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Justin Trudeau makes House of Commons debut as rookie Liberal leader

Justin Trudeau, his wife Sophie Gregoire and their children Xavier and Ella-Grace, celebrate after he won the Federal Liberal leadership on April 14, 2013 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The box score on Justin Trudeau’s rookie debut as Liberal leader in the House of Commons might read as follows:

Zero unforced errors, zero home runs, no bases stolen, no opposition high-fives, capacity crowd.

Trudeau, 41, put in a workmanlike effort Monday as parliamentarians returned from a two-week Easter break to find that the third party in the Commons standings finally has a permanent, high-profile bench boss, almost two years after the 2011 election reduced the Liberals to a rump.

Apart from the galleries packed with members of the public, senators, friends and family — and an almost comically cheek-by-jowl press row — it was almost business as usual.

“I’d like to begin by congratulating the new leader of the Liberal party on his election,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who rarely appears in the Commons question period on Mondays or Fridays, intoned.

New party leaders in the House are traditionally greeted by their counterparts with good-humoured — and usually back-handed — welcoming statements.

Read full coverage of the Liberal leadership race

When Brian Mulroney first appeared in the House as Conservative leader in 1983, prime minister Pierre Trudeau observed that “it is nice for this chamber to be able to bask in the glow, in the benign smile, of the man who sent such shivers of pleasure down the spines of matrons all the way from Oyster Pond to Mushaboom.”

Mulroney recounted the words fondly in his memoirs.

And when Jean Chretien returned to the Commons as Liberal leader in January 1991, Mulroney in turn took time before an emergency debate on the first Gulf War to apologize for “the serious international circumstances that intrude on what is traditionally a light-hearted and respectful welcome to a new leader of any party.”

By contrast, Harper’s French-language salute to the younger Trudeau was perfunctory and not repeated.

The Conservative tone already had been set with a series of three ads that began airing Sunday night — just hours after Trudeau’s landslide coronation — that mock his famous name and light resume.

New Democrat Tom Mulcair made no mention of Trudeau’s presence at all as he led off question period in his capacity as Leader of the official Opposition.

And the often raucous government benches were all but silent when Trudeau rose to warble his inquiries.

“The fact is when middle-class Canadians go to a store to buy a tricycle, school supplies … or a little red wagon for their kids,” Trudeau said, echoing a journalist’s recent description of the once-mighty Liberal big red machine, “they will pay more because of a tax in this government’s budget.”

The little red wagon line raised Conservative hackles and heckles, but the attention was short-lived.

Three questions — two in French, one in English, all dealing with tariff hikes — and Trudeau’s question period performance was over.

Half a dozen staff from the Prime Minister’s Office, seated in the gallery above the Conservative benches, rose as one and departed as soon as Trudeau’s brief joust with Harper concluded.

The massive, three-deep media scrum outside in the Commons foyer after question period was more impressive.

Trudeau said he’d been more nervous five weeks ago when he first led off the Liberal question period attack as a putative leader-in-waiting. On that day, Harper too flubbed his lines and twice referred to Trudeau as a minister.

“This time it was more of a hurdle to get through, an obligatory first step that my friends from the press gallery certainly showed up for,” Trudeau told the media throng.

“But I’m going to be doing it again and again and again over the next months and years and we will see what’s the cumulative impact of it. Any one day isn’t the biggest thing in the world.”

Before Mulroney made his first question period appearance as Conservative leader in September 1983 he was cautioned that “this is where you either skate, stickhandle, bodycheck and score, or get benched.”

“The House is the cockpit where reputations are made and broken, governments upheld or defeated,” Mulroney was cautioned in writing by veteran Tory adviser Tom Van Dusen.

Whether that remains true today is an open question.

With Harper jetting off early Tuesday morning to the London funeral of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Trudeau is expected to lead his Liberal caucus meeting Wednesday before leaving Ottawa for Quebec City and Toronto later in the week.

Trudeau said he intends to balance his time in the House with time on the road meeting Canadians and rebuilding the Liberal party’s machinery and finances.

As for his opening day as leader?

Trudeau said he took some congratulatory phone calls from Liberal leaders elsewhere in Canada, made a few calls of his own, prepared for question period and juggled a few media interviews.

“It’s just a regular day at work.”