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

It's no secret what Pierre Poilievre thinks about government spending and inflation.

Same with guns.

But what does the Conservative leader think should happen when premiers ask for billions more in federal health transfers?

With a deal under negotiation between Ottawa and provinces, and premiers invited to a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in early February, the issue remains one where the Tory leader's position appears somewhat murky, including to some inside his own party.

Such is where Poilievre finds himself, as he enters his second sitting inside the House of Commons as Opposition leader, knowing he must grow the Conservative tent if he hopes to win the next election, whenever it rolls around.

Strategists say a clear opportunity exists for the Conservative leader by way of worries about a possible recession this year, which is fuelling Canadians' existing economic anxieties.

Talk of what the year may bring for the economy is on the minds of Conservatives as they continue meeting Saturday to discuss plans for returning to the House of Commons next week, but also for the governing Liberals, whose caucus is meeting the same day.

Poilievre regularly talks about the financial crunch Canadians are in, whether in struggling to afford a house and make mortgage payments or dealing with costly grocery bills and relying on food banks.

However, if his eye is turned to convincing those who may be skeptical about a Poilievre-led government, he would be wise to broaden his script beyond sticking to a sharp affordability message, said Shakir Chambers, a former adviser to provincial and federal conservative governments.

"We get the economy matters … but as leader of the country, 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 fielded questions on the matter of increased health-care spending and the role of privatization.

Besides pointing out that private delivery of services already exists in the country, he said his priorities for health care include shortening wait times and getting provinces to more quickly approve the foreign credentials of immigrants to deal with staffing shortages.

Asked about the party's position, rural Ontario MP Scott Aitchison said Friday it's clear more investment is needed, while Quebec MP Gerard Deltell says it is incorrect of Ottawa to want to dictate how money is spent.

<who> Photo Credit: Canadian Press

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 for big things, like health care," she said.

Another issue set to emerge over the months ahead is the Liberals' long-awaited legislation about creating jobs in low-carbon industries in an effort to reach net-zero emissions, dubbed its "just transition" plan.

While Poilievre has vowed to cancel the federal consumer carbon price and instead reduce emissions through technologies, Conservatives have not yet spelled out what that would look like.

One challenge strategists agree exists for Poilievre is pacing. While he does not want to roll out policy promises too early while an election may be off in the distance, he must also begin filling in the blanks for Canadians to know what to expect from him.

Paradis says Poilievre appears to have begun that work. This week, he announced plans to share more resource revenue with First Nations and released a video of him speaking compassionately about those with autism and neurodiversity.

Chambers said the challenge for the leader will be sustaining the momentum he captured during last year's leadership race, where sold more than 300,000 memberships and often attracted crowds by hundreds and at times, thousands.

Since becoming leader, Poilievre has made a habit of spending many weekends on the road, whether in the Greater Toronto Area or Vancouver, both regions Conservatives have struggled to grow support in recent elections. Its during these campaign-like events he is meeting with members of different immigrant and racialized communities — another demographic Tories have struggled to connect with.

Laryssa Waler, a former director of communications for Ontario Premier Doug Ford, says Canada is facing no shortage of challenges, from the economy to health care, and rejects the premise it should be up to Poilievre to provide solutions.

"Pierre's job is to be the leader of the Opposition and that does not include bringing forward government policy about interprovincial monetary transfers."

"Your job is to highlight the problem."

One way Poilievre is trying to do that is with the message "everything feels broken." He repeated that in a speech before caucus Friday, where he listed off the ways he feels Trudeau is failing to address, ranging from crime to housing prices.

Chris Chapin, who has worked on past leadership campaigns for Ontario Progressive Conservative candidates, saying Poilievre's message is evocative and sees why he's using it to lay the groundwork for whenever the next election is called.

He says while convincing people the country is broken is one thing, getting them to believe Poilievre is the one to fix it is another.

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