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MPs hit summer campaign circuit as election year looms

OTTAWA — Members of Parliament poured out of the House of Commons into the stifling air of an Ottawa heat wave Wednesday, heading back to their constituencies for the summer barbecue and festival circuit many love most about their jobs.
Steve MacKinnon, Leader of the Government in the House of Commons responds to a question as he stands with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland in the Foyer of the House of Commons, in Ottawa, Wednesday, June 19, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — Members of Parliament poured out of the House of Commons into the stifling air of an Ottawa heat wave Wednesday, heading back to their constituencies for the summer barbecue and festival circuit many love most about their jobs.

The next time they take their seats will be Sept. 16, just before the one-year countdown until the next election campaign has to begin.

For the federal Conservatives, whose polling numbers since Pierre Poilievre took over as leader have climbed ever upward, that prospect brings great hope of a return to power after nearly a decade in opposition.

So much so that in the waning minutes of the House sitting Wednesday the Tory caucus was practically giddy.

"You're 20 points behind," they taunted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was drowned out at times by the Conservative jeers.

"Call the election," another MP shouted.

On the Liberal side, MPs cling to the hope that the combination of time and a slowly improving economic picture could help them turn the tide on their popularity with Canadians. None expressed they needed to make any drastic changes, including in leadership or policy, to bounce back.

"We're going through some tough times, but that's, I think that's normal," said Ontario Liberal MP Francis Drouin as he arrived for the final caucus meeting before the summer.

"I think it's not unusual for a government that has been around for a while to have to work harder," said Manitoba MP Ben Carr.

Prince Edward Island Liberal Sean Casey isn't throwing in the towel, but he sounded defeated even as he hopes a summer of connecting directly with Canadians will help.

"I'm at a bit of a loss," he said. "I mean, I think the more one-on-one conversations we can have with people about what we're doing, the better chance we have of breaking through and getting people to pay better attention. I don't know of any other way to do it."

Many MPs from varying regions identified dental care and pharmacare as the policies gaining the most positive feedback in their ridings. Both were things the NDP pushed the Liberals to do with the supply-and-confidence agreement.

Both are also still incomplete, with Health Minister Mark Holland arguing with dental associations about implementing dental care fully and pharmacare still months away from its earliest version taking effect.

Government House leader Steven MacKinnon said great progress has been made in the 14 weeks the House sat since Christmas, citing legislation on child care, a national school nutrition program and the clean tech tax credits Ottawa had been promising for years.

Those tax credits are key to Canada's energy industry being able to compete with the United States on investments in everything from hydrogen development to carbon capture and renewable electricity installations.

The final bill that passed before the House rose was the government's budget, which includes the long-promised disability benefit, an Indigenous loan-guarantee program and funding to help police and border agents deal with out-of-control auto theft.

The Liberals believe the brightening economic picture will also help. At least one poll recently suggested consumer confidence is growing.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, speaking earlier in the day, pointed out that Canada has avoided a recession and was the first G7 country to have its central bank lower interest rates, with inflation now in the Bank of Canada's target range for four straight months. Plus, said Freeland, wage growth has outpaced inflation for 15 months now.

For Ontario Liberal Adam van Koeverden, those numbers are an opening for his party. Affordability concerns drown out everything else, he said.

"When affordability is the thing, it's the only thing," he said.

"And with that coming back into sort of a more normalized frame in the last couple of months, and now that we're seeing interest rates come back down to normal and we've actually seen some deflation in things like grocery and telecommunications and costs associated with home internet — this is what Canadians are looking for."

The Conservatives aren't buying it, nor are they relenting in their attacks on the Liberals for ruining everything.

"What Canadians are living through is hell," Poilievre thundered in question period, describing Trudeau's fiscal policies as "wacko-nomics."

Poilievre has been campaigning now for more than a year. He debuted a new, more casual look last summer, ditching his glasses for contacts and often opting for a T-shirt under a sport coat instead of a suit and tie.

For months on end he has been a star attraction at dozens of rallies across Canada that are drawing sizable crowds.

He was scheduled to appeared Wednesday night at a rally in Montreal, followed by another one in Quebec on Saturday.

The Conservatives really started to pull away from the Liberals in polling just as last summer kicked off and as of now Poilievre leads Trudeau by 20 points in most polls.

Poilievre has successfully used Canadians' dismay at high inflation, an out-of-reach housing market and the carbon price to attack the government's record.

For the Liberals, a major cabinet shuffle last July and an attempted reset focused on affordability and housing in the late summer and fall have made no difference.

The government has also struggled to stake its position on the divisive Israel-Hamas war, as it tries to play a middle-ground peacemaker.

And it's been dogged by the persistent issue of foreign interference, especially since the release of a watchdog's report that said some parliamentarians are wittingly or semi-wittingly helping foreign states to meddle in Canadian politics.

Questions about Trudeau's future continue to hover even as he and his caucus repeatedly bat them away.

That pressure could gain steam next week if the Liberals lose a byelection in a Toronto seat that has been in their party for more than three decades.

The Toronto—St. Paul's byelection on Monday is a must-win for the Liberals, but is expected to be a close fight with the Conservatives.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2024

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press