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Opinion A rocky start for Liberals in a pre-election season that will be all about the economy

It goes without saying, but let’s say it anyway: There is no worse way for a government to start a legislative session than to have one of its MPs cross the floor to join the Opposition.

And not just any MP: Leona Alleslev may have kept a low profile – last year, she lost her job as parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Public Services – but she represents Aurora-Oak Ridges-Richmond Hill, an affluent suburban riding north of Toronto with a large number of new Canadians. Ridings such as this one elect governments.

A little more than a year out from the next election, it is becoming clear that the state of the economy will dominate the campaign. If you think Indigenous issues or the threat of global warming or the state of the health-care system should be the top priority, you’re going to be disappointed.

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The keywords of the next campaign will be growth, jobs, security, debt and taxes. Ms. Alleslev has given the Conservatives a boost with her declaration that they, not the Liberals she once sat with, should be trusted to mind the store.

Things didn’t get much better for the Liberals during the first Question Period of the fall sitting. As expected, the Official Opposition highlighted the government’s decision to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline project from Kinder Morgan, only to have the Federal Court of Appeal shut down construction, citing insufficient consultation.

In reply, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pointed out that economic growth is strong and unemployment low. This is perfectly true. Over the next year, the Liberals will declare, over and over again, that their government has presided over a period of sustained prosperity, even as it lowered income taxes for middle-class voters.

The Conservatives will counter by pointing to the tens of billions of dollars of new debt, the botched Trans Mountain project and especially the Liberal-imposed carbon taxes.

In that debate, how many suburban, middle-class voters are prepared to follow Ms. Alleslev and embrace the Conservative narrative?

The Liberals will also point out that, on their watch, Canada ratified trade agreements with the European Union and the nations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The Conservatives will point out that Stephen Harper’s government negotiated those agreements.

But what really matters right now is the effort to renegotiate the North American free-trade agreement with a U.S. administration whose President, Donald Trump, recently boasted he would preside over the “ruination” of Canada if this country didn’t bend to his will on trade.

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The Mexicans and Americans have already hammered out a bilateral pact, in which the former made many concessions to the latter. The Canadians are putting up more of a fight. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland appears unwilling to sign on to a deal that sacrifices protections for the dairy industry while not preserving some form of dispute-resolution mechanism.

If Canada and the United States can’t reach a post-NAFTA accord by the end of the month, the Trump administration will take the bilateral Mexico-U.S. agreement to Congress. Should that happen, the Liberals are confident Congress will reject the agreement and insist that Canada be included.

That would be an extremely risky strategy, as decision-making power would rest not with Canada but with U.S. politicians – during the midterm election season at that.

It would also end any pretense of bipartisan co-operation on NAFTA. The Conservatives would cast the Liberals as incompetent negotiators forced to beg Congress to save this country’s economy from crippling Trump tariffs.

Right now, most Canadians support the government’s determination to renegotiate NAFTA without sacrificing vital Canadian interests. But that support will evaporate if the talks fail or Canada is forced to accept too many concessions.

The final, all-important chapter of this story will be written in the coming months, before the election is formally called. For what it’s worth, there is now one MP, with a riding right in the heart of the Greater Toronto Area, who has changed her bet.

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