Andrew Scheer truly is the heir of Stephen Harper.
“A dynamic, free-market economy is a social institution that harnesses human creativity and ingenuity for everyone’s benefit,” the Conservative Leader said in Toronto Thursday in a major address to the Economic Club of Canada. “Its most important outcome is opportunity and prosperity.”
The market is a social institution. That’s something Margaret Thatcher would have said. Or Ronald Reagan. Or Stephen Harper.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberals like to demonize Mr. Scheer by claiming he is ideologically indistinguishable from the former Conservative prime minister. They will leap all over this speech.
That may work for them, or it may not. When the Conservatives were defeated by the Liberals in 2015, Stephen Harper was unpopular. But he had governed for almost a decade. While Mr. Scheer never mentioned Mr. Harper in his address, he is clearly betting that voters prefer the Harper decade to the past four Liberal years.
In one respect, it seems odd for the Conservatives to obsess on the economy. Canada is doing well. Though growth is expected to be modest in 2019, unemployment is at historic lows, and Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz said Thursday that two key vulnerabilities, household debt and an unbalanced housing market, had declined modestly over the past year.
But the Conservatives are hoping that a general sense of unease among Canadians – that their jobs are insecure, that they can’t afford to make the down payment on a house, that they will be unable to save for their retirement – will turn voters away from the Liberals.
The Liberal approach – tax cuts for lower-middle-income earners and tax hits for the more affluent, along with infrastructure projects funded by substantial deficits – never worked for most people, Mr. Scheer says. “The economic indicators might say one thing,” he told the business audience. “But the human indicators say something entirely different. People are only barely getting by. And they’re not getting ahead.”
His Conservative solution: “lower taxes, predictable regulations, sound public finances and smarter investments in areas such as basic research and infrastructure.” Harperism.
At the root of Mr. Scheer’s message is a minimalist conservative view of how the federation should work. Stephen Harper reduced the share of GDP occupied by the federal government to levels not seen since John Diefenbaker was prime minister. Mr. Scheer would return Ottawa to that path.
On Mr. Harper’s watch, Ottawa looked after defence and foreign policy, transferred funds to the provinces for health care, education and other social services, worked with them on managing the immigration system, tried to help them move forward on big infrastructure projects – especially oil pipelines – and otherwise left well enough alone.
Mr. Trudeau offers a much more engaged approach: making health-care funding conditional on federal priorities, such as mental health; compelling provinces to put a price on carbon emissions or face a federal tax as punishment.
Mr. Scheer condemned that interventionism. “Instead of unity – instead seeking to help all Canadians benefit from our nation’s prosperity and natural resources – Trudeau has sown division,” he declared.
There is always a whiff of populism in Conservative economic messaging, and Mr. Scheer’s speech was no exception. “Companies like Bombardier and Loblaws and SNC-Lavalin seem to have the Prime Minister’s Office on speed-dial” he said. “But small-business owners and risk-taking entrepreneurs are taxed half to death.”
He compared growing up “in an end-unit townhouse in south Ottawa” with Mr. Trudeau’s “personal wealth."
Mr. Harper also liked to contrast his modest suburban upbringing to Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin’s affluence. (He bragged about cooking Kraft Dinner for his children. “I like to add wieners.”)
One question is what Mr. Harper would think of Mr. Scheer’s promise to create “a dedicated, coast-to-coast right-of-way specifically set aside for energy infrastructure projects.” One suspects the former prime minister would smile grimly and wish the Conservative leader luck in the negotiations.
But at root, Mr. Scheer’s message is Stephen Harper’s message. The current Conservative Leader envisions a Canada "where taxes are low, government is limited, but potential is unlimited.” That line could have come straight out of a Stephen Harper speech. (And in classic Harper fashion, Mr. Scheer took no questions from reporters afterward.)
The two Conservative leaders were and are convinced that this passive approach to creating wealth and increasing opportunity will resonate with voters over the Liberals’ more interventionist tendencies. We’ll see.