The Conservative Party’s policy convention is still eight month away, but leader Andrew Scheer is under pressure to define himself and his revamped party for the Canadian public.
Mr. Scheer’s (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.) leadership has come under attack in opinion columns in The Globe and Mail, National Post, and iPolitics recently, with headlines declaring that he is “going nowhere” and his selection as leader was “a mistake,” for reasons including a failure to strongly define himself for the public, and his own socially conservative beliefs.
The Conservatives remain about 10 points behind the Liberals in public opinion polls nationally and have not gained ground among voters over the past several months, despite hammering the government over real and supposed ethical shortcomings, including a finding by the federal ethics commissioner that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) violated a conflict of interest law during his 2016 vacation on the private island of the Aga Khan.
Conservative insiders dismissed the polls and pundits as standard fare for a new opposition leader. But Mr. Scheer—who was elected leader on May 27, 2017, on the 13th ballot with 50.9 per cent of the vote—and his team should begin matching his newly positive, family-friendly persona with fresh policy positions while they work to define themselves in the months ahead, says pollster Nik Nanos, who has been tracking Canadians’ political preferences every week since before the last election.
“It seems that one of the things that Andrew Scheer is trying to accomplish is to portray himself as very family-oriented, a nice and approachable guy, [having] a different style of politics than the previous leader of the Conservative Party of Canada,” said Mr. Nanos.
“What we’ve seen out of the House of Commons and from the Conservatives are policies that are very similar to the previous administration. They’ve focused on issues such as security, immigration and refugees. And it’s hard to build a brand as a nice guy if you’ve got policies that have a harder edge,” he said.
“Conservatives need a strategy where their policy priorities that they want to put in the window align with the brand priorities that they want to advance for Andrew Scheer.”
Mr. Nanos is chair of the polling firm Nanos Research, which had the Conservatives trailing the Liberals by 10 points on Jan. 5, after closing to three points in mid-October.
Conservative pundits Tim Powers and Yaroslav Baran disputed Mr. Nanos’ assessment that the Conservatives had been unduly focused on negative politics or border policies.
Under Mr. Scheer, the federal Conservatives have devoted much of their time in Question Period to grilling the government on proposed taxation changes, and Finance Minister Bill Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.) and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) over potential conflicts of interest and ethical violations. The Conservatives have also hammered the government over its handling of the influx of refugee claimants crossing into Canada illegally from the United States.
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel (Calgary Nose Hill, Alta.), her party’s immigration critic, has called on the government to “close the loophole” in Canada’s Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States, which allows would-be refugee claimants who illegally cross the border away from a regular border checkpoint to make a claim for refugee status to the Immigration and Refugee Board. Under the Safe Third Country Agreement, those who try to claim refugee status at an official border checkpoint on the U.S. border are sent back into the United States.
Beyond responding to government decisions or ministerial missteps, the Conservatives under Mr. Scheer have taken positions on peacekeeping in Ukraine, a U.S. missile defence system, the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, and some other issues.
“He has been coming out on policy. What he doesn’t have yet is a comprehensive platform,” said Mr. Baran, a consultant at Earnscliffe Strategy Group.
Mr. Scheer campaigned for the Conservative Party leadership on a platform that pledged a fight against “radical Islamic terrorism,” carbon taxes, deficit spending, and corporate welfare, and promised to “prioritize real refugees”—Christians, in particular—a tax credit for home schooling, removal of tax on energy bills, protection of free speech on university campuses, a focus on the protection of religious freedom around the world, lower business taxes, and support for supply management.
Mr. Scheer’s leadership campaign platform website was taken down immediately after he won the contest, however.
Mr. Powers said that Mr. Scheer’s team hadn’t taken many policy stances since he took over as leader, but that would likely change in the coming months.
The federal Conservatives have their policy convention in Halifax from Aug. 23-25.
“He’s going to want to roll out his ideas and the party’s ideas, as he believes them to be, at the right time,” said Mr. Powers.
Getting it right is important; parties can run into trouble if they don’t have a clear policy direction, and members of caucus start “opining” about it publicly, he said.
The Conservative caucus is squarely behind Mr. Scheer, said Conservative MP Kent (Thornhill, Ont.), who characterized the negative columns about Mr. Scheer’s leadership as “advice from people who are not members of the Conservative Party or supporters of the Conservative Party.”
Between now and the August policy convention, the Conservatives will focus on taxes, the economy, the spring budget, and take aim at the government over deficit spending, an “unproductive legislative schedule,” broken promises, flaws in legislation, ethical lapses and poor judgement, said Mr. Kent.
As for the gap in the polls? “Poles are for dogs,” said Mr. Kent, echoing former Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker’s comparison of opinion polls to the treatment man’s best friend gives to lampposts and other upright objects.
Mr. Scheer will continue to try to build his profile by travelling across the country, said Mr. Kent. New NDP leader Jagmeet Singh is taking the same approach, and Mr. Trudeau undertook his own cross-country tour before stopping in London for a cabinet retreat last week.
Mr. Scheer, who personally holds some socially conservative beliefs—he is religious and personally against abortion and same-sex marriage—will have to define himself for many voters while his opponents try to pin him as a “fuddy-duddy stuck in the ‘50s,” said Mr. Powers.
“Don’t put up with intolerance, don’t allow people who look to change or step back into a different era of the social fabric of Canada to have the opportunity to do that,” said Mr. Powers. “Allow people to speak but…be clear—and I think he’s tried to—you’re not revisiting gay marriage. You’re not revisiting the abortion debate.”
Mr. Scheer has previously vowed not to reopen a debate on either subject. He also left a strongly socially-conservative Conservative MP and former leadership candidate, Brad Trost (Saskatoon-University, Sask.), out of his shadow cabinet, and did the same with Conservative MP Kellie Leitch (Simcoe-Grey, Ont.), who ran for the leadership on a platform that included a pledge to bring in a “Canadian values” test for immigrants.
Mr. Scheer’s office declined to comment on Mr. Nanos’ comments and the negative opinion columns.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said that Andrew Scheer had left former Conservative Party leadership candidate Pierre Lemieux out of his roster of caucus critics. In fact, Mr. Lemieux is not a Member of Parliament and not in the Conservative caucus.
Ballot: The latest Nanos federal ballot tracking has the Liberals at 40.9% support, followed by the Conservatives at 30.7 %, the NDP at 19.5%, the BQ at 3.7% and the Greens at 4.8%.
Accessible voters: Asked whether they would consider voting for each of the federal parties, 57.3% of Canadians say they would consider voting Liberal while 45.8% would consider voting Conservative. Four in 10 Canadians (42.2%) would consider voting NDP while 24.0% and 28.7% of Canadians would consider voting for the BQ and Green parties respectively.
Preferred Prime Minister: Nanos tracking has Justin Trudeau as the preferred choice as PM at 45.6% of Canadians followed by Andrew Scheer (20.3%), Jagmeet Singh (9.0%) and Elizabeth May (4.1%). Twenty per cent of Canadians were unsure who they preferred.
Qualities of a Good Political Leader: Two in three Canadians (65.6%) believe Trudeau has the qualities of a good political leader while 37.5 per cent believe Scheer has the qualities of a good political leader. Four in ten Canadians (39.5%) say Jagmeet Singh has the qualities of a good political leader, while 37.9 per cent believe the same about May. One in four (27.7%) said Martine Ouellet has the qualities of a good political leader (QC only).
Nanos Party Power Index: The Nanos Index, which is a composite of a series of measures including ballot and leadership impressions, has the Liberals with 62.8 points, the Conservatives 49.9 points, the NDP 46.8 points, the Greens 34.4 points and the BQ 25.9 points (QC only). The weekly tracking figures are based on a four-week rolling sample comprised of 1,000 interviews. To update the tracking a new week of 250 interviews is added and the oldest week dropped. The margin of error for a survey of 1,000 respondents is ±3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.