John Ibbitson is writer-at-large at The Globe and Mail. His latest book is Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, co-authored with Darrell Bricker.
Andrew Scheer appears to lead one of the most moderate conservative parties in the world. The Liberals would have you believe it’s a ruse.
Thirteen weeks out from the next federal election, the Liberals and Conservatives seem to be running neck-and-neck, with some polls giving the Tories the edge, and others the Grits.
For Mr. Scheer, who is a new and relatively unknown leader of a political party that was decisively beaten in the last election, this is a pretty good place to be. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau could be the first prime minister since R.B. Bennett in the 1930s to be defeated after a single term of majority government.
But the Liberals are a long way from giving up. Along with touting their policy successes – new trade deals, a strong economy, the carbon tax to fight global warming – and initiatives to come, the Grits and their allies are accusing the Tories of being anti-immigrant, anti-women and anti-gay.
“The Conservative leader refused to denounce white supremacists in this House,” Mr. Trudeau accused in the Commons, earlier this year, after Mr. Scheer attended a rally where nativist protesters were present.
The Prime Minister asked when the Leader of the Official Opposition will “finally denounce white supremacists by name.” Mr. Scheer said he was unaware the protesters were present, and called Mr. Trudeau’s barb “disgusting.”
Engage Canada, a left-wing advocacy group dedicated to defeating the Conservatives, states on its Facebook page that “Andrew Scheer has shown us time and time again that he’s too weak to stand up to extremism in his caucus or in the conservative movement.”
When Unplanned, an anti-abortion film, opened in Canadian cinemas earlier this month, Liberal chief of staff Katie Telford tweeted: “This is happening, at least in part, thanks to the support received by federal Conservative politicians."
And when Mr. Scheer said he would take a wait-and-see approach before deciding whether to support Liberal legislation that would criminalize conversion therapy, Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault called the response “a dodge,” telling The Globe, “I don’t think he’s supportive of LGBTQ people at all.”
Brian Lee Crowley, managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an Ottawa-based think tank, says that Liberal efforts to demonize Conservatives as intolerant are a fixture of the Canadian landscape. “It’s part of our politics,” he observed in an interview.
Such campaigns have proved effective in the past, although the effort is hit-and-miss. Liberal charges of a Tory hidden agenda helped defeat Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in the 2004 election, but proved ineffective in 2006.
Will similar accusations work against Andrew Scheer in this election?
“The Liberals absolutely will accuse the Conservatives of being too extreme,” said Randy Besco, a political scientist at University of Toronto. “Whether voters believe it depends on whether Conservatives provide evidence that that’s the case.”
Some political analysts believe Canada has become dangerously polarized along lines of class, age and geography. According to this theory, economic and cultural insecurity drives less-educated, less affluent, rural and older Canadians to oppose immigration, multiculturalism and measures to fight climate change. They’re inclined toward the Conservatives, and are increasingly attracted to authoritarian, populist leaders and ideas.
Younger, better-educated, urban progressives who embrace diversity, globalization and the fight against climate change gravitate toward the Liberals, New Democrats and Greens.
Ekos pollster Frank Graves and Michael Valpy, a senior fellow at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, believe the upcoming federal election campaign will be a “class war,” as they wrote recently in the Toronto Star, between enlightened progressives and “less educated Canadians who have had troubles making their way in the new economy and who tend to have social conservative views.”
This seems hard to square with the positions of the two governing parties on the issues.
Both Conservatives and Liberals agree that global warming is a major threat and carbon emission levels must come down. The Liberals prefer a carbon tax; the Tories would regulate emitters. Only in Canada could such nuance be called polarization.
Voters list health care as a major concern. Neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives advocate a private option to ease the strain on publicly provided services. The Liberals are expected to propose a national pharmacare strategy. The Conservatives are talking about a more limited program for people, such as the self-employed, who don’t have access to corporate plans.
The Conservatives accuse the Liberals of mishandling the situation at the Quebec border, where thousands of asylum seekers have streamed across each year. The Liberals, in turn, accuse the Conservatives of intolerance toward refugees. But both parties support retaining high levels of immigration over all.
Both parties support free and open trade. Mr. Scheer would continue the Liberal push to win a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council for Canada. Hostile Chinese actions have nudged the Liberals toward the Conservatives’ skeptical and wary approach in dealing with the world’s second largest economy.
This is a far cry from the vicious, sometimes violent schism between Democrats and Republicans in the United States, or between Leavers and Remainers in Britain. The Conservative Party of Canada is far more moderate and centrist than the conservative parties of either country, or those in much of Europe, where the right is often led by xenophobic autocrats.
And Maxime Bernier’s new People’s Party, which does take a more aggressively negative approach to multiculturalism and environmentalism, polls in the low single digits.
“Is Canada becoming more polarized? Yes, it is,” acknowledged Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, which conducts polling and other research. But, she added, "It’s not like we have this massive crevice in this country with people on either side of it. That’s not happening.
“Are we a little bit further down the football field? Sure. But it’s a football field, not a canyon.”
That said, there are elements within the Conservative coalition that reject multiculturalism and high levels of immigration, that oppose abortion and protecting the rights of sexual minorities. If the Liberals succeed in implanting in voters’ minds that Andrew Scheer is in thrall to this faction of the party, then the election will be a referendum on the Conservative Leader, and the Liberals will win.
However, Prof. Besco says voters are very attuned to “source credibility,” and one politician slagging another politician is not seen as the most reliable source.
Unless the Conservatives succumb to the social conservative wing of the party, as they did with the “barbaric cultural practices hotline” in the last campaign. “Then the accusation becomes a lot more credible,” Prof. Besco said.
Preventing “bozo eruptions” from socially conservative MPs, for example, will be one of Mr. Scheer’s most important tasks in the weeks ahead. Such eruptions plagued Stephen Harper in the early years of his leadership.
Mr. Crowley suspects the affable Mr. Scheer will be a particularly difficult candidate to demonize. “The idea that this is a man who wants to go back to the distant past of back-alley abortions and white-only immigration is laughable,” he said.
If Mr. Scheer can shake off Liberal efforts to brand him as intolerant, and make the election about alleged Liberal incompetence (China, the India trip, never-ending deficits) and corruption (the SNC-Lavalin affair, the Mark Norman affair et al.), then the Tories could prevail.
To that end, Mr. Scheer has been careful to insist that a Conservative government would take no action on abortion, and in a June speech, he said: "I find the notion that one’s race, religion, gender or sexual orientation would make anyone in any way superior or inferior to anyone else absolutely repugnant. And if there’s anyone who disagrees with that, there’s the door. You are not welcome here.”
Given Mr. Trudeau’s current unpopularity – many polls show that voters are unsatisfied with his performance – Mr. Scheer’s task as leader is to keep the social conservatives – some of whom are in his caucus – quiet, while reassuring the larger public “that he is a safe pair of hands,” said Bob Plamondon, who has chronicled the history of conservatism in several books.
Mr. Scheer does, however, face one other challenge in trying to tamp down accusations of populist intolerance: Doug Ford.
While Ontario’s Premier strongly supports immigration, and was supported in turn by immigrant voters in last year’s election, he is otherwise a classic populist – declaring he’s for “the little guy” and railing against elites even as he slashes government services.
Those cuts, and one patronage-appointment scandal after another, have rendered Mr. Ford unpopular. Declining fortunes for the Ontario Progressive Conservatives may be contributing to rising Liberal fortunes in Ontario in some polls.
How badly could the Ford effect damage the Conservatives? Ms. Kurl says that his presence in the federal campaign, however vicarious, could galvanize Liberal supporters in the province.
The Conservative Party of Canada has enjoyed the rock-solid support of one-in-three voters since it was forged from the union of the Progressive Conservative and Canadian Alliance parties before the 2004 election campaign. The CPC is also flush with cash, often raising more money in a financial quarter than all other parties combined. If Mr. Scheer has made no strongly positive impression, he has made no strongly negative one, either.
But the party struggles to find the three or four percentage points of additional support needed to secure a minority government, or six for a majority. If the Liberal base is weaker than its Conservative counterpart, the party has much more room to grow.
This election will be like so many others. The Liberals will try to consolidate progressive support. The NDP under Jagmeet Singh will resist them. In this vote, the Greens under Elizabeth May might also be a factor.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives will try to win back middle-class suburban voters who abandoned them for Justin Trudeau in 2015, but who are now having second thoughts.
In that struggle, whenever the opportunity arises, the Liberals will portray the Conservatives as intolerant. How intolerant? That will depend on how much the Tories mess up, and how much trouble the Grits are in.