National Column: Liberals reach left, Tories should worry

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by Chantal Hebert

Parsing a blind copy of the weekend’s Liberal resolutions, one would be forgiven for confusing it with an embryonic NDP election platform.

From a national pharmacare initiative to a move to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs such as heroin, there are few of the Liberal grassroots priorities set out in Halifax that a similar gathering of New Democrats could not have endorsed.

Indeed, in many cases, they did just that at their own convention back in February.

There is more to this than the long-held Liberal practice – if only for the time of a re-election campaign – of borrowing a few choice NDP promises. In his keynote address to the convention, Justin Trudeau cast next year’s election as a two-way fight between his Liberals and the Conservatives.

In the process, the prime minister spent a serious amount of time arguing that Andrew Scheer was little more than a Stephen Harper clone, with nary a sentence on the NDP and its rookie leader, Jagmeet Singh.

That silence about the New Democrats should concern the Conservatives as much as the Liberal attacks on their party.

Over the past decades, a significant division of the nonconservative vote between the Liberals and the New Democrats has been key to Conservative successes. It is no accident that two of the best federal NDP scores in that party’s history – recorded in 1988 and 2011 – coincided with the election of majority Tory governments. But when NDP members decided by a narrow margin to show Thomas Mulcair the door, they ended up trading a leader who was considered prime ministerial by a significant number of voters for one who is not – or at least who may not be in time for next year’s federal vote.

If the New Democrats had sought to rearrange the stars in an alignment more favourable to Trudeau, they could not have acted otherwise.

If anything, the Conservative need for a split to the party’s left has become greater since the party ditched the word progressive from its label to move it further to the right.

On that score, the Scheer-led party sits pretty much in the same spot on the political spectrum as it did under Harper. A year in, Scheer has yet to put a policy imprint on the party distinguishable from that of the former prime minister.

Instead, he has made his own some of the signature policies or absence thereof of his predecessor. Notably, over the course of the Trans Mountain debate, Scheer has doubled down on the party’s visceral rejection of carbon pricing. By all indications, the Conservative party is about to once again go on a federal campaign with little more than a fig leaf in lieu of a serious climate change mitigation strategy.

To be fair, the rookie Conservative leader did not campaign for his job on making his party more centrist, or on bringing it in the environmental mainstream. As a leadership contender, Scheer essentially promised to serve up the same policies as his predecessor, albeit with a smile.

But old habits die hard. In the year since Scheer took over, the Conservatives have gradually reversed to the less-than-sunny tone that was a defining feature of their recent governments. That is increasingly true of both their ads and interactions on social media.

For instance, in reaction to Trudeau’s convention speech, Conservative house leader Candice Bergen tweeted: “With their long track record of failure, Trudeau Libs are desperate to change the channel on their dismal record.”

In the same rhetorical vein, foreign affairs critic Erin OíToole opined: “Every file Trudeau has touched has been a complete disaster so the attacks against us begin.”

There is no doubt the tone and tenor of those tweets reflects the convictions of diehard Conservatives. But preaching to the converted is not the same thing as wooing new converts.

With every passing week, and especially since the party caught a bit of a break in some polls, the Conservative narrative seems to be based on the notion that enough voters have seen the error of their 2015 ways to return the Conservatives to government next year.

Thatís a risky assumption. Progressive voters make up a majority of the electorate.

The more red meat the Conservatives dish out to their base, the more keeping their party out of power next year stands to become a bigger ballot box priority for voters than punishing Trudeau for whatever disappointment he may have inspired.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist based in Ottawa covering politics.
Follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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