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Justin Trudeau’s real governing starts with return of Parliament

The Liberal government is about to go from the first blush of power to the grind of day-to-day governing. And the opposition is hoping to knock them off their honeymoon cloud by pointing to the clash between Justin Trudeau's optimism and gloomier realities in Canada's economy.

Monday marks the real return of Parliament in Mr. Trudeau's tenure – the seven days the Commons sat in December allowed the Liberals to deliver a Throne Speech and table promised middle-class tax cuts, but not much else.

This government's first months have been about setting a new tone and grappling with a few big things, such as the promise, albeit pared down, to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees. Now, Mr. Trudeau faces the everyday demands of governing, from environmental reviews for pipelines to expanding employment insurance. It's not just the opposition, but 183 Liberal MPs, who press for details – for infrastructure projects or expanded EI.

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Mr. Trudeau spent last week in Davos charming billionaires and CEOs, and winning plaudits for optimism as he sold Canada for "resourcefulness," rather than resources. But at home, the news was gloomy: CP Rail cut 1,000 jobs and the Bank of Canada lowered growth forecasts. Many Albertans didn't care for the PM's post-resource message.

Now, the opposition hopes to take Mr. Trudeau down a peg, arguing there's a gap between his rhetoric and reality.

The Conservatives are aiming to cast doubt on the Liberals' economic competence, noting they miscalculated the impact of their tax cuts by billions, and are hinting the deficit will be far higher than the $10-billion maximum they promised.

"There really is no economic plan right now," Conservative finance critic Lisa Raitt said. The NDP will sow disillusionment, arguing the Liberals promised change, and fairness to reduce inequality, but their tax cuts really help the upper middle class.

Politically, it might seem pointless. Polls make Mr. Trudeau's Liberals seem untouchable. The Conservatives have an interim leader, Rona Ambrose, the NDP are still licking campaign wounds, and it's nearly four years till an election. But they hope to put chinks in the Liberal armour that might grow.

One immediate target for the Conservatives is the withdrawal of CF-18 fighters from air strikes against Islamic State; they argue that hurts Canada's credibility on the world stage. But polls suggest roughly half of Canadians approve of the withdrawal, and the Liberals will seek to quiet the controversy by announcing a new mission, focused on training, within weeks.

But the economy remains the central preoccupation for Canadians. The Conservatives will portray the Liberals as flailing; they suggest Finance Minister Bill Morneau doesn't know what the deficit will be, or even when he'll deliver a budget. The Liberals' tax plans carry a shortfall of $8.9-billion over six years, and they're hinting at deficits far higher than $10-billion.

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The Tories will be careful to target the gap between promise and reality, however, not deficits themselves. They know the public wants interventionist government. Ms. Raitt said the public voted for deficits, so she won't oppose them, or infrastructure spending to stimulate growth. What matters, she said, is whether the Liberals expand program spending to dig the government into the red for years to come. She'll warn that the shortfall could bring new taxes, such as a GST increase.

The NDP, meanwhile, will focus on inequality to argue the Liberals aren't living up to election rhetoric about fairness. They argue Liberal tax cuts will help the more affluent among the middle class, not those who are really struggling.

And crucially, at a time of roughly $30-a-barrel oil, the opposition will hit the Liberals from both sides on their pledge to square the resource economy with environmental concerns.

Ms. Raitt said Mr. Trudeau's talk of a low-carbon economy and new regulatory reviews are adding insecurity for struggling Alberta. NDP House Leader Peter Julian said many in B.C. are disappointed that the Liberals backtracked on a promise to put Kinder Morgan's proposal to twin a pipeline to Burnaby through a more stringent environmental review.

"The Liberals have to watch against what is starting to be some disillusionment," Mr. Julian said.

Polls suggest there's not much of it. But Monday marks the start of real everyday governing pressures for the Liberals, and the opposition's hopes they can dim Mr. Trudeau's glow.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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