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Politics After two years, Scheer plans to tell us who he really is

He’s leading in the polls, and now Andrew Scheer is about to embark on an effort to give Canadians an idea of what kind of leader he would be.

The Conservative Leader remains an undefined entity six months from an election. He’s been called Stephen Harper with a smile, but most of what Canadians have seen of his own, personal brand of politics has come from his criticisms of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

So, over the next five or six weeks, Mr. Scheer will attempt to put some meat on the bones of his political identity in a series of five major policy speeches.

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It will start Tuesday in Montreal with a speech on foreign policy. And then Mr. Scheer will travel to a different part of the country more or less each week to deliver speeches on the economy, immigration, Confederation and federal-provincial relations, and the environment.

That last one will come after Mr. Scheer’s Conservatives lay out their long-promised climate-change plan – after months when Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals have taunted the Tory Leader by charging his climate plan is a non-existent.

These won’t be campaign-style stump speeches designed to rev up and win over supporters. Large blocks of voters probably won’t be swayed by an exposition of wonkish topics to luncheon crowds. They won’t lay out all the details of the party’s platform, either, according to Mr. Scheer’s communications director, Brock Harrison, but offer a general vision in each area.

But they are Mr. Scheer’s chance to show that there’s a there there, and that he is a leader with ideas about where to take the country. Or not: there’s an obvious risk when a leader starts an explicit attempt to lay out his basic policy vision that analysts, critics and opponents can then poke holes in it, or attack it as weak or misguided.

In one sense, it is Mr. Trudeau’s political problems that have made it more pressing for the Conservative Leader to outline some of his own ideas on governing. The Liberals have fallen behind the Conservatives in the polls. The public, and the press, will be asking what Mr. Scheer would do.

Mr. Harrison said the Conservatives believe Canadians have growing doubts about Mr. Trudeau “but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to move over and choose the next thing.”

The truth is that Mr. Scheer has an identity problem. It’s not so much who, but what. The average-dad persona might serve as a useful contrast to Mr. Trudeau’s glam – Conservative strategists believe – but he doesn’t have an indelible political identity. Mr. Harrison argues that’s not unusual. “It’s an Opposition Leader problem,” he said.

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The five topics also offer Mr. Scheer a chance to distance himself from former prime minister Stephen Harper – and therefore take the sting out of Mr. Trudeau’s charge that the Conservative Leader would “turn back the clock” to Mr. Harper’s days.

In foreign policy, Mr. Scheer has to offer an idea of how he will steer Canada between Donald Trump’s capricious United States and a rising, threatening China with a massive economy that cannot be ignored. On immigration, there is now the issue of asylum-seekers entering Canada from unauthorized points. Federal-provincial relations have grown pricklier of late, with British Columbia and Alberta trading lawsuits and threats, and provinces asking courts to limit Ottawa’s power to regulate carbon emissions.

On the environment, Mr. Scheer now faces an electorate that expects to hear a leader say he has a viable plan to reduce emissions. But he has to square that with his full-throated backing for oil sands expansion and new pipelines.

Even a speech on the economy, normally an opportunity for a Conservative leader to preach the gospels of balanced budgets and tax cuts, provides a different challenge now that Ottawa runs a roughly $20-billion-a-year deficit. Will Mr. Scheer say he’d do both, and quickly? Because if that’s his plan, he’ll open himself to Liberal charges that he plans to make deep spending cuts.

The average Canadian won’t be hanging on every word of Mr. Scheer’s policy oratory. Some will filter through. But voters don’t choose leaders for policy ideas, so much as policy ideas tell them about the leader. And after two years as Conservative Leader, Mr. Scheer plans to tell us what he is.

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