'Defence without being defensive': Scheer tries to blunt attack lines on racism, deficits

On Tuesday, in a banquet hall in North York, Andrew Scheer used a speech on immigration policy to do something no other leader of a mainstream party will have to do during this election cycle: stand in front of the TV cameras and assure the country his party isn't racist.

Scheer moves to rob the Liberals of their best rhetorical weapons - but there's still Doug Ford

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer rises during question period in the House of Commons, Monday, May 27, 2019 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

On Tuesday, in a banquet hall in North York, Andrew Scheer used a speech on immigration policy to do something no other leader of a mainstream party will have to do during this election cycle: stand in front of the TV cameras and assure the country his party isn't racist.

"I find the notion that one's race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation would make them in any way superior to anybody else absolutely repugnant," Scheer told the crowd at the party-organized event. "And if there's anyone who disagrees with that, there's the door."

The Liberals have been loudly suggesting that the door Scheer pointed to is a revolving one between the Conservative Party and extremists. So this was something Scheer had to do.

One Conservative insider described the approach as, "a little bit of defence without being defensive."

("Hey, it got the Raptors to the finals," he added.)

The idea was to speak directly to a Liberal attack line, though that rebuttal was weakened when — on the same day Scheer was delivering his speech — a Conservative MP quoted New Zealand's worst mass killer to attack a Muslim witness's credibility before the Commons standing committee on justice and human rights.

Scheer's immigration speech followed the same strategy he employed in rolling back his earlier promise to balance the federal budget within two years, by pushing the timeline out to five years.

The Liberals have been warning Canadians of the dire consequences of the cuts that would be needed to wipe out the deficit in just two years. So Scheer is trying to take two Liberal lines of attack — extremism and austerity — off the table.

"They are trying to replay the last campaign," the Conservative insider said. "Which they are not going to be able to do."

Scheer cheekily blamed Justin Trudeau for forcing him to change his balanced budget promise, insisting the nation's finances after four Liberal budgets are so bad there's no way to responsibly eliminate the deficit in the near term.

The real blame, however, likely rests with Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

The Ford effect

Ford's poll numbers have dropped to stomach-flu levels of popularity in the months since his first budget. His cost-cutting agenda has enraged mayors, unions, teachers and parents of children with autism. Ford's federal cousins are worried about being caught in the blast radius of public outrage in what will be the upcoming election's key battleground.

The blowback to the Ford budget shows that, for federal Conservatives, the recent turnover in provincial legislatures cuts both ways.

Conservative or conservative-leaning governments now hold power from Alberta to Prince Edward Island — something that encourages federal Conservatives to see themselves riding a wave.  But being so closely associated with a conflict-prone government like Ford's carries some risk.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, right, and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer acknowledge the crowd while on stage at the Conservative national convention in Halifax on Thursday, August 23, 2018. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

"I think the positives outweigh the potential negatives," the Conservative insider said. "As long as the message gets out, it's going to be okay."

That message, writ large, is that conservative-leaning voters can limit the damage a Trudeau-led government can do to the country by limiting the prime minister to one term. It seems clear that there is a growing audience for that message.

Wooing the 'Blue Liberals'

The SNC Lavalin controversy and a series of self-inflicted wounds have wiped out the Liberals' former lead in the polls. The Conservatives are running TV ads (in heavy rotation during the Raptors' run to the finals) that seek to reinforce voters' growing doubts about Trudeau.

Their primary targets are the so-called Blue Liberals — voters who have supported the governing party but are less comfortable than the prime minister and Finance Minister Bill Morneau are with serial multi-billion-dollar deficits.

Many Conservatives feel the leftward shift of the Liberals under Trudeau has orphaned the bulk of those Blue Liberals. The change in Scheer's balanced budget promise is meant to tell those voters he takes the deficit more seriously than Trudeau does, but won't be reckless about getting rid of it.

If Scheer can woo the Blue Liberals while progressive voters continue to splinter between the Liberals, the NDP and the Greens, it widens his path to power.

The Conservatives are flush with cash. They already have close to 300 candidates nominated and knocking on doors.

Ontario is target-rich for them — especially the GTA. Their Quebec slate of candidates has been bolstered by former mayors. The Prairies are a traditional stronghold and there is nowhere for them to go but up in the Atlantic provinces.

A majority or nothing?

But the vote splits in British Columbia are so fluid and volatile right now that no party can bank on a safe landing.

Conservative insiders concede that simply winning the most seats likely wouldn't be enough to put them in a position to govern — not without a majority, which is something that no party can bank on five months out.

There's a sense that the Greens, and whatever remains of the New Democrats after October, will swallow hard and support the Liberals rather than hand the unused keys of 24 Sussex Drive to Scheer.

So the wooing continues. The TV ad attacks, and the daily assault of question period, work to amplify Canadians' doubts about Trudeau. Policy speeches and policy shifts work to mitigate their doubts about Scheer.

The path to the most seats is widest for the Conservatives. Scheer likely needs to widen it some more to get where he wants to go.

CBC Politics' weekly Canada Votes newsletter

Get analysis from our Parliamentary bureau as we count down to the federal election. Delivered to your inbox every Sunday evening – then daily during the campaign. Sign up here.


David Cochrane is host of Power & Politics, Canada's premier daily political show, airing 5 to 7 p.m. ET weekdays on CBC News Network. David joined the parliamentary bureau as a senior reporter in 2016. Since then, he has reported from 11 countries across four continents. David played a leading role in CBC's 2019 and 2021 federal election coverage. Before Ottawa, David spent nearly two decades covering politics in his beloved Newfoundland and Labrador, where he hosted the RTDNA award winning political show On Point with David Cochrane.