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Hold on for rough ride as Commons returns amidst looming economic turbulence

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OTTAWA - Almost exactly one year ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper addressed a well-heeled audience in Davos, Switzerland, where he delivered what amounted to an ambitious throne speech.

Harper's vision for Canada's economic restructuring included toppling regulatory hurdles to fast-track major resource projects, revamping government incentives for research and development, pension and immigration reforms and new trade agreements abroad.

As parliamentarians enter 2013, with the Commons returning Monday following a six-week break, much of Harper's agenda from Davos appears complete or on track — if not yet bearing fruit.

And that's the danger for a Conservative government that is three months shy of the midpoint of its four-year majority mandate: Maintaining focus and momentum amidst another anticipated storm of global economic turbulence.

"The longer-term restructuring — that was what a lot of last year's budget was about," Peter Van Loan, the Conservative House leader, said in an interview Sunday.

"We have successfully gone about that. Then there's the continual ongoing fine-tuning we have to follow, and also responding to the overall economic environment we're in."

The bad news is that a faltering housing sector in most parts of the country, flat commodity prices, continuing European economic woes and urgent First Nations demands for a greater cut of Canada's resource action make for a spring loaded with pitfalls.

On the upside, a new poll suggests the Conservatives weathered their year of controversial economic restructuring and are in a position to capitalize should those changes begin to pay dividends.

The Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey found that respondents are virtually evenly split on their satisfaction level with the government.

The telephone poll of 1,000 respondents suggests 50 per cent are somewhat or very satisfied with the Conservatives' performance, while 47 per cent are somewhat or very dissatisfied.

"Even though Canadians are almost equally divided in their assessment of the federal government, you are hard pressed to say they are having a polarizing effect on the country," Harris-Decima chairman Allan Gregg said in a release.

The poll, which is considered accurate within 3.1 per cent 19 times in 20, found roughly the same 50-50 satisfaction split across age, income and gender groupings.

Given the contentious reforms made last year — including boosting the age for receiving Old Age Security to 67 from 65 starting in 2023, and dramatic cuts to environmental protections and the Navigable Waters Act — the Conservative cup could be considered half full, not half empty.

Complacency, however, is not an option.

The native Idle No More movement will stage another protest march Monday to Parliament Hill, a visible reminder of Harper's promise to address long-standing First Nations' grievances.

The Conservatives' emphasis on northern resource development should give a new economic urgency to aboriginal treaty resolutions, but seriously tackling the historic quagmire will tax the government's attention.

A free trade deal with the European Union, one of Harper's Davos commitments, is said to be imminent. The devil will be in the details, and if increased costs for prescription drugs are part of the equation — the result of tougher patent protections — expect plenty of noise from cash-strapped provinces.

Partisan fireworks can also be anticipated over the replacement of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. With Kevin Page's eventful, five-year term about to conclude, the government appears to be in little hurry to appoint a successor.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty told Global TV on Sunday that he'd like to see the PBO's mandate "better defined" — which will be widely interpreted as "curtailed."

"Every time there has been a disagreement between Kevin Page and Jim Flaherty and the Conservative government, it's Kevin Page who has been telling Canadians the truth," NDP Leader Tom Mulcair told Global.

There's also the steady drip of the ongoing robocalls investigation by the elections watchdog.

The government will try to get ahead of the curve with Elections Act legislation to address the tracking and registration of automated phone calls during campaigns.

And the Conservatives will continue their old standby, criminal justice changes designed to make them look tough on crime while goading the opposition. New rules for handling convicts found not criminally responsible will target the mentally ill.

By mid April the Liberals will have a new leader — odds-makers favour the clear front-runner, Justin Trudeau — which will finally fill out the dance card for the 2015 election and allow prospective voters to start making real comparisons of the available options.

That's why Harper is expected to do a cabinet makeover before next autumn, promoting some of his younger, brighter talent. Parliament's spring sitting, therefore, is the last testing ground for cabinet hopefuls and hangers-on alike.

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