Conservatives will grapple with some hard questions

MPs will be asking about the future direction of a party stalled in the polls

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The Gazette, Monday, July 30, 2007

There is a rhythm to every season in politics, and we are coming to the part about the summer caucuses.

The caucuses come after an intensive month of barbecues and golf tournaments, but before the corn roasts and strawberry festivals. And the point of all this socializing, apart from raising the presence of MPs and raising money on their behalf, is to put them in touch with what voters are saying and thinking.

For backbenchers of all parties, this is fence-mending, pure and simple. For cabinet ministers of the government party, these are listening tours, where they take notes and promise to get back, and wonder why they agreed to do this in the first place.

Once these rituals of summer are completed, it's on to the caucuses, and more rituals of summer.

The summer caucuses are usually organized in a resort setting in a part of the country where the party hopes to do better next time. Thus, the Conservatives will all descend on Charlottetown and Prince Edward Island this week, reminding Canadians it is the cradle of confederation, with the best summer theatre festival, the finest beaches and the nicest people you'll ever meet this side of Cape Breton.

By the way, the Conservatives haven't won a seat there since the Mulroney landslide of 1984. They've gone 0-for-4 in P.E.I. in the last six, count 'em six, elections. Never mind Pat Binns won three provincial terms in a row for the Tories before mistakenly trying for a fourth last spring, when the voters ever so politely indicated it was time for him to retire.

One of the great things about politics in P.E.I. is that everyone takes sides. There are Liberals and there are Tories, and darn few undecideds. There is also an old rule of politics in P.E.I.: If it moves, pension it; if it doesn't, pave it.

And all politics being local, Stephen Harper is sure to be asked what he thinks about P.E.I.'s new French licence plates, apparently the biggest novelty since French on corn flakes boxes. The answer should be that there has been French spoken in P.E.I. since there have been Arsenaults there, and that it's good for tourism from Quebec, a timely counterweight against the pull of exchange rate parity to Maine.

Warmer water for swimming and tastier lobster for eating would be two more good reasons, to say nothing of the Charlottetown festival being better family fare than the summer stock at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine.

Visiting caucuses must always be sensitive to local and regional issues while going about the larger work of discussing national issues among themselves. This is why, in the Maritimes, it is much more significant that Peter MacKay is responsible for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency than he is responsible for Afghanistan as minister of foreign affairs.

In this part of the country, an ACOA announcement is much more important than a shift of emphasis on foreign policy in Latin America or the Middle East. So, expect MacKay to be a prominent face this week, as well as one of several ministers, including Jim Flaherty of finance, trying to heal the breach with the Atlantic over equalization and the offshore.

The summer caucus usually goes according to a well-scripted scenario. The Conservatives will open with cabinet presentations on Wednesday morning, and break into regional groups in the afternoon, followed by a barbecue in the evening.

On Thursday, they'll have an all-day national caucus, where the MPs will tell ministers they've been getting an earful on broken promises, from income trusts to equalization payments. Ministers will nod agreement, or not, and at the end the prime minister will sum up.

The Conservatives might not make any decisions at this caucus, but the government might move toward three big ones.

The first one is the life of this Parliament, now apparently extended to the fall of 2009, the new date for a fixed election, unless the minority government falls in the meantime on a question of absolute confidence, such as the 2008 budget. This is mood driven, largely by the polls, which indicate the Conservatives are well short of majority territory, and that every other party has good reason to avoid an early election.

The second is a question for the cabinet inner circle in the Priorities and Planning Committee, the dozen ministers who have the PM's ear. And it's whether to prorogue the current session of the House and move to a new one with a throne speech in October. And if so, in a government currently out of message, what would be its new message?

The third is a question for the prime minister alone. And it's whether to do a cabinet shuffle along with a throne speech, and give himself the team that would take him through a new session and, eventually, to an election.

The caucus won't be asked the third question. But they might have some ideas, from their summer soundings, about the other two.

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