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Conservatives strive for focus, unity in next sitting of Parliament

Tories prepare for Parliament, leadership

OTTAWA — The federal Conservatives are gathered in Quebec City — a place all but forgotten by the Liberals, Opposition MPs say â€” to hash out how best to frame Justin Trudeau as a man out of touch with the concerns of Canadians.

The prime minister has no “Quebec lieutenant,” nor any coherent strategy for protecting Quebec jobs from the trade battles that loom over softwood lumber and NAFTA, interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose said Wednesday.

“Other than empty promises, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has failed the people of Quebec City on all of these important issues,” Ambrose said as her fellow Tory MPs gathered in the provincial capital.

The city, home of a significant source of political support for their party, is playing host to the Tories for two days of strategizing before Parliament resumes next week and Ambrose embarks on her final few months as leader.

With the race to replace Ambrose ramping up and the dawn of Trump south of the border upending the political status quo, the goal for the party’s 97 MPs is simple: stay focused on the singular goal of holding the prime minister to account.

They aren’t wanting for ammunition.

Whether it’s Trudeau’s travels on board the Aga Khan’s private helicopter or a U.S. administration with little affinity for cross-border trade or cutting carbon emissions, there’s plenty of fodder for when question period resumes Monday.

The Conservatives have their own challenges, however, including how best to present a united front to Canadians in the midst of a leadership race. 

There are 14 candidates in the race, and 10 of them are sitting MPs. As they’ve clamoured for front-runner status, they’ve started to attack each other more directly in debates and via press releases as the May vote draws nearer.

Keeping that rancour from seeping into the party’s work on Parliament Hill might be beyond her control, party house leader Candice Bergen acknowledged. The key will be to focus on the main message: “We really are the only party talking about the taxpayer.”

Of course, everyone is also talking about Kevin O’Leary.

The brash businessman-turned-reality-TV-star, whose political aspirations ape those of the newly elected president of the United States, has officially joined the race to lead the Conservatives, and is the presumptive front-runner.

The potential impact of his candidacy was the first question Ambrose received as she opened the Quebec meetings, followed by a slew of others on one of the biggest knocks against O’Leary â€” he speaks no French.

“It’s my opinion, and I know the majority of our members in our caucus think … that our next leader must speak both official languages,” Ambrose said in French.

She quickly added that she’s proud of the fact many of the candidates are committed to learning or improving their French.

O’Leary’s leadership rivals are taking a wait-and-see approach to establish just how much of their support they’re likely to lose to him, both from the party’s rank-and-file membership and the heavy hitters within the party.

About two-thirds of the party’s members of Parliament have already publicly endorsed a candidate, with most lining up behind former Speaker Andrew Scheer.

Given the crowded field and the fact party members will use a ranked-ballot system when they vote May 27, the names they mark as second and third choices — as well as the names those candidates tell their supporters to back — will be very much a factor.

The jockeying for support is creating some tension, said Quebec MP Bernard Genereux, who thought that tension was apparent during the French-language leadership debates in Quebec City earlier this month.

Despite pressure on him to pick a side, Genereux said he’s staying neutral. As chair of the party’s Quebec caucus, he wants to keep the atmosphere there calm and united, he said, and remaining out of the race is the only way to do that.

“It’s a normal process, there will be some teams and between those teams there will be distance,” he said in an interview. “But when it’s over, well need to turn the page and move on.”

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Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press