2015 redux: Scheer's Conservatives are sticking with the Harper policy book

Andrew Scheer once said that the Harper Conservatives did not lose in 2015 because of their policies. Everything he's done on the policy front since then shows him doubling down on that belief.

Trudeau likes to say it's 'still Stephen Harper's party' - Scheer's policy approach suggests he's not wrong

Andrew Scheer with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and NDP Leader Jack Layton in the House of Commons Thursday, June 2, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

"Stephen Harper with a smile" was the shorthand description embraced by both Andrew Scheer (while he was running for the Conservative leadership) and the Liberal Party, after Scheer became the second leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.

Two years and five "vision" speeches later, that description seems only more apt.

That Scheer has so far declined to deviate markedly from his predecessor's agenda could be evidence that Harper's conservatism still holds significant appeal. Or it could soon be seen as a missed opportunity to actually expand the Conservative Party's support.

"It wasn't our policies that cost us the last election," Scheer said in an interview in April 2017. "When I went door to door in my own riding, when I talked to candidates that ran for us but lost ... a recurring theme is that they heard time and time again that, 'You know, I like you and I like what you've done, but I just can't vote for you the next time.'

"And that's what I'm trying to address. I'm trying to change the presentation of our party, what it means to be Conservative, the impression that Canadians have when we talk about Conservative policies. I want it to be a positive impression."

Scheer smiles more than his predecessor did and he uses the word "positive" a lot. Otherwise, the radical departures are few.

Harper's policies, minus Harper's name

The current Conservative leader does not go out of his way to mention the previous prime minister by name — either because he still needs to forge his own identity, or because the name still doesn't generate warm memories for many voters. Since becoming party leader, Scheer has referred to Harper by name just five times in the House of Commons. Over that same period, Justin Trudeau has invoked the former prime minister's name 186 times.

In the first of his five "vision" speeches this spring, Scheer mentioned the surname of his predecessor three times. Over the next four speeches, Harper was mentioned just once.

But the agenda Scheer laid out across those speeches was broadly in keeping with the Harper era.

On federal-provincial relations, he promised "open federalism" — a concept Harper employed to refer to an unobtrusive federal government. His speech on immigration was entitled "unity in diversity," a phrase that Jason Kenney was fond of using to describe a Conservative vision of pluralism that emphasized cohesion as much as diversity.

Scheer has lamented the Trudeau government's decision to eliminate several boutique tax credits, hallmarks of the Harper government. He has promised to reinstate the Office of Religious Freedom at Global Affairs Canada.

Platform nostalgia

His emphasis on technology and "global emissions," and his opposition to implementing a price on carbon, line up neatly with the climate section of the Conservative party's 2015 platform. On foreign policy, he promises to get tough with Russia and Iran, stridently defend Israel and protect the Arctic.

There are other items on Scheer's to-do list that weren't top priorities for the Harper government — building an east-to-west energy corridor, working with the United States on ballistic missile defence — but nothing that would have seemed out of place in a Conservative platform between 2006 and 2015.

Andrew Scheer delivers a speech on the environment in Chelsea, Que., on Wednesday, June 19, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

None of this is very surprising. Political parties don't quickly and completely change their dispositions after every electoral setback. For that matter, the Conservatives have not suffered the sort of collapse in support that might have prompted a greater degree of soul-searching.

After winning 32 per cent of the popular vote in October 2015, the Conservatives briefly dropped to 26 per cent in public polling. But since May 2017, they have been consistently above 30 per cent. So Conservatives can reasonably tell themselves that getting back to power is simply a matter of smiling more and waiting for the public to tire of the Trudeau government.

But while Conservative support has remained steady, it also hasn't gone higher than 37 per cent.

Lost opportunities?

On that score, the Conservatives might look back at last week's climate announcement as a failure to seize the moment and score a few more points in opinion polls. Scheer can hold his booklet aloft and insist he has a plan, but a robust set of policies might have a better chance of winning additional support.

Scheer has passed up other opportunities to make a break from the Harper era.

Like Harper, Scheer has declined to march in Pride parades. While Trudeau expelled senators from the Liberal caucus and is now appointing individuals to sit as Independents, Scheer says he would return to appointing partisans. Except for a few pages in his climate platform, Scheer has said little about reconciliation or Indigenous Peoples.

Harper's government was dogged by concerns about its respect for checks and balances, its attitude toward Parliament and its willingness to be open and transparent. And the Trudeau government is now criticized for not going far enough to reverse its predecessor's tendencies and habits. But Scheer has not yet tabled any kind of agenda for political or democratic reform.

"It may be Andrew Scheer's smile. But it's still Stephen Harper's party," Trudeau chided last year.

To that extent, the 2019 election could be viewed as a referendum on the Harper years. Scheer's Conservatives seem prepared to argue that it would be better to go back to the way things were before Trudeau became prime minister. Trudeau's Liberals will argue it's better to keep moving along their preferred path.

If Scheer is sworn in as prime minister before the end of this year, Stephen Harper might feel some sense of redemption. If, on the other hand, the Liberals end up governing for another four years, the Conservatives might be more motivated to change their own course.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.