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Opposition parties eagerly await 2017, while Liberals brace for choppy waters

People make their way to the Conservative leadership debate in Saskatoon, Wednesday, November 9, 2016.
People make their way to the Conservative leadership debate in Saskatoon, Wednesday, November 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards

OTTAWA – Count the federal Conservatives and the NDP among those looking forward to a better year in 2017 — a year the two opposition parties are also counting on as a significant challenge for one Justin Trudeau.

The dramatically different political landscape on the other side of the Canada-U.S. border is going to throw a wrench in the Liberal prime minister’s plans, says interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose.

“There’s a train coming down the track and I don’t think he’s faced the reality of it,” Ambrose said in an interview this week.

The new year will bring with it permanent new leaders for both the Tories and the New Democrats, as well as a clearer sense of direction in both substance and style as preparations begin in earnest for the next election cycle.

But as one political party’s rising fortunes are often tied to the diminishing fortunes of another, both are especially focused on what the calendar change will mean for the Liberals.

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Climate conundrum

High on that list are higher taxes on the wealthy and Liberal plans for lower greenhouse gas emissions — including a national price on carbon — and how they will affect Canada’s ability to attract investment once U.S. president-elect Donald Trump arrives in the White House.

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Government predicts pipeline will be built before next election – Dec 13, 2016

“All of this means job losses for Canada, because it means we’re going to be uncompetitive compared to the United States,” said Ambrose, citing Canadian beef exports and softwood lumber as possible targets in any renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“How is Prime Minister Trudeau going to protect those jobs? What’s the plan? I just don’t believe he has one.”

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At the same time, Ambrose said the likelihood that Trump will approve the Keystone XL pipeline quickly after taking office is “an opportunity” for Canada.

Trudeau, who also supports Keystone XL, expressed disappointment when U.S. President Barack Obama rejected the project just as the Liberal government was taking office last year.

Not so NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who said Trudeau is putting the cart before the horse when it comes to approving Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline without a tangible plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as they committed to last year at the UN climate change conference in Paris.

“A lot of Canadians are feeling disappointed and indeed betrayed by a government that got elected by promising real change, but in case after case, example after example, file after file, real change isn’t there,” Mulcair said this week.

Mulcair cited the Liberal decision to stick with the Conservative targets for emissions reductions as one glaring example.

Races heat up

The fact remains, though, that while the Conservatives and the NDP have been ramping up their attacks on the Liberals on issues like so-called “cash-for-access” fundraising and electoral reform, both need permanent leaders before they can begin to showcase themselves as alternatives.

The Conservatives will choose a new leader May 27 from a bank of hopefuls that currently numbers 14 confirmed candidates.

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Chad Rogers, a Conservative strategist, said that as far as electoral defeats go, 2015 was actually a pretty good one for his party.

“As Conservatives, for those of us who have been around for a while, we usually blow the whole thing up, and then go into the wilderness and lick our wounds and kill each other for a while,” said Rogers, a partner at Crestview Strategy.

Rogers also said he was pleasantly surprised, during last month’s leadership debate in Saskatoon, to see how little daylight there was between the candidates on many of their policy ideas.

“The coalition is fine.”

The New Democrats, on the other hand, still don’t have an official candidate, although Peter Julian and Charlie Angus both relinquished their roles in the NDP shadow cabinet to explore possible bids.

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WATCH: Mulcair has ‘options on the table’ but will remain NDP leader until the fall

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New Democrat MPs Niki Ashton and Guy Caron, as well as Ontario NDP legislator Jagmeet Singh, are also in the mix as potential contenders.

The party won’t start voting until September, a process that could extend all the way to the end of October before a victor emerges.

Robin MacLachlan, an NDP commentator with Summa Strategies, said members are eager for the race to take shape so they can move past the internal battle that saw Mulcair lose a leadership review vote last spring.

Grassroots members were cut off from the decision-making process of both the campaign and the leadership, he added.

“It’s a time to reconnect with the grassroots of the party.”

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In different ways, the elections of both Trump and Trudeau show that voters are looking for a leader who can connect with people, said MacLachlan.

Whether Trudeau can keep it up is another matter — especially, Ambrose noted, when so much about the world has changed since he was elected.

“I think the fun is over,” she said, “and the hard work’s going to start.”