Opinion

With a year to go until the next election, Scheer might want to start introducing himself

In terms of personal charisma, Scheer is no match for Trudeau. There's no point in the CPC trying to deny that. So they should play up what he does have: gravitas, a solid team and a tendency to be underestimated.

Banking on Trudeau's failures is a risky way to coast to 2019

In terms of personal charisma, Scheer is no match for Trudeau. There's no point in the CPC trying to deny that. So they should play up what he does have: gravitas, a solid team and a tendency to be underestimated. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

With a little more than a year until the next federal election, the stars may be aligning for Conservative Party of Canada leader Andrew Scheer, thanks in part to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's array of blunders and complicated files. But if Scheer is to have a real shot at governing next year, he needs to build his brand and galvanize Canadians with strong policies, rather than banking on Trudeau's failures.

In the past few weeks, to the delight of many Conservatives, a series of unfortunate events have befallen the prime minister. The NAFTA negotiations appear enduringly in peril, and the Trans Mountain pipeline, which Canadian taxpayers bought for $4.5 billion, may have been fatally wounded (though the government assures us it will be built… eventually) by the Federal Court of Appeal. The tumult reached its peak this week with the dramatic floor-crossing of former Liberal MP Leona Alleslev, who departed the government benches to join the Conservatives, claiming she had no faith in Trudeau's leadership.

Liberal baggage

NAFTA and Trans Mountain are critical to Canada's economic vitality and future growth. A failure on either — to say nothing of both — would be terrible not just for the Liberal government, but for all Canadians.

But these two issues hardly make up the entirety of the baggage the Liberals will carry into 2019: there are the mounting federal deficits, which Trudeau promised would be a fraction of where they now stand; illegal border crossings, for which the government has offered no comprehensive plan to address; disappointment among Indigenous groups over a lack of proper consultation on Trans Mountain and the disastrous handling of inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women; anger from environmentalists over Trudeau's decision to buy the pipeline; personal ethical lapses (see: Khan, Aga); and the government's double standard on a range of issues, including Trudeau's dismissal his past inappropriate behaviour toward a female reporter.

The list could go on. And if the provincial landscape can act as a barometer for the next federal election, the tide could turn against Canada's "progressive" parties.

While the polls are close, Quebec could bring the conservative Coalition Avenir Québec to power on October 1. Barring an act of God, Albertans will elect Jason Kenney's United Conservative Party in 2019. And Ontario recently elected the PCs' Doug Ford in a landslide.

But by no means does this guarantee electoral success for Andrew Scheer. For all that is going right for the Tory leader, there are a few major obstacles that stand between him and 24 Sussex.

First: name recognition and brand. Scheer has been the leader of the CPC for over a year now, but he has yet to define what the party will look like under his tenure, or even what he, personally, is all about. A recent Nanos poll indicated that a third of Canadians have no real opinion of him. Obviously that means there is a opportunity to create a positive impression, but Scheer has to get their attention, first. If he can't win over a large portion of this undecided block, the next election is all but lost.

Secondly, while the status quo in terms of NAFTA and Trans Mountain might look bleak now, it is possible that these situations can be salvaged before the next election. That would turn two problematic files into a couple of major wins — NAFTA especially so, considering the generalized dislike and disapproval of U.S. President Donald Trump among Canadians. If Team Trudeau pulls it off, it boast of a major coup: taming Trump.

Finally, there's the environment. Climate change and carbon taxes will play a central role in the next election, and the Conservatives, as of yet, have no coherent climate policy to offer. But whether they like it or not, the climate debate is one of the defining issues of our time: according to Abacus Data, nearly 50 per cent of Canadians say they wouldn't consider voting for a party that doesn't have a plan to tackle climate change. Simply opposing carbon taxes without offering an alternative makes the Conservatives look ignorant and out of touch.

In fact, a report soon to be released by a former Stephen Harper advisor suggests that many Canadian families actually stand to benefit financially from carbon taxes. Conservatives thus have an opportunity to stand both for the environment and for Canadians' pocketbooks. But they have to seize it, before the Liberals do.

'That final decision doesn't happen until I was in the moment and I stood up,' says Leona Alleslev. 10:50

In terms of personal charisma, Scheer is no match for Trudeau. There's no point in the CPC trying to deny that. So they should play up what he does have: gravitas, a solid team and a tendency to be underestimated. His quick rise to the leader of the official opposition demonstrates that.

Perhaps that tendency to be underestimated will serve Scheer well again in 2019. But he has to introduce himself first, and right now, along with presenting some actually compelling ideas. Coasting off of Trudeau's failures, or anticipated failures, is not enough. Conservatives have to offer something to vote for, and not simply be the option against.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Sandy White

Sandy White is a former political advisor to the Conservative government under Stephen Harper. He is now an entrepreneur and political commentator based in Montreal.

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