By Trevor Busch
Canadians and Albertans are acutely aware that pivotal elections are in the offing only scant months ahead. As conservative pork-barrel populist politics has recently been bringing home the bacon in jurisdictions all over the world, more and more of us polite, double-double chugging Canadians — so-called — are wondering just how Trump-esque it will be out there on the hustings in 2019.
Judging by an opening salvo over the weekend from federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, who published an “Open Letter to Canadians” in the Toronto Sun on Oct. 20, at least one leader appears unwilling to lower himself to the gutter-chumming chorus sputtering up out of the political sewers from our neighbours to the south. And while this is what many of us would no doubt prefer to see, concluding this to be unquestionable evidence of Scheer’s political acumen is somewhat premature.
While putting Canadians on notice that an election is only 12 months away, Scheer unfortunately and inevitably launched into another boring critique of the Trudeau Liberals, rather than putting Canadians on notice of what they might actually like to see — how the Conservatives plan to assail their arch-enemies in a fall 2019 election. If you were searching for any clues here, diligent voter, you didn’t get much in the way of meat with your mashed potatoes.
Since his election to the leadership of the federal party roughly 18 months ago, Scheer hasn’t morphed into a headline-grabbing political powerhouse. In fact, despite efforts to broaden his exposure to the greater electorate, Scheer remains mostly an enigma to the average Canadian voter. This is partly due to a perception that his leadership style – so far — has been an exemplar of defensive rear-guard actions rather than a stirring buffet of bold leadership choices.
To be fair, leader of the opposition isn’t always a position that has endless opportunities to expose Canadians to one’s leadership qualities and character, at least not to the degree those opportunities are available to a prime minister. On the other hand, Scheer hasn’t exactly been doing handsprings of political dynamism before the cameras since his ascension to the leadership. And if he hopes to put any kind of dent in media-darling Trudeau’s voyage to the electoral finish line in 2019, that’s exactly what he’ll need to do.
The problem is many Canadians don’t yet know much about Scheer, and his baby-steps in the leadership have left many with the impression of a man trying to fit shoes several sizes too big. Exposure to his ideas and his core values have been largely lost on the electorate so far, and battles over dairy supply management and the departure of Maxime Bernier haven’t done much to convince Canadians the Conservative Party is a picture of health heading into the home stretch before an election.
On the carbon tax front, reconciling support for emissions reductions with the federal government’s top-down plan for imposition of a carbon tax hasn’t seen any ready answers from the Scheer camp, and while outright opposition to carbon taxes will no doubt be an attractive position for his core supporters nation-wide, these aren’t the voters the Conservatives need to attract. Gas-guzzling climate change deniers are always going to be marking an ‘X’ for Tory blue. It’s the solid core of politically-unaffiliated swing voters that Scheer needs in his camp if he hopes to form a majority government. And there is so far little sign that Scheer has made much of an impact among this all-important group of voters.
Targeting this segment of voters should be the party’s number one priority in 2019, because it doesn’t take a political scientist to determine who hoovered up most of those votes in the 2015 federal election, and it wasn’t a stiff, greying, helmet-haired prime minister named Stephen Harper. It was a much younger and seemingly more dynamic figure in the person of Justin Trudeau, who managed to mobilize young voters in numbers most Canadians haven’t witnessed in a generation.
While there is now some tarnish on the Trudeau image a few years down the road, if the Conservatives choose to adhere to the same old dull suite of conservative issues and policies as they have in the past, and Scheer only proves himself to be a competent leader rather than an extraordinary one, it is difficult to see how they hope to make any significant inroads in a fall election. Battling against the Trudeau roadshow of 20-second soundbites, beaming smiles, packed convention centers, and undeniable connection with the nation’s young people, will be no small task.
Is Andrew Scheer up to the job? Perhaps. But he hasn’t recently been giving voters much reason to believe he’s the man to achieve what some would suggest will be the next-to-impossible job of toppling Trudeau.
Right now, the Liberals are still sitting pretty in the polls, and despite some minor jockeying the Conservatives have been unable to gain much ground in three years. A lot can happen in 12 months, of course, but unless the Conservatives can unearth a critical wedge issue — perhaps even the carbon tax — to use against the Liberals to pry away some of those core voters, it isn’t looking especially sunny for Scheer as the party turns into the home stretch before the 2019 election.
Here in Alberta, a different kind of political battle is shaping up for 2019. Jason Kenney’s United Conservatives appear poised to pull off a coup against Notley’s NDP, but that doesn’t mean it will all be a foregone conclusion.
Demographically, Alberta is signifcantly different than it once was, and following the trend of many jurisdictions all over the world, increasing urbanization has been quietly and consistently shifting population from rural areas to urban environments. The last provincial election showed us the NDP is inordinately strong in the cities, and the last few elections in Alberta have showed the province’s parties that the political strength of rural areas is slowly waning. Placing all its eggs in a rural basket may not pay the kind of anticipated dividends the party hopes for without driving deeply into urban areas to suck votes away from slightly left-leaning urbanites.
The UCP has shown few signs it intends to be a more progressive conservative entity like one of its recent forebears, and much more that it is essentially a new Wildrose Party in everything but name. Through successive elections, the Wildrose Party was never able to do much more than scratch at the periphery of Alberta politics. We can rest assured that Jason Kenney intends to do much more than that. But if he doesn’t play his cards right, or chooses a brand of radical populist-style conservatism a la Donald Trump, he could have a voter backlash on his hands.
One suspects Kenney isn’t revealing close to half of what he intends to do with the province should he become premier. Something about the expression on his face most of the time seems to impart an odor of ulterior motives. He’s already talked of the “summer of repeal”, and if he plans a fire sale of hacking and slashing to eliminate the deficit and tackle the debt — conservatives in Alberta never seem to take a page other than Ralph Klein’s when it comes to this sort of thing — Albertans will end up paying a huge price for our fiscal responsibility.