span is almost always short and rarely more so than in an era of successive minority governments.