“It may be Andrew Scheer’s smile, but it’s still Stephen Harper’s party,” Justin Trudeau told 3,000 excited Liberals at their policy convention. This is true, and that truth could make Mr. Scheer prime minister.
A year and a half before the next election, the Liberals are in decent shape. They have big trade wins with the European Union and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. They can point to pension improvements, a more-progressive tax and child-care system, funding for infrastructure, a national carbon tax to fight climate change and the Syrian refugee airlift, one of Canada’s proudest hours.
But the government confronts three major challenges. Failure on any one of them could fatally undermine public confidence in the Liberals’ ability to run the country.
On the first challenge, securing a renewed North American free-trade Agreement, there has been important progress. With good luck and goodwill, there could be an agreement in principle in a matter of weeks. If so, the Liberals will deserve high praise for protecting Canadian interests when they were threatened by a reckless American President. The second challenge is Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline, and here, things are not so good. Mr. Trudeau says the pipeline will get built. Kinder Morgan’s chief executive says the project “may be untenable for a private party to undertake.” If the company walks away, will the Liberals nationalize the line, assuming full financial risk? And even if the government overrides opposition from the British Columbia government and wins all court challenges planned or already under way, how does Ottawa plan to deal with the protesters who vow to block the line?
On Trans Mountain, the Liberals have a lot of eggs and not much basket.
A third challenge is emerging, on the border. Last year, more than 20,000 people crossed from the United States into Canada by avoiding regular crossing points. Thanks to a legal loophole, by committing this illegal act, they stood a better chance of being accepted as refugees than if they showed up at a proper crossing. Mr. Trudeau may have worsened the situation when he tweeted in January, 2017: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.” It seemed like an open invitation to those fleeing the deportation efforts of the Trump administration.
If the past three months are any indication, the number of illegal crossers could more than double this year, beyond 40,000, putting the entire immigration and refugee system at risk. We could have more people flooding across the border illegally than arrive legally each year from the Philippines, Canada’s largest source country of immigrants. If the Liberals can’t find a way to stem this flow, voters will punish them.
Could Andrew Scheer profit politically if the Liberals stumble on any of these key files? Yes, because the Conservative Leader truly is Stephen Harper’s successor. Thanks to the failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords and the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax, former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney left office so despised that his party won only two seats in the 1993 election. Stephen Harper is not Brian Mulroney.
Although Mr. Harper lost the 2015 election, the Conservatives didn’t do badly, securing 32 per cent of the vote, less than eight points behind the Liberals, with at least decent representation everywhere outside Atlantic Canada. In almost a decade as prime minister, Mr. Harper established the Conservatives as a governing party, one that is in the running to win any given election, depending on the fortunes of political war. He did that by making conservatism coherent. Harper Conservatives support low taxes and balanced budgets. They are strict on law and order, while steering clear of hot-button social issues. They’re not anti-environment; it just isn’t a high priority. They don’t interfere in provincial jurisdictions. They encourage legal immigration while coming down hard on bogus refugee claims. They support the Western Alliance, oppose Russia and keep China at a respectful distance.
When he was running for leader, Mr. Scheer cheerfully agreed with those who said he was “Stephen Harper with a smile.” “It wasn’t our policies that cost us that last election,” he said during the leadership campaign. Mr. Scheer believed voters had simply grown tired of the previous government. And he may have been right.
There is no reliable evidence that Canadian voters have rejected the Conservative brand, Conservative values or Andrew Scheer as Conservative Leader. In 2015, they wanted to try something different. Whether they want to change back is an open question. NAFTA. Trans Mountain. The border. Mr. Trudeau needs to manage these files. Otherwise, Stephen Harper 2.0 is waiting in the wings.