Andrew Scheer makes pitch for unity after Bernier's dramatic departure
Conservative leader makes 1st major speech since Quebec MP announced he was striking out on his own
In a major speech to delegates at the Conservative policy convention in Halifax, Andrew Scheer said he is best positioned to take on Justin Trudeau in the next federal election, even as a former top Tory threatened to split the right-wing vote with an insurgent new party.
Scheer, who narrowly won the party leadership last year, said the conservative movement is united and on the move, racking up key election victories at the provincial level.
"We are certainly one big, strong, united, national Conservative Party. And in a little over a year, we will, once again, be a strong, stable, national Conservative majority government," Scheer said to the crowd in Halifax, where some 3,000 delegates from across the country were gathering until Saturday.
While he did not reference Maxime Bernier by name, Scheer took a thinly veiled swipe at his former leadership rival by praising former Progressive Conservative leader Peter MacKay off the top of his speech. Bernier dramatically quit the Conservative Party on Thursday, calling it "intellectually and morally corrupt," while vowing to start his own federal party.
"Peter is someone who set his personal interests aside for the good of our party, who decided to build up and not to tear down," Scheer said. "And our party is a living testament to his hard work."
MacKay, who introduced Scheer to the convention audience, brokered a merger between his old party and Stephen Harper's Canadian Alliance 15 years ago, a deal that led to much electoral success.
A popular figure in the Conservative Party, MacKay offered a full-throated defence of Scheer, saying he's the leader who is actually in touch with the country's middle class, and a good-natured family man who espouses a brand of compassionate conservatism.
"Andrew carries a chequebook; he doesn't have a trust fund," MacKay said in a reference to Trudeau.
The former senior Conservative cabinet minister brushed aside Bernier's walkout, saying that like weather in the Maritimes, it had already blown over. "That's gone. That hurricane has passed."
Scheer and his caucus colleagues have sought to discredit Bernier over the past 24 hours, saying his efforts are an ego-driven vanity project that will undermine Conservative electoral fortunes in 2019. They've also said Bernier has been slacking as an MP since he lost to the leadership race to Scheer.
Bernier has questioned Scheer's leadership style, suggesting Conservative Party policy is now driven by the whims of polls and focus groups, rather than on sound Conservative principles.
Scheer batted away such talk Friday, pointing to his own success in the leadership race and the party's come-from-behind byelection win in Quebec earlier this year as proof he knows how to win.
"We didn't win by compromising. We didn't win by trying to impress people who will never like us. Or by changing who we are or what we believe in," Scheer said.
"We won the best way there is to win. The only way there is to win, as far as I'm concerned. We earned it. We worked harder. Our ideas were better," he said, during the near-hour-long speech that was punctuated by frequent applause and chants of "Andrew, Andrew."
"More and more Canadians are seeing through Liberal deceptions" and their big-government agenda, Scheer said.
"I remember not so long ago when pundits and experts were writing obituaries for conservative parties for not supporting a carbon tax. Now they're writing obituaries for parties that do support the carbon tax. Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals in Ontario — gone. Thank you Ford Nation," he said to applause from the Ontario Premier Doug Ford-friendly crowd.
If he wins the 2019 federal election, Scheer also said he would roll back Liberal regulations and help revive the Energy East pipeline project, which would carry one million barrels of oil a day from Alberta and Saskatchewan to refineries in Quebec and New Brunswick. (TransCanada, the pipeline's proponent, pulled out of the project in 2017 citing a change in market conditions and new requirements from the National Energy Board.)
And he echoed a common theme of the convention, boasting about the Conservative Party's fundraising success in recent months. In the most recent quarter, the Tories raked in nearly twice as much money as the Liberals — though Liberal Party officials have said the Conservatives spent more to actually collect those funds.
While Scheer acknowledged the ongoing tension over Bernier's departure, he spent much of his speech attacking Trudeau and the Liberals for their perceived failings on major issues — and railing against the federal government's plan for a national price on carbon.
"The Liberal Party has finally shown its true colours. I'm talking about the real Liberal Party: the tax-hiking, rule-breaking, perk-loving, deficit-spending, debt-mounting, virtue-signalling Liberals Canadians have come to know and despise," he said.
"Justin Trudeau tries to say that Canada is back. I say the Liberals are back — back to ignoring the rules and abusing the privileges of power."
Liberal Nova Scotia MP Sean Fraser, a man who pulled off an upset win in the last election taking MacKay's old seat for the Liberals, said he expected Scheer to take a run at Trudeau in front of a partisan audience but added he was surprised by just how "devoid of policy" the speech was given its length.
"There's no plan to help middle class families, no plan to grow the economy, there's no plan to combat climate change ... as the leader of her majesty's loyalty opposition the very least he owes Canadians is to put his cards on the table and say 'These are the things I'm actually going to do to help the lives of Canadians,'" Fraser said in an interview with CBC News.
"He's campaigning on what he's not and he's trying to tap into some sort of underground hatred of the prime minister that, to me, is not a recipe for success."
Identity politics and history
Scheer also acknowledged the ongoing debate over identity politics in this country, saying the Liberals have shamefully allowed the record of the first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, to be tarnished.
Last week, Victoria's city council voted to temporarily remove a statute of Macdonald over his role in creating the residential school system.
"I think it's a disgrace that some would allow extreme voices in this country to erase our proud heritage," Scheer said.
"If we're suddenly going to sanitize our history with the benefit of hindsight, and knowing what we know today, then what if those extreme voices kept going," he continued, before taking a wry look at the record of Liberal prime ministers William Lyon MacKenzie King, who refused safe haven to a ship of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, and Wilfrid Laurier.
"The Liberal Party of Canada's elite donor program is called the Laurier Club. Now Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Liberal prime minister, signed an executive order, signed an order-in-council in 1911 banning black immigrants to Canada. But he was also the architect of the Canadian navy and a pioneer of free trade with the United States. Do we hear voices from the left saying we better take his name off of everything and take his name off universities," Scheer said, before the crowd added: "No."
"You can see how divisive this is approach is. How destructive this is to our Canadian identity.
"We can and we should celebrate the giants of our history, like Macdonald, Laurier and King, for the great things they did for our country. We can absolutely look to the past and learn from the mistakes that were made at the time while still celebrating the contributions that made Canada so great along the way.
"If we look back on our history and our leaders and only see their blemishes, we miss out on a beautiful story of a great country that has progressed into the safest, freest and most prosperous in the world," Scheer said.