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Liberal caucus retreat looks to prepare for Poilievre, fall sitting

OTTAWA — Federal Liberal MPs will descend on a coastal resort town in New Brunswick on Sunday for a planning session before Parliament returns from its summer break.

OTTAWA — Federal Liberal MPs will descend on a coastal resort town in New Brunswick on Sunday for a planning session before Parliament returns from its summer break.

That return will be to a different House of Commons, and not only because it now has King Charles III as the head of state.

The Liberals will also now be looking across the aisle at a new face in the chair of what will be referred to as "His Majesty's loyal opposition."

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre decisively won his party's leadership contest on Saturday evening and is expected to pose the biggest challenge to the Liberals and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau since the 2015 election brought them to power. 

Privately, many Liberals are clearly aware of that challenge, and responding to Poilievre's more bombastic style will be a key part of many discussions in St. Andrews, N.B., this week.

Despite murmurs throughout the leadership contest that a Poilievre victory would split his party, the Liberals in charge have privately said they are preparing to go to battle against a united, single Conservative party.

Publicly, however, some Liberals are celebrating Poilievre's win. They're characterizing him as more polarizing, more right-wing and more easy to paint into an extremist partisan corner than former Quebec Premier Jean Charest, who finished a distant second in the leadership race. 

Kingston and The Islands MP Mark Gerretsen, one of the more hyper-partisan Liberal MPs on Twitter, posted an emoji of a smiley face after Poilievre's win was announced. Gerretsen made the post from the road, where he was documenting a drive from his home to St. Andrews in his new electric car.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc, one of the Liberals assigned to attend the Conservative leadership event in person Saturday, issued the first salvo at a Poilievre-led Conservative caucus minutes after the winner was declared.

In a written statement issued with Montreal MP Rachel Bendayan, LeBlanc called Poilievre "reckless" and tried to stoke internal Conservative division by saying even some Tories call the new leader's ideas "highly questionable" and "irresponsible."

“Whether it’s promoting volatile cryptocurrency to ‘opt out of inflation,’ wanting to weaken our gun controls, promising to make pollution free again, opposing support for the middle class, or allowing his caucus to bring forward anti-abortion legislation, the new Conservative leader is proposing dangerous ideas that would risk our economy, our health, and our safety," the two MPs said.

The Liberals are about a year out from the last election, which Trudeau called believing he could win back a majority mandate. Instead, he ended up with almost exactly the same minority outcome as he achieved in 2019. 

And the post-COVID-19 recovery era, in a world rocked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is providing plenty of tricky ground to navigate for a government some are seeing as tired and lacklustre after seven years in office.

Poilievre will go hard at the Liberals for bad management — expect to see him reuse his victory speech line about Canadians not wanting a government that runs their lives, but just one that can run a passport office. 

He will focus intensely on the cost of living crisis the Liberals have yet to tackle directly. 

And Liberal MPs are coming to this retreat fresh off a summer barbecue circuit where many got earfuls about everything from a collapsing health care system and closed emergency rooms to financial struggles to buy food or pay the rent. 

Trudeau is likely to give the caucus a similar speech to the one he delivered to his cabinet at its retreat last week, attempting to energize them all despite facing massive challenges at home and abroad.

But he will also use his remarks to pay homage to the late Queen Elizabeth II, who he had known since childhood and expressed clear fondness for both before and after her death on Sept. 8.

The Liberals briefly considered cancelling the retreat but are pressing ahead, though with expectations for less fun and more reflection.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 11, 2022.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press