OTTAWA—Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer wants to court Liberal voters disaffected by the governing party’s perceived shift to the political left.
In a year-end interview with the Star last week, Scheer said one of his challenges in 2019 will be to persuade fiscally conservative Liberal voters to “take a look” at the Conservative party.
“The Liberals have moved so far to the left, they’re basically trying to make the NDP irrelevant. And in doing that, it creates a challenge” for the Conservatives, Scheer said in his Centre Block office.
“But it also creates an opportunity. Because I believe there are going to be more and more people that the Liberals leave behind . . . . My challenge is convincing them to take a look at the Conservative party.”
Scheer acknowledged that has not been the traditional path to power for his party. Under Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system, the Conservatives tend to benefit from strong NDP showings, with left-leaning voters split between Liberal and New Democratic parties.
But the 38-year old Scheer, who came from behind to secure the Conservative leadership last May, said he thinks “historical conventions” don’t necessarily hold in politics anymore.
“I think we’re into an age where politics is much more dynamic, where some of the old brand loyalties where people identify themselves as a Conservative, as a Liberal, as an NDP (are still) there, but I don’t think it’s as prominent as it used to be,” Scheer said.
“And I think anything is possible in 2019.”
Scheer said despite losing two Conservative seats in recent byelections, there are “a lot of reasons for optimism” as his party begins the crucial work of assembling a platform.
The party is still fundraising well, and 14 contenders for this year’s leadership contest grew the party’s membership list to more than 250,000.
Scheer also pointed to Conservative candidate Dasong Zou’s second-place finish in the Scarborough-Agincourt byelection — receiving 40 per cent of the vote, nine points behind Liberal MP Jean Yip.
But a second-place finish is unlikely to dull the sting of losing two Conservative ridings to Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party. And recent public polling suggests that, despite months of Conservative hammering in the House of Commons, the Liberals remain difficult to beat.
A poll conducted between Dec. 12 and 14 by Forum Research put the two parties neck and neck — the Liberals at 38 per cent, the Conservatives at 39 per cent, with a margin of error of 3 percentage points. But the poll is something of an outlier among other recent national polls, including Nanos Research and Abacus Data, which put the Liberals between eight and 12 points ahead of the Conservatives — largely unchanged from the results of the 2015 election.
Horserace polls two years out from an election may be of questionable value. A lot can and will change between now and the 2019 election. But one finding is consistent among polling companies: people don’t know much about who Andrew Scheer is.
The Forum poll found that while 28 per cent of respondents approve of Scheer, the exact same percentage disapprove of him. But most respondents — 44 per cent — said they “don’t know” if they approve or disapprove of the Conservative leader’s job so far.
So on Dec. 20, Scheer found himself at a legion hall in Manotick, a small, rural community about a half-hour’s drive from Parliament Hill along the Rideau River.
About 100 people — mostly seniors — took time from their pre-holiday errands to hear Scheer’s pitch. The venue almost underscores that pitch: more church basements than arenas, more community centres than international summits.
Scheer acknowledged that he needs to work harder to “introduce” himself to Canadians.
“A big part of (being) leader of the opposition, you’ve got to introduce yourself to people because in the nature of our business, the prime minister does get a lot of extra attention because he holds that post,” Scheer said, calling that “normal.”
Scheer told the crowd his team had been in the midst of deciding which topics they’d push on the 2017 summer barbecue circuit when Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced plans to reform small business taxes.
“And as we were in the process of trying to figure out what we would make the main subject material of our summer tour, the types of things we wanted to get people talking about, the Liberals decided to do that for us,” Scheer said.
Six months into his tenure as Conservative leader that seems to have been Scheer’s approach: defining his party predominantly by what they are not — namely not Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.
Aside from the broad strokes of a standard conservative vision — free markets, free individuals, balanced budgets and smaller government — Scheer doesn’t give the crowd specifics on how he’d actually run the country differently.
Back in his Centre Block office, he told the Star those specifics will largely wait for 2018, as the party looks toward a policy conference in Halifax next August.
“We’re a grassroots party, and our membership does have the say in what our policies are as a party. And it’s the parliamentary team’s job to translate that into specific campaign platform items,” Scheer said.
“We’re going to pivot from Halifax into starting to craft an actual campaign platform and then take some time to communicate it to Canadians.”