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Scheer’s social conservatism obvious target, but Liberals to lay off new leader at onset: insiders

Liberals will likely 'wait and see' where Andrew Scheer takes the Conservatives before they launch a sustained attack on him.

Likeability factor: It remains to be seen what approach Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government take to defending themselves against new Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, pictured May 27 after winning the party's leadership in Toronto. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

PUBLISHED :Monday, June 5, 2017 12:00 AM

Liberal Party veterans say new Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s reputation as a social conservative is an obvious target for politicking from the Justin Trudeau government, but some say the party in power is likely to avoid being overly aggressive against the new leader for the time-being.

Reasons include not being sure, exactly, what direction Mr. Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.) is going to take the Conservative Party in and also not wanting to repeat mistakes the former Conservative government made against Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.).

Mr. Scheer won the Conservative leadership on May 27 in a close vote that saw him edging out favourite Maxime Bernier (Beauce, Que.) on the 13th and final ballot by a margin of 51 to 49 per cent.

How does that affect Liberal strategy? So far, the Liberal Party has issued a press release highlighting Mr. Scheer’s record of voting in the House in opposition to “equal marriage and a woman’s right to choose,” calling his economic plan one that “only serves the wealthiest one per cent,” and saying he is poised to take the Conservatives “in an even more extreme direction” than Stephen Harper.

  

A former House Speaker, Mr. Scheer is well-liked by his caucus. He’s also media savvy, confident, cheery, says he wants to keep a “positive” tone in Parliament, and has so far defined himself as the “everyday” Canadian.

“We are and always will be the party of prosperity not envy, the party that always represents taxpayers not connected Ottawa insiders,” Mr. Scheer said in his victory speech.

“Trudeau’s Liberals are so focused on photo-ops and selfies that they don’t care if their policies hurt and not help the middle class. Sunny ways don’t pay the bills,” Mr. Scheer said.

The Canadian Press reported Liberal MP Pablo Rodriguez (Honoré-Mercier, Que.) as categorizing Mr. Scheer’s leadership win as a victory for the “far-right social conservatives” over the “far-right economic conservatives,” with the latter being a reference to Mr. Bernier’s supporters.

  

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pictured in this file photograph. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

The Prime Minister’s Office would not comment on how Mr. Scheer’s selection as Conservative leader affects government strategy, and simply referred to a release it put out that said Mr. Trudeau called Mr. Scheer to congratulate him, and that they talked about “making Parliament work for Canadians and the important relationship with the United States … [and] agreed to meet in person in the coming weeks.”

Former Liberal MP Joe Jordan. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Despite these early attacks, former Liberal MP Joe Jordan said the Trudeau Liberals will likely “wait and see” where Mr. Scheer takes the Conservatives before they launch a sustained attack on him. He said the early shots at the new opposition leader’s social conservative credentials “won’t matter unless the Tories head in that direction.”

He said: “I think what the Liberals will do is wait and see what direction the [Conservatives go], and then they’ll react.”

Mr. Jordan, who’s now a lobbyist with Bluesky Strategy Group, said he doubts that Mr. Scheer will make social conservatism a big part of his strategy. For one thing, he said, it’s not a winning formula with Canadian voters, and he also noted how Mr. Scheer’s first Question Period as leader last week was predominately focused on economic issues.

  

He added that the Liberals “don’t want to cross the line of just ridiculing people for having religious beliefs. It’s when the separation of church and state is at risk, I think it’s fair game.”

Yet, when asked how the government would respond to the new opposition leader, former Liberal cabinet minister Sheila Copps said in an email: “Mr. Scheer’s social conservatism, which is exclusionary and judgmental, will be the focus of language in Parliament.”

Former Liberal cabinet minister Don Boudria said, despite some of the strong rhetoric coming from the Liberal Party immediately after Mr. Scheer’s victory, he doesn’t expect the governing party to be as aggressive as the former Conservative government was under Mr. Harper with Liberal leaders.

“I don’t think the Liberals will in any way do anything to make it appear that the new Conservative leader is not strong enough,” he said. “They won’t be doing the same mistake that Harper did. Harper effectively dismissed Justin Trudeau to his own peril. The fact that Justin Trudeau was young and inexperienced, ‘not ready but nice hair,’ and that type of nonsense.

“And obviously, it didn’t work. It failed miserably. And I don’t think the Liberals, having watched what happened previously, are going to make a mistake like that. They’re going to take the new Conservative leader seriously.”

Former Liberal cabinet minister Don Boudria. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Mr. Boudria, now a lobbyist for Hill & Knowlton Strategies, also brought up the pre-emptive campaign the Conservatives launched against Stéphane Dion shortly after he became Liberal leader in 2006.

“I don’t see, for instance, the kind of thing that we saw when Mr. Harper went after Stéphane Dion with television ads about two days after he became leader of the Liberal Party,” he said. “I don’t think that would be Mr. Trudeau’s style to do something like that. He’s not a negative person, personally. And I think that if someone were to offer that suggestion to him, he would reject it.”

Mr. Jordan said aggressive rhetoric from the former Conservative government worked with former Liberal leaders like Mr. Dion and Michael Ignatieff, but did not work with Mr. Trudeau, who had “a likeability factor,” which he said Mr. Scheer also has.

Ms. Copps said attacks against an opposition leader by government can work if they reinforce what people are seeing themselves. The problem the Conservatives had with Mr. Trudeau, she said, is he “outperformed expectations” and the criticisms were “misaligned with reality.”

Mr. Jordan said if Mr. Bernier had won the Conservative leadership, there would have been a clear opportunity for the Liberals to exploit divisions within the Conservative caucus on the issue of supply management in the agricultural industry, which Mr. Bernier was firmly against.

Mr. Boudria said if Mr. Bernier had won, the Liberals would have likely used Mr. Bernier’s opposition to supply management to make gains with voters in rural areas. With Mr. Scheer ending up with the leader’s job, Mr. Boudria said the Liberals are likely looking at using his social conservatism to solidify their support in cities.

Mr. Scheer had said during his leadership campaign that he was not interested in reigniting debates on abortion or same-sex marriage. Nonetheless, pro-life groups like the Campaign Life Coalition and We Need a Law issued press releases congratulating Mr. Scheer after his victory.

Mr. Jordan said a bigger shift in political tactics from the Liberals will probably be apparent after the NDP selects its new leader in October, because then it will be clearer what they’re facing in the 2019 election.

“Then the Liberals will clearly know where their goalposts are, their left and right flanks,” he said.

“This fall, you really start looking ahead to that election, and I think everything is seen through that lens. Things will crank up. The political temperature will rise. And I think then you’ll see Liberal House strategy specifically for political as opposed to policy objectives. I don’t think we’re seeing that yet.”

Besides the conclusion of the NDP leadership giving the government a better idea of what they’re facing from both their right- and left-wing opponents, Mr. Jordan said the NDP, after its leadership is settled, might end up doing “some of that heavy lifting” for the Liberals in attacking Mr. Scheer on his social conservative background.

Up until Mr. Scheer’s recent leadership victory, neither the Conservative nor the NDP had leaders who would take their parties into the next election. By next fall, they both will.

With the NDP leadership not being decided until October, Mr. Boudria said it’s hard to say how that race’s results will affect the Liberals’ strategy.

He noted the interesting dynamic that would be at play if 38-year-old Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh becomes NDP leader, and all of a sudden Prime Minister Trudeau, now 45, is facing two opponents, including 38-year-old Mr. Scheer, who are younger than him.

“Last election, the argument was: is one of the people running too young?” Mr. Boudria said. “This election, it might be: are the leaders young enough? They’ll all be young. It’s going to change the dynamic. It’s going to change the language, certainly.”

Mr. Jordan, on the prospect of an election featuring Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Scheer, and Mr. Singh, said: “It would be an interesting election because the one thing Trudeau had last time is he had that appeal to that younger demographic. … That really represents the inter-generational transfer of the leadership of these parties, and with that you might get—certainly from the NDP—a fundamental rethink of where they stand on issues.”

Another young candidate for the NDP leadership is 34-year-old MP Niki Ashton (Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, Man.).

Looking at the party apparatus itself, Liberal Party national director Azam Ishmael said not much has changed for the party’s operations or strategy as a result of Mr. Scheer becoming Conservative leader, despite the party’s attack on Mr. Scheer’s record and economic policy on the night he won the leadership.

“I would say we’re not going to change our methods,” he said in an interview. “We’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing since we formed government, which is working hard every day to deliver for the middle class.”

He said the fact that Mr. Scheer, and not Mr. Bernier, won the Conservative leadership had little affect on how the party will be going about its business.

“We’ve had a our plan and we’re executing our plan. … I’ll let the other parties decide what they’re doing, and we do what we do on our side,” he said.

dabma@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times