Time for Scheer to start seizing the day
Pool of potential voters growing, but policy lagging
It would be hardly possible to eviscerate your own party with more precision than Andrew Scheer managed last week.
The Conservative leader is firmly ensconced as the leader of an official Opposition that is united against a carbon tax.
His problem is that, unless he can persuade voters he cares about the environment and has a plan for tackling climate change, he will still be the Opposition leader after the next election.
Scheer got a rousing reception from the ideological faithful at the Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa, when he said his first act as prime minister after the 2019 election would be to repeal the federal carbon tax.
But while most diehards at Manning were opposed to carbon pricing, voters — particularly the millennials the Conservatives need to win over — are not.
Conservative supporters remain steadfastly opposed to a carbon tax — either because they don’t believe in climate change; oppose taxation in principle; or because they don’t think changes in Canada would have sufficient impact globally.
All three Ontario PC leadership candidates — Caroline Mulroney, Christine Elliot and Doug Ford — have said they will ditch the carbon tax adopted by former leader Patrick Brown, because they know that it is toxic for them among party members.
Scheer is a cautious politician and he was not elected leader on a platform of major policy changes.
Yet, the polling evidence is convincing — the Conservatives need to attract younger, urban, ethnically diverse voters or they will lose again in 2019.
Just hours before Scheer’s appearance at Manning, David Coletto, chief executive at Abacus Data, presented some new research that suggested the pool of voters who would consider voting Conservative has risen to 51 per cent of all Canadians, from 42 per cent at the last election. Yet Abacus polling said only 26 per cent of all voters say they will vote Tory if an election were held tomorrow.
Clearly, then, the opportunity for the Conservatives to do much better is there.
The poll outlined which groups are potentially persuadable. Currently only 11 per cent of Conservative supporters belong to visible minorities, yet 25 per cent of that group are potential supporters.
At the moment, 37 per cent of Tories are under 45, while 54 per cent would think about voting for Scheer.
Only 47 per cent of current Conservatives want “serious action” on climate change, while 67 per cent of potential supporters think it is important.
This large pool of potential support is made up of people who are not instinctively hostile to government intervention; are more likely to be urban dwellers; and believe immigration strengthens the country.
Crucially, a majority have a positive view of Justin Trudeau, with only one in five actively expressing dislike for him.
All of which makes it a tall order to win over the one quarter of the electorate that does not support the Tories at the moment but is open to the idea.
But Scheer doesn’t have to be greener than Trudeau — he just has to neutralize the carbon tax with a strong proposal of his own, as Stephen Harper did when he matched Paul Martin’s every move on health care in 2004.
Yet Scheer rejoiced in his rejection of a policy that is popular with the voters he needs to woo. He spoke fondly of his hope that he would unite with Alberta opposition leader Jason Kenney and new Saskatchewan premier Scott Moe against Ottawa’s carbon tax.
“It’s great news for our movement and great news for Canada,” he said.
He went on to say that Conservatives need to give Canadians a reason to vote for them, not just to protest against the Liberals. But the example he offered — negotiating a free trade deal with the U.K. — is unlikely to set pulses racing.
Engaging with a younger, more ethnically diverse audience on immigration, equality and climate change doesn’t necessarily mean aping the Liberals.
Manitoba’s Conservative government is developing its own carbon pricing plan that could disprove the received wisdom that a carbon tax is a government cash grab.
But the Liberals won the 2015 election because they had twice as much support among millennials.
Climate change is a symbolic issue for many of them and Scheer mocks policies intended to address it at his peril.
The Conservative mantra under Harper was to adopt divide-and-conquer policies that polarized it with all the other parties, letting them fight for the progressive vote.
But the absence of carbon pricing breaks another cardinal rule of Conservative campaigning — not to veer too far to the right of the median voter.
David McLaughlin, Brian Mulroney’s former chief of staff, was probably right when he told Manning delegates it might take another electoral drubbing before federal Conservatives wake up to the idea that voters care about the environment and demand their governments do too.