Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tories realign over break

Tumultuous session stops for summer

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OTTAWA -- For a few minutes last week, all the hope, conflict and spin of this Conservative spring stood in a circle of camera lights and microphones in the foyer of the House of Commons.

As Calgary MP Michelle Rempel gamely handled questions from reporters about allegations of unethical Conservative behaviour, she was clutching a glossy caucus briefing package -- upbeat talking points designed to help Tory backbenchers put a positive spin on their disastrous spring sitting.

It remains to be seen whether better communications, a cabinet shuffle and a fresh policy agenda can revive the government's fortunes. But no one on the government side would argue that Tuesday night's adjournment of the Commons for the 12-week summer break came too soon.

At the midpoint of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's four-year majority mandate, his government has never appeared so besieged.

Even an abbreviated list of the government's problems since January strikes at the very heart of Harper's Conservative brand: policy drift, a disengaged finance minister battling illness, the ongoing stench of alleged election-campaign misdeeds, cabinet resignations, a simmering backbench revolt and a Senate expense scandal that reaches right to the prime minister's innermost circle, complete with an RCMP investigation.

The latest public-opinion tracking numbers by pollster Harris-Decima suggest the Conservatives are firmly in second place, nine points behind the Liberals under Justin Trudeau and five points up on Tom Mulcair's third-place NDP.

Mid-term horse-race numbers are ephemeral, but the Harris-Decima data reveal something more troubling for Conservative partisans.

The party's support among men, rural Canadians and voters aged 55-plus was at 30 per cent or lower -- the first time that's happened since the Conservatives took power in 2006.

"That's a whole new territory we haven't been in before," said Harris-Decima chairman Allan Gregg.

Set against this parliamentary and public-opinion malaise are free trade talks with the European Union and other trading blocs that have yet to deliver any deals, and a resource-export policy sideswiped by American and domestic pipeline politics.

A summer cabinet shuffle is expected, where fresh, enthusiastic talents like Rempel might supplant some of the scowling cynicism of the Harper front bench.

A Conservative policy convention in Calgary at the end of the month will give Harper a stage on which to rally the cause.

And a frenetic month of late-night sittings in the Commons cleared much of the government's legislative agenda, setting the table for a widely anticipated summer prorogation and October speech from the throne, laying out a fresh agenda.

"They have a great opportunity to lose the next election in the next two years," said Barry Cooper, a University of Calgary political science professor.

So where does that leave Conservative fortunes?

"I wouldn't say at the edge of the cliff," Cooper said. "But I would say -- at the risk of being a minority government next time -- they have to recover momentum. A cabinet shuffle can help, but getting a deal with the Europeans and somehow brokering a deal with British Columbia on the pipeline, that's the kind of evidence you have to look for."

Peter Van Loan, the government House leader, boasted Wednesday a typical year's worth of legislation had been passed since the end of January.

"I'm here to report that the House of Commons this year, results are what happened while others were busy focused on question period," he said.

But new laws to deport foreign-born criminals more quickly or to strip prison lifers of parole bids competed for airtime with robocall investigations, the resignation -- and subsequent byelection loss -- of ex-cabinet minister Peter Penashue over campaign-spending problems, and the still-unexplained $90,000 "gift" by Harper's then-chief of staff to pay the improperly claimed Senate expenses of Harper appointee Mike Duffy.


-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 20, 2013 A12

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