'The fun is over': Ambrose tells Trudeau to 'get serious' on economy

Interim leader Rona Ambrose dismissed what she called Justin Trudeau's "year of fun" in 2016, saying the prime minister needs to get back to the House of Commons and change his priorities in the face of new threats from the Trump administration.

'We need our own plan' interim Conservative leader says, to counter aggressive moves by Trump administration

Interim Leader Rona Ambrose told Conservatives Thursday they had been doing their jobs in Opposition, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needs to get serious about doing his. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Interim Opposition leader Rona Ambrose dismissed what she called Justin Trudeau's "year of fun," saying the prime minister needs to get back to the House of Commons and change his priorities in the face of new threats from the Trump administration.

In her opening remarks to a gathering of her Conservative caucus in Quebec City Thursday, Ambrose tried to inject a new urgency into issues she's prioritized for her party since taking the reins from Stephen Harper in 2015.

"Life is already expensive enough," she said, describing how young Canadians now face a "lifetime of higher taxes" as well as higher heating bills, grocery bills and mortgage costs thanks to Liberal government decisions so far.

"But that's what Justin Trudeau's year of fun got us."

The prime minister has used Parliament's winter break for a campaign-style tour and town hall events, saying he wants to hear concerns directly from Canadians.

But Conservatives portray the prime minister as all selfie and no substance.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's cross-country tour stopped at a fast food restaurant in Winnipeg Thursday. Rona Ambrose says it looks like he's having fun, but he needs to stop doing photo-ops and focus on a plan for the economy. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

"He sure travelled a lot," Ambrose said. "He did lots of photo-ops ... It sure looked like fun."

"But now the fun is over," she said. "It's time to get serious. It's time to get to work."

Talking to Americans

Donald Trump's presidency doesn't bode well for Canadian jobs or economic competitiveness, she said. "He's talking about big tax cuts and potentially new trade barriers."

"We need our own plan," Ambrose said. "Merely reacting to Trump is not enough."

Ambrose and other Conservatives have been part of a broad effort to reach out to Americans in recent weeks, leveraging their former government connections — and in Ambrose's case, travelling to Washington last week to pitch in on the lobbying effort, targeting Republican members of Congress with whom Conservatives have ties.

"I believe we had a real impact in making sure Canadian natural resources, specifically Canada's proud oil and gas sector, were top of mind for the new administration," she said, welcoming Wednesday's revival of the Keystone XL pipeline project.

"I think it's very important that we build bridges with American companies that rely on Canadian exports," leadership candidate and MP Andrew Scheer told reporters. "That's what I think Donald Trump will understand."

President Donald Trump has been in office less than a week. But he's already causing concern in Canada on a range of files, like national security, immigration, climate change and especially trade. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

Quebec MP Gérard Deltell told reporters that Trudeau had failed to translate his stronger relationship with Barack Obama into a solution on the softwood lumber dispute.

"We're in a different world. There's no question about that," MP Tony Clement said Thursday morning. "Very clearly President Trump is interpreting his mandate as primarily an economic one for America."

"To me this doesn't have to be a partisan issue. We should be here for Canada," the former cabinet minister said. "But if Mr. Trudeau fails to protect Canadian interests then we'll have something to say about that."

Flood of Mexican refugees feared

"Knowing what the Americans are going to do on taxes, we would not be implementing a carbon tax," leadership candidate Lisa Raitt said.

She also expressed concern about the Trudeau government's decision to lift a visa requirement for Mexican travellers, something that could lead to an increase in refugee claimants from Mexico.

"As the world moves forward to react to how Mr. Trump is implementing his policies, you've got to be sharp and nimble," she cautioned.

Collaboration on common goals may be even less apparent when Parliament returns on Monday.

Ambrose took a dig at Trudeau's past absence from question period "58 per cent of the time."

And she previewed future attacks from the Opposition bench: that Trudeau thinks ethics rules don't apply to him and he's running a government characterized by arrogance and a sense of entitlement.

Leadership jockeying on margins

Putting the Conservative caucus strategy session in Quebec City was deliberate.

To return to power, the party must keep growing beyond the dozen seats they won in the city and across the North Shore in 2015.

Conservative leadership candidate Maxime Bernier, centre, may be among the front-runners in the race so far. The field still has 14 candidates, including fellow Quebec MP Steven Blaney, top left. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

On Thursday, Conservative MPs and senators took part in a panel discussion with authors of the book Le coeur des Québécois, which describes how the political landscape in the province is changing from a federalist versus sovereigntist dynamic into one with more of a right-wing versus left-wing ideological split.

Understanding and leveraging that trend is among the party's goals.

So is staying united, despite the huddled strategizing of various leadership camps apparent in the hallways. Roughly a third of the caucus has not yet endorsed a preferred candidate. Only the nine candidates who are current MPs are present at the retreat.

Maxime Bernier said he's running a "positive" campaign based on ideas and he doesn't mind a passionate debate.

But deputy leader Denis Lebel started Thursday's proceedings with a reminder that whatever differences emerge in the race, after the new leader is picked in May everyone has to work together on the same team.

"It's not by attacking ourselves that we will gain points," he said.