Andrew Scheer and his Conservatives accuse Justin Trudeau of political cynicism by injecting abortion, a hot issue in the United States, into this country’s election campaign.
Yes. It is true. Cynical, the Liberals are. But if you are prime minister, trailing in the polls (through no one’s fault but your own), and facing the distinct possibility of losing your job in October, you do whatever you have to do to take the mickey out of your opponents.
You try to divide them – to set them fighting among themselves – by attacking them where they are most vulnerable. For the Conservatives in this election, the soft spots are abortion, immigration, deficit reduction, climate policy, pipelines and – with the release of the report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls this week – the relationship between the government and Indigenous Canadians.
Everyone knows the Conservatives are divided on abortion. This division was very public at the party’s convention last year. It surfaces whenever there is a pro-life rally and some Conservative MPs cannot resist showing up. It is apparent whenever Scheer is asked what he would do if he becomes prime minister.
He hews to the line that Stephen Harper took. He says his government would not reopen the debate, but he will not undertake to prevent dissident caucus members from doing so. Harper did not prevent Conservative MPs from reviving the issue on at least two occasions, and Scheer is no Harper when it comes to cracking the whip.
Scheer may be equally vulnerable on issues of immigration and race, where the Liberals are trying to drive another wedge into Conservative unity. The Conservatives were badly hurt among moderate voters in 2015 by the niqab issue and the party’s foolish pledge to set up a “barbaric cultural practices” hotline.
This time, Scheer faces the threat posed by Maxime Bernier’s new People’s Party of Canada, which is catering to the anti-immigration vote. So Scheer is trying to straddle the demands of his right wing and the electoral necessity of recouping support among immigrant groups, especially in the swing ridings of the Greater Toronto Area.
On one hand he promises to crack down on “illegal” border-crossers (code for refugees) and to limit the intake of other immigrants (by how much, he does not say).
On the other hand, lest anyone think him anti-immigrant, he said this a week ago: “I'd like to make something absolutely crystal clear. There is absolutely no room in a peaceful and free country like Canada for intolerance, racism and extremism of any kind. And the Conservative Party of Canada will always make that absolutely clear."
That’s three “absolutelys” in three sentences. A cynic might suggest the leader doth protest too much. His assurances did ring a bit hollow a few days later when he barely slapped the wrist of his deputy justice critic for an Islamophobic intervention at a committee meeting.
Scheer will continue to be vulnerable to Liberal attacks as long as he makes grand assertions with nothing to back them up. He says the government must “hold China accountable” for the flow of the opioid fentanyl into Canada. That’s nice, but how he would call China to account? He doesn’t say.
Similarly, he promises his government would establish a “national energy corridor” from coast to coast. It’s a pipedream. How would he secure the agreement of Indigenous groups through whose lands key sections of the corridor would pass? How would he convince Quebec, which is dead set against more pipelines? How would he deal with the inevitable opposition of multiple environmental groups?
He doesn’t say or doesn’t know.
In the end, the election will come down to leadership, as elections usually do. Trudeau’s best shot at re-election will be if he can persuade voters – or about 40 per cent of them – that Andrew Scheer is too weak or too compromised by divisions within his own party to lead a complex nation.