Murray Rankin: Rookie B.C. MP shows chops as lawyer in helping NDP develop strategy to attack Stephen Harper
June 1st, 2013 - 12:19am
NDP leader Thomas Mulcair is applauded during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday. B.C. MP Murray Rankin, at right, was at Mulcair's side - in the seat normally filled by Vancouver East MP Libby Davies - when he grilled Prime Minister Stephen Harper over the Senate scandal.
Photograph by: Sean Kilpatrick, The Canadian Press , Vancouver Sun
Peter O'Neil, Vancouver Sun
OTTAWA — A B.C. rookie MP was at Tom Mulcair’s side when the NDP leader was roasting Prime Minister Stephen Harper “like a rotisserie chicken” over the Senate scandal this week.
But B.C. MP Murray Rankin is no rookie when it comes to the kind of showdown in the House of Commons Tuesday and Wednesday that, at times, resembled Tom Cruise’s epic courtroom-drama clash with Jack Nicholson in the movie A Few Good Men.
Elected in a byelection in Victoria in November, the fluently bilingual Rankin is one of Canada’s top lawyers. He has fought for gay marriage rights in B.C., acted for governments, industry and First Nations on aboriginal land issues, and has taken a lead role on major environmental court cases in areas like sewage treatment, contaminated sites and environmental assessment.
Mulcair, who has for months pointed to Rankin as one of his rising stars and top recruits, invited the rookie MP to question period strategy sessions and asked him to take the seat usually filled by Libby Davies, the deputy leader and Vancouver East MP who was away this week.
Rankin’s role was akin to a co-counsel or junior counsel at a trial, though Rankin said a larger Mulcair-led parliamentary team of MPs and staff – like the legal team assembled by law firms in advance of major trials – was assembled to prepare questions and go over possible scenarios before the two clashes.
“I consulted Murray on the approach we’ve taken, and he was very helpful,” Mulcair said later. “He’s got great reflexes, he’s very fast on his feet, and having him beside me has been proven very helpful.”
Mulcair said he used his experience in the Quebec National Assembly to turn on its ear the traditional way opposition parties turn the heat up on a prime minister in hot water
Instead of following the tradition of a leader asking three or at most five questions, Mulcair used his legal training to play the role of both interrogator and prosecutor.
He peppered Harper with 16 questions on Tuesday and another 15 the next day. All were brief and succinct, without the usual flowery preambles intended to catch media attention.
“The more specific and short the question, the more difficult it is for them to bob and weave and dodge,” Mulcair said.
As Harper answered questions, Mulcair consulted with B.C. MP and House leader Nathan Cullen, who always sits to the leader’s right, and with Rankin on his left.
“Unlike most question periods where it’s all set up, it’s all stage-managed from the get-go, this was to be a different kind of question period,” Rankin said Thursday while seated on a couch in his modest Parliament Hill office.
“This was to be a question period where, if he says this, we might say that. We were trying to confer, to basically whisper: ‘what about this? What do you think about that?’”
With the NDP caucus under strict orders to not heckle, the sombre silence in the Commons and intense looks on all faces of MPs in both Mulcair’s and Harper’s background added to the courtroom atmosphere.
“This was like some of the best trials I’ve attended,” Rankin said.
Mulcair’s performance got strong media reviews – possibly the best since he became leader last year.
National Post columnist John Ivison said Mulcair “roasted” Harper “like a rotisserie chicken.” Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hebert told a CBC audience Mulcair has “established himself clearly as the dominant opposition figure” — a tacit reference to poll-leading Liberal leader Justin Trudeau.
But observers were just as quick to note that there wasn’t anything close to a Harper knockout blow, the kind of confession spilled out by the Nicholson character when he bellowed at prosecutor Cruise: “You can’t handle the truth.”
Rankin, however, said that dramatic scene happened at the end of the film. The clash over senators allegedly cheating on their expense claims, and the role of the former Harper chief aide who wrote one of them a $90,000 personal cheque, is still effectively in “mid-trial.”
Rankin, in arguing that the interrogation did produce some results, pulled over a document listing Harper’s responses that began with lines like “I have no information to that effect” and “to my knowledge.”
“These are classic lawyer weasel words and evasive answers that Canadians can see right through.”
Rankin, 63, has long been involved with politics but has until late last year avoided seeking election because of the young age of his two sons. They are now in their twenties. He resisted a lobbying effort to get him to seek the provincial NDP leadership before Carole James took that post in 2003.
But he’s had more influence than most politicians. Rankin was the key architect of B.C.’s Freedom of Information law, was the lead B.C. government treaty negotiator until Gordon Campbell became Liberal premier in 2001, and most recently advised B.C. NDP Adrian Dix on how to challenge Enbridge Inc.’s proposed Northern Gateway oilsands pipeline to Kitimat.
Rankin has been an admirer of Mulcair dating back to the NDP leader’s time as Quebec’s environment minister, and he was among a group of British Columbians who endorsed Mulcair’s leadership bid after Jack Layton died.
Enraged by the federal government’s re-writing of federal environment laws and enthusiastic support for oilsands pipelines, he decided to seek office when former Victoria MP Denise Savoie resigned for health reasons last year.
After Rankin’s narrow byelection win over the Green party, Mulcair immediately named him to a senior role in his shadow cabinet, putting him in charge of criticizing the government over offshore tax evasion.
Rankin is also being leaned on by colleagues for advice in his various areas of expertise, and next weekend will travel to B.C. with NDP “intergovernmental aboriginal affairs” critic Romeo Saganash to introduce him to key B.C. players on that file.
Mulcair, who is trying to convince Canadians he’s surrounding himself with a team of skilled public administrators, has all but assured Rankin of a cabinet post if the party pulls off the unexpected and wins the 2015 election.
“Murray will play a key role when we form government.”
Factbox: Murray Rankin, MP
Born: Jan. 26, 1950, Belleville, Ont.
Education: Law degrees from University of Toronto and Harvard University.
Elected in Victoria riding: Nov. 26, 2012.
University of Victoria: law professor, 1977-1990.
Private Practice: Co-founder/managing partner Arvay-Finlay 1990-2006; Heenan Blaikie: 2006-2011.
• Founding member/former president B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre
• Former President West Coast Environmental Law
• Former chairman of Land Conservancy of B.C.
Prominent legal cases: Assisted Arvay on cases related to gay marriage (2001) and Surrey School District book banning (2002). Successfully defended B.C. Forest Appeals Commission’s jurisdiction in aboriginal rights case before Supreme Court of Canada (2003)
First Nations: B.C.’s lead treaty negotiator 1992-2001
Adviser: to NDP leader Adrian Dix on pipelines (2012)
Personal: Married to Linda Hannah, sons Benjamin and Mark