3 challenges on Conservative minds as caucus gathers in Quebec City

Break's over, Conservatives: As MPs and senators gather in Quebec City Thursday and Friday to prepare for Monday's return of Parliament, three difficult questions could influence their strategy.

MPs and senators hold 2-day strategy meeting before Parliament returns Monday

Rona Ambrose has four more months to lead the Conservative Party through a challenging period featuring a federal budget and a policy retooling in response to the new U.S. administration. Can she lead an effective opposition while her MPs are distracted by the leadership race? (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Break's over, Conservatives.

Interim leader Rona Ambrose kicks off a two-day strategy session for MPs and senators today in Quebec City — a chance to refocus minds ahead of Parliament's return next Monday.

Beyond the usual update briefings, the discussions may wrestle with three fundamental questions.

How to oppose Trudeau without talking down Canada?

Donald Trump's inauguration brings a more inward-looking, protectionist and skeptical southern neighbour.

Justin Trudeau retooled his cabinet in response.

Former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney and other past advisers were recruited to reach out.

"They're late to the game," said Saskatchewan MP Randy Hoback. "I think they were in shock to see Donald Trump elected. I think they didn't know how to react."

A Trump adviser may have provided some reassurance to cabinet that Canada isn't an intended target. 

But "there's lots of things that have been said in the last few days that still bring on more anxiety," said the Conservative critic for Canada-U.S. relations, who joined Ambrose in Washington, D.C., last week

"We've got to do what we can to make sure that border stays open," Hoback said, noting his party's relationships with Republicans. 

"This is something that's beyond politics. This is non-partisan," he said. 

Last fall, Ambrose said Canada had weakened its position by being too quick to agree to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA.)

On Wednesday, she said Trudeau wasn't demonstrating what he was going to do to defend jobs in the face of uncertainty over NAFTA's future.

U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order to boost U.S. border security Wednesday. But American officials have tried to reassure that Canada isn't a target for new trade and economic measures. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Can Conservatives effectively criticize things like Liberal carbon pricing policy — now apparently on a collision course with the new administration's views — without undermining Canada internationally at a sensitive time?

Or consider Canada's pursuit of freer trade with China.

Conservatives championed it when in government, but concerns about large trade deficits with Asia exist north of the border too. How will Canadian Conservatives handle any resurgent trade skepticism in their ranks?

Trump may not be "front and centre" on this week's caucus agenda, but the new U.S. administration is definitely part of "the coffee conversation," Hoback said.

How to keep competing teams united?

In four months, Conservatives will have a new leader.

Competing fundraising pitches are underway and endorsements are rolling out from 14 rival candidate camps. 

The race now has a household name: businessman and television personality Kevin O'Leary.

"He sure adds a new dimension," said Ontario MP Karen Vecchio, who said she's been approached in grocery stores by people who aren't normally very engaged but find him exciting.

"It does add that spark to our campaign. That's not bad for us," she said.

But O'Leary's arrival was panned by his competitors. Lisa Raitt launched a website to organize against him. Brad Trost called him a chicken for not joining in time for the French debate. 

Kevin O'Leary announced his candidacy for the Conservative Party leadership last week in Toronto. He's been spending time outside of Canada in the days since, and it's not clear he'll be in Quebec City this week. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Vecchio supports Erin O'Toole in the race and shares his view that the party must stay united.

"Our final goal is not about who wins the leadership. It's about who wins the election in 2019," she said.

With more MPs running or working on campaigns, it's harder for Ambrose to maintain bench strength of effective critics.

Competitive leadership contests feature healthy policy debates. But they can also confuse voters about what the party stands for.

This race includes candidates like Michael Chong (who champions a carbon tax proposal), Rick Peterson (who wants to re-raise the GST) and Maxime Bernier (whose platform diverges in several ways from official party policy, including advocating an end to agriculture's supply-management system.)

Ambrose says they're welcome to keep raising these issues. But her approach as interim leader continues to prioritize things most Conservatives agree on: focusing on jobs and the economy, advocating for Canadian taxpayers and criticizing Liberal spending plans leading up to another budget in which big deficits are expected.

"A lot of people feel that the current government is not taking care of their livelihood," she said at a news conference ahead of the caucus meeting. "There's a lot of work for the opposition to do."

Vecchio says community safety issues — like the Liberal government's approach to marijuana legalization and supervised injection sites — and the sputtering electoral reform file are also hot topics in Conservative constituencies.

How to hold and expand recent gains in Quebec?

Conservatives hit Quebec City only a week ago for the party's official French leadership debate. Now they're back again.

It's deliberate, local MP Gérard Deltell said.

"This is a way to say thank you to Quebec City people and a way to say we are serious when we talk about Quebec," he said, touting the success of last week's debate which drew a crowd of 400 to 500. "We are stronger than expected."

Steven Blaney, right, was one of only two francophones enjoying home-turf advantage at last week's French leadership debate. The quality of the French spoken by the other 11 candidates varied from fluent to faltering. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Quebec was the only province where Stephen Harper won more seats in 2015. But that support isn't provincewide: it's clustered on the North Shore and in Quebec City itself.

Ambrose told reporters Wednesday her party was resonating with a solid base of people, particularly in Quebec City, and she was proud of her 12 MPs for fighting for Quebec's interests against "a Liberal government that does not see this region as a priority."

Bernier, from the nearby Beauce region, may be the leadership front-runner. But it's equally possible the next leader could be O'Leary, who skipped the debate "out of respect," given his poor French.

While candidates with weak French have pledged to improve, last week their French skills were put "under the microscope," Deltell said. "The real race is on now."


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