OTTAWA — It's no secret what Pierre Poilievre thinks about government spending and inflation.
Same with guns.
But what does the Conservative leader think should happen when premiers ask for billions more in federal health-care dollars?
With a deal under negotiation between Ottawa and provinces, and premiers invited to a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in early February, the issue remains one where the Tory leader's position appears somewhat murky, including to some inside his own party.
Such is where Poilievre finds himself as he enters his second sitting inside the House of Commons as Opposition leader, knowing he must grow the Conservative tent if he hopes to win the next election, whenever it rolls around.
Strategists say a clear opportunity exists for the Conservative leader by way of worries about a possible recession this year, which is fuelling Canadians' existing economic anxieties
Talk of what the year may bring for the economy was on the minds of Conservatives as they met Saturday to discuss priorities for the months ahead given the House of Commons' return next week. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with his Liberal caucus the same day.
Poilievre regularly talks about the financial crunch Canadians are in, whether in struggling to afford a house and make mortgage payments or dealing with costly grocery bills and relying on food banks.
However, if his eye is turned to convincing those who may be skeptical about a Poilievre-led government, he would be wise to broaden his script beyond sticking to a sharp affordability message, said Shakir Chambers, a former adviser to provincial and federal conservative governments.
"We get the economy matters … but as leader of the country, you have to be able to talk about a lot more things."
In a press conference with reporters this week — an event that has become more frequent on Parliament Hill — Poilievre fielded questions on the matter of increased health-care spending and the role of privatization.
Besides pointing out that private delivery of services already exists in the country, he said his priorities for health care include shortening wait times and getting provinces to more quickly approve the foreign credentials of immigrants to deal with staffing shortages.
Nova Scotia MP Stephen Ellis, who is a doctor, said Saturday the country is in economic trouble and there are big regional differences between provinces when it comes to health-care needs.
"So continuing to look at this as something (to) continue to throw money at ... is something that we need to understand that we need to be fiscally conservative as Canadians," he said. "I think many of us are that at heart."
"All we're having is more big government, this top down approach, this federalist approach to say that, 'You must do this, or you must do that," he added. "That's not going to work.
For Melanie Paradis, a veteran of conservative campaigns including that of former Tory leader and Ontario MP Erin O'Toole, health care and affordability are top priorities for Canadians.
"There has to be a conservative solution for big things, like health care," she said.
Another issue set to emerge over the months ahead is the Liberals' long-awaited legislation about creating jobs in low-carbon industries in an effort to reach net-zero emissions, dubbed its "just transition" plan.
While Poilievre has vowed to cancel the federal consumer carbon price and instead reduce emissions through technologies, Conservatives have not yet spelled out what that would look like.On Saturday, Quebec MP Gerard Deltell, the party's environment critic, said a plan will be ready for an election.
One challenge strategists agree exists for Poilievre is pacing. While he does not want to roll out policy promises too early while an election may be off in the distance, he must also begin filling in the blanks for Canadians to know what to expect from him.
Paradis says Poilievre appears to have begun that work. This week, he released a video of him speaking compassionately about those with autism and other forms of neurodiversity and announced plans to share more resource revenue with First Nations
The Conservative caucus heard from a panel of First Nations tax and business leaders Saturday, which followed presentations from economists the day before.
Chambers said the challenge for the leader will be sustaining the momentum he captured during last year's leadership race, where he sold more than 300,000 memberships and often attracted crowds by hundreds and at times, thousands.
Since becoming leader, Poilievre has made a habit of spending many weekends on the road. He's visited both the Greater Toronto Area and Vancouver, both regions where Conservatives have struggled to grow support in recent elections. He has also met with members of different immigrant and racialized communities during the campaign-like stops — another demographic Tories have struggled to connect with.
Laryssa Waler, a former director of communications for Ontario Premier Doug Ford, says Canada is facing no shortage of challenges, from the economy to health care, and rejects the premise it should be up to Poilievre to provide solutions.
"Pierre's job is to be the leader of the Opposition and that does not include bringing forward government policy about interprovincial monetary transfers," she said. "Your job is to highlight the problem."
One way Poilievre is trying to do that is with the message "everything feels broken." He repeated that in a speech before caucus Friday in which he listed off areas he feels Trudeau is failing to act, ranging from crime to housing prices.
Chris Chapin, who has worked on past leadership campaigns for Ontario Progressive Conservative candidates, says Poilievre's message is evocative, adding he can see why it's being used to lay the groundwork for whenever the next election is called.
He says while convincing people the country is broken is one thing, getting them to believe Poilievre is the one to fix it is another.
Ontario MP Marilyn Gladu said Saturday she sees excitement for Poilievre within caucus and beyond, adding she believes his message is resonating with Canadians.
Come next week, she said Conservatives see the top issue being the cost of living.
"I think the health-care system is another legitimate issue," she added.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 28, 2023.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press