National Column: Scheer facing uphill battle for Quebec vote

by Chantal Hebert

Inasmuch as the first task of a political leader should be to do his or her party no harm, Andrew Scheer’s maiden appearance on Tout le monde en parle – the first ever of a federal Conservative leader – was a success.

Over his tenure, Stephen Harper never graced the set of the much-watched Radio-Canada talk show, a fact that can be chalked up to the counterproductive passive-aggressive communications approach that was a defining feature of his leaderís watch.

An appearance on the TLMEP might have gone some way to blunt the robotic image that stuck to the former prime minister in Quebec.

Indeed, the first part of Scheer’s mission on Sunday was to step out from the shadow of his predecessor. Among recent prime ministers, Harper will go down in history as the least liked by Quebecers.

The good news for his successor is that, with the bar so low, he could not but exceed expectations. There is no doubt Scheer convinced the audience that he is a sunnier version of the unloved Harper.

But he also spent his 15 minutes in the spotlight trying hard to straddle the gap between his party’s ideological make-up and the mainstream of Quebec politics.

That started with an assurance that if he became prime minister and despite his own social conservative credentials, Scheer would not attempt to turn back the clock on abortion rights, same-sex marriage and medically assisted suicide.

To anyone following federal politics closely, that disclaimer has by now become familiar. But it is worth noting that none of the many leaders – provincial, federal or municipal – who were on TLMEP over the 14 years of the show’s existence had any association with the agenda of the religious right.

For most Quebec voters, a social conservative federal leader is almost as exotic as one wearing a turban.

The bulk of Scheerís interview involved a lot of good-natured ducking.

In a province where carbon pricing is not a wedge issue he shot blanks at Justin Trudeauís proposed carbon tax. Quebecís decision to join a cap-and-trade carbon market preceded the Liberal return to federal power and no provincial party is talking about walking back that policy.

As for the pipeline debate and his partyís vocal advocacy of the Trans Mountain expansion, the
Conservative leader wisely steered clear of it. The fastest route to a rout in Quebec next year would be a promise to try to resuscitate the now defunct Energy East pipeline.

The show was taped on Thursday, the day before Scheerís national security critic, Pierre-Paul Hus, advocated the immediate deportation of all irregular asylum seekers from Nigeria showing up at the Quebec/U.S. border.

That was a stroke of luck for Scheer might have been hard-pressed to reconcile that stance with
Canadaís international obligations. As in the case of climate change, he had little meat to put on the bone of his contention that he would handle the migrant issue more efficiently than Trudeau does.

The Conservative leader also soft-pedalled his partyís anti-tax mantra, at least as it applies to Netflix and other foreign Internet giants. In Quebecís national assembly, there is an all-party consensus that those companies should be under the same obligation to collect and remit the sales taxes as their domestic competitors. Scheer did not close the door to some unspecified action on that front in a yet-to-be crafted party platform.

In the same spirit, he would not be pinned down on whether a Conservative government would repeal the legalization of cannabis.

Were it not for the Bloc Quebecois’ leadership crisis, Scheer might have waited a bit longer to accept TLMEP’s standing invitation. But the Conservatives are trying hard to fill the vacuum created by the sovereigntist party’s free fall in the polls. That has more to do with partisan necessity than with federalist virtue.

With some polls pegging the Liberal lead on the Conservatives at more than 20 points Scheer has miles to go before he can feel secure about his prospects in Quebec. The party owes about half of its 11 seats in the province to a favourable four-way split in the vote. With support for both the Bloc and the NDP fading, the Conservatives cannot count on a repeat of the 2015 trend to hold their ground in Quebec next year.

Chances are Scheer will be re-invited on TLMEP before the 2019 federal vote. But the list of policy differences that sidelined his party in Quebec remains as long on his watch as it was under Harper. As the election gets closer, it will become harder to paper over those differences with a smile.

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

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