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Nova Scotia

Inflation-focused Pierre Poilievre back to Parliament as health-care talks loom

OTTAWA – It’s no secret what Pierre Poilievre thinks about government spending and inflation. The same with weapons.

OTTAWA – It’s no secret what Pierre Poilievre thinks about government spending and inflation.

The same with weapons.

But what does the Conservative leader think should happen if prime ministers demand billions more in federal health transfers?

With a deal being negotiated between Ottawa and the provinces and prime ministers invited to meet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in early February, the issue of one on which the Tory leader’s position appears somewhat murky remains, even for some within his own party.

This is how Poilievre finds himself entering his second session of the House of Commons as leader of the opposition, knowing he must let the Conservative tent grow if he hopes to win the next election, whenever it is at stake.

Strategists say there is a clear opportunity for the Conservative leader as worries about a possible recession this year are stoking existing economic fears among Canadians.

Talks about what the year might bring for the economy are keeping the Conservatives busy as they continue to meet on Saturday to discuss plans for returning to the House of Commons next week, but also for the ruling Liberals, whose group on the same day gathers.

Poilievre regularly speaks about the financial crisis Canadians are going through, whether it’s struggling to afford a home and making mortgage payments or dealing with costly grocery bills and relying on food banks.

But if his focus is on convincing those skeptical of a Poilievre-led government, he would be wise to broaden his script and go beyond just sticking to a harsh affordability message, said Shakir Chambers, a former Conservative provincial adviser and federal governments.

“We understand that the economy is important … but as a head of state, you have to be able to talk about a lot more things.”

In a press conference with reporters this week – an event that has become more frequent on Parliament Hill – Poilievre raised questions about increased healthcare spending and the role of privatisation.

Besides noting that private services already exist in the country, he said his priorities for health care are reducing waiting times and urging provinces to approve immigrants’ foreign credentials more quickly to address staffing shortages.

Asked about the party’s position, Rural Ontario MP Scott Aitchison said Friday it was clear more investment was needed, while Quebec MP Gerard Deltell said it was wrong for Ottawa to want to dictate how money is spent.

For Melanie Paradis, a veteran of conservative campaigns including that of former Tory leader and Ontario MP Erin O’Toole, health care and affordability are top priorities for Canadians.

“There has to be a conservative solution to big things like healthcare,” she said.

Another issue that will emerge in the coming months is the Liberals’ long-awaited legislation to create jobs in low-carbon industries to achieve net-zero emissions, dubbed the “Just Transition Plan”.

While Poilievre has vowed to scrap federal carbon consumer pricing and instead cut emissions through technology, Conservatives have yet to specify what that would look like.

Strategists agree that there is a challenge for Poilievre and that is pace. While he doesn’t want to make political promises too early with an election in the distant future, he also needs to start filling in the blanks so Canadians know what to expect from him.

According to Paradis, Poilievre seems to have started this work. This week he announced plans to share more resource proceeds with First Nations and released a video in which he speaks compassionately about people with autism and neurodiversity.

Chambers said the leader’s challenge will be to maintain the momentum he captured during last year’s leadership race, which sold more than 300,000 memberships and often drew hundreds and sometimes thousands of crowds.

Since Poilievre became president, he has made it a habit to spend many weekends away, whether in the greater Toronto area or in Vancouver. Both regions have fought the Conservatives to gain support in recent elections. During these campaign-style events, he meets with members of various immigrant and racial communities – another demographic that Tories have struggled to connect with.

Laryssa Waler, a former communications director for Ontario Premier Doug Ford, says Canada faces numerous challenges, from the economy to healthcare, and dismisses the premise that it should be up to Poilievre to provide solutions.

“Pierre’s job is to be the leader of the opposition and that doesn’t include advancing government policy on inter-provincial fund transfers.”

“Your job is to highlight the problem.”

Poilievre tries to do this, among other things, with the message “everything feels broken”. He reiterated this in a speech to the caucus on Friday, in which he listed the avenues he says Trudeau is not addressing, from crime to house prices.

Chris Chapin, who has worked on previous leadership campaigns for Ontario Progressive Conservative candidates, said Poilievre’s message was powerful and he understood why he was using it to lay the groundwork for the next election.

He says that while it’s one thing to convince people the country is broken, it’s quite another to make them believe Poilievre is the one fixing it.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on January 28, 2023.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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