Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer rallied his MPs Thursday by taking aim at the Liberals' planned tax changes, saying Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cares more about billionaires than middle-class Canadians.
In public remarks before a meeting of his caucus in Winnipeg, Scheer said of Trudeau that people "believed he was going to be the great defender of the middle class — a message he sold so well — and yet he's hurting the very people he claimed to help."
The Conservative caucus retreat is designed as both a rallying session for MPs before Parliament resumes later this month and a chance for Scheer and his party to emphasize what makes them different from the governing Liberals.
It's also a chance for Scheer to catch up with his MPs following the summer break, which came not long after he became leader in May.
Scheer, a 38-year-old father of five, spent much of his summer visiting every province in Canada and the Northwest Territories, shaking hands at barbecues and board meetings, working to improve his name recognition.
While eating more hamburgers and hot dogs then he cared to admit, Scheer said he was left convinced regular, middle-class Canadians have grown sour on Trudeau.
At a meeting with his shadow cabinet on Wednesday, Scheer said Winnipeg represented the kind of place where working Canadians feel left out of the Liberal party.
"This is a very interesting city. It's got a very rich history, a very diverse economy, hard-working, industrious people," he said.
"We will not allow Justin Trudeau to keep spending billions wrecking our economy and then forcing local businesses — the very people who create jobs and opportunities in their communities — to pay the bill."
Conservatives are calling on the government to delay any changes to small business tax codes until it has consulted with Canadians more widely on how they will affect families and businesses.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau first announced proposed changes to the way Canadian controlled private corporations are taxed in July. Liberals say wealthy Canadians are using incorporated small businesses to shelter income from taxes.
"I want to be clear," Trudeau said at his own party's caucus retreat in Kelowna, B.C. on Wednesday. "People who make $50,000 a year should not pay higher taxes than people who make $250,000 a year … we are going to fix that problem."
Scheer threw the comments back at Trudeau, saying ranchers, farmers, plumbers and grocery store owners are hardly elites sitting on a pile of cash.
Socks, magazine covers
"Can you imagine the shock of the mechanic who gets up early to get to work hours before his employees … only to be told at the end of the day that the Liberals think that he's a tax cheat?" he said.
"Perhaps the fancy socks, private islands and magazine covers have clouded [Trudeau's] judgment," Scheer said, referring to the prime minister's colourful socks, his vacation on an island owned by the Aga Khan and a Rolling Stone cover story about him in August.
Scheer's digs brought his caucus to their feet in applause.
- Doctors won't stand for small business tax changes
- Liberal MPs ask Morneau to tweak small-business tax changes
In the wake of criticism from small businesses — including from doctors and MPs within his own party — Trudeau indicated Wednesday the proposed changes may be altered slightly, but the party is committed to collecting more tax from Canada's richest citizens.
Scheer called Trudeau "arrogant" and said his tactics are about pitting Canadians against each other.
Asylum seeker influx a key issue
Scheer said during his cross-Canada tour this summer, the issue of illegal border crossings came up numerous times.
"[Canadians] are angry that people are trying to take advantage of our generous system," he told his MPs, adding he plans to question Liberals on the subject later this month.
RCMP have intercepted 7,500 asylum seekers since January who have crossed illegally between official ports of entry into Canada — most arrived in Quebec and Manitoba.
"I've been to Upstate New York, I've been to North Dakota. Those places are safe," said Scheer.
Michelle Rempel, opposition immigration critic, said Wednesday the government doesn't have plans in place to deal with the influx of asylum seekers and raised concerns they may not have a successful settlement experience.
The current refugee system could do a better job of prioritizing refugees fleeing genocide over others who "are not playing by the rules" and "most likely do not have valid asylum claims," she said.
Scheer echoed Rempel's concerns and said Truduea's welcoming message to refugees means that those who arrive on foot can get a leg up over others who are stuck in refugee camps, facing more dire circomstances.
"It's not fair to the hundreds of thousands of people facing real persecution and violence," he said.
Notably absent from the caucus meeting in Winnipeg is Kellie Leitch. A former minister, Leitch ran for leadership and lost by a wide margin to Scheer. She was not named to his shadow cabinet.
A spokesperson for the Conservatives said she had a long-standing family engagement that conflicted with the retreat.
Another former leadership hopeful, Brad Trost, attended Thursday's caucus meeting despite the fact he is in the midst of taking the Conservative party to court.
He brushed off any speculation his presence would be awkward and said he has received nothing but support from caucus members and even Scheer.
Trost said the leader, like himself, wants to see a "full accounting" of documents behind accusations Trost's campaign team leaked a party membership list. The alleged action landed Trost's campaign a $50,000 fine.
"I've got support. The only people in caucus that have brought this up to me have slapped me on the back and given me encouragement," said Trost.
The Conservative caucus meets again Friday. Parliament resumes on Sept. 18.