Welcome to the big tent
Andrew Scheer has nowhere to go but up in Atlantic Canada. With a hostile bloc of 32 Liberal MPS sitting across from him in the Commons, the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada is well aware of the challenges ahead.
He must win back traditional Tory support across the four Atlantic provinces, which voted solidly Liberal in 2015, if he hopes to unseat Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party.
Just how does Mr. Scheer go about this onerous task?
First, he must separate himself from his former party leader and mentor Stephen Harper. Suggestions that Mr. Scheer, who served four years as Commons Speaker under Mr. Harper, is a clone of the former PM – but with a meaningful smile – will do little to endear himself to the region.
The last federal election was a repudiation by Atlantic Canadians of Mr. Harper and his policies. There was a long history of hostility toward Mr. Harper, who alienated this region while leader of the Canadian Alliance with comments about a “defeatist attitude” in Atlantic Canada. Many Progressive Conservatives felt Mr. Harper hijacked their party in a merger with his Canadian Alliance.
Mr. Harper’s policies as prime minister angered many Atlantic Canadians. Unpopular changes to employment insurance, which penalized seasonal, primary industries, were among the most repressive.
Mr. Scheer has promised to stay away from divisive debates on subjects such as abortion and same-sex marriage, which he personally opposes. He promises to balance the books, remove the HST from home heating bills, lower business taxes, repeal the Liberal carbon tax plan, supports the Energy East pipeline and deny funding to universities that don’t allow full freedom of speech. He terms radical Islamic terrorism as a threat to all Canadians and promised to recommit Canadian fighters to the battle against ISIS.
Those positions should generally find a warm reception in Atlantic Canada. It’s a good start for
Mr. Scheer but he must become a familiar face in the region. He can’t be seen as a Western Canadian, rightwing extremist. He must address bread and butter issues here, express his position on fisheries matters and the region’s role in the future of the country – other than as hewers of wood and drawers of water.
There is much hope for Mr. Scheer, a 38-year-old father of five. Despite his youth, he’s a Commons veteran, winning a seat at age 25 by defeating NDP stalwart Lorne Nystrom. He already has a national appeal by carrying the majority of convention delegates in B.C., Saskatchewan, Ontario and Atlantic Canada.
He’s a solid, attractive leader – without political baggage – offering a clear choice to Canadians. But he must quickly put aside suggestions that he is heir to Mr. Harper’s legacy. He must put a progressive element back into the Conservative party. He has two years to develop a credible government-in-waiting.
He must become a compassionate Conservative, able to bring Canadians of various regions and backgrounds into his “big tent.”