Time for Scheer to start seiz­ing the day

Pool of po­ten­tial vot­ers grow­ing, but pol­icy lag­ging

Ottawa Citizen - - FRONT PAGE - John IvIson Com­ment

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.

An­drew Scheer

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