Liberals brand new Conservative leader Scheer a far-right extremist
Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press
Published Sunday, May 28, 2017 10:40AM EDT
Last Updated Sunday, May 28, 2017 3:50PM EDT
OTTAWA -- Even before Conservatives began counting the ballots, the ruling Liberals set out to frame the new Opposition leader as a far-right extremist.
Only trouble was, the relentless barrage of email missives from Liberal headquarters in the days and hours leading up to Saturday's vote were aimed largely at Maxime Bernier, the front-runner and presumed winner of the marathon Conservative leadership race.
Conservatives may have thought they'd nipped that strategy in the bud when, on the 13th and final ballot, they opted by the thinnest of margins for an ostensibly safer choice: the genial, low key Andrew Scheer, former Speaker of the House of Commons.
But the outcome hasn't substantially changed the governing party's narrative.
"If you look at it, at the end of the day it was a contest between the far-right social Conservatives and the far-right economic Conservatives and the far-right social Conservatives won the day," summed up Quebec Liberal MP Pablo Rodriguez.
Liberals had been salivating at the prospect of taking on Bernier in the 2019 election, an unabashed libertarian who would, they warned, dismantle universal health care, abandon Canadian farmers by scrapping supply management and slash government programs by over one third.
Someone, moreover, who had voted Yes to Quebec independence in the 1995 referendum and had been booted from Stephen Harper's cabinet for leaving confidential cabinet documents at the home of a girlfriend with one-time connections to biker gangs.
Scheer does not present quite as tantalizing a target, Liberals privately admit. Unlike Bernier, he represents no radical change from the Harper era, he doesn't challenge Conservative orthodoxy and he enjoys considerable caucus support, which should make it easier to unite the troops behind him.
Still, he's not a moderate or a progressive in the vein of fifth-place finisher Michael Chong or A-listers like Peter MacKay and James Moore who didn't run, any of whom Liberal insiders said might have presented more problems for the governing party.
And Liberals said they have plenty of ammunition against Scheer, starting with the fact that he owes his squeaker victory over Bernier largely to the support of social conservatives who want to re-open divisive debates about abortion and same-sex marriage.
Scheer, a social conservative himself, insists he wants to focus on the issues that unite Conservatives, not divide them. But Rodriguez predicted he won't have much choice.
"He won because of the social conservative wing of the party so he will be under pressure to reopen those debates," Rodriguez said.
And then there's Scheer's own record when it comes to abortion rights, gay rights or, most recently, a transgender rights bill.
"Make no mistake about it, this is somebody who has voted against every single civil rights advancement in the last 25 years," said Toronto Liberal MP Adam Vaughan.
Worse, in Vaughan's view, Scheer is now promoting a new brand of social conservatism with his promise to cut off funding to universities that fail to protect free speech by allowing student protests to shut down things like events with pro-Israel guest speakers or meetings of those who oppose abortion.
"He's somebody who wants to be in charge of the thought police," Vaughan scoffed.
"Academic freedom and the ability for universities to self-govern are as fundamental to the function of democracy as just about every other component of the democratic system. You cannot have free and open debate if you're being told who should talk and who shouldn't talk."
In addition to the social conservative wedge the Liberals intend to drive, they accuse Scheer of wanting to roll back the Trudeau government's middle-class tax cut, reward the wealthiest one per cent and forsake any plan to combat climate change.
An online ad rolled out Sunday by the Liberals subtly underscored the contrast the ruling party intends to make between an inclusive Prime Minister Justin Trudeau -- wading joyfully into a crowd at a Pride parade, among other clips -- and the new Opposition leader, who suggested in an interview Sunday with Global's West Block that he wouldn't participate in gay pride events because they've become too politicized.
"The prime minister's job is to bring Canadians together, not to tear us apart," Trudeau says in a clip taken from a Liberal rally during the 2015 election campaign.
The ad makes no mention of Scheer or the Conservatives, in contrast to the aggressive personal attack ads the Tories launched immediately after Trudeau took the helm of the Liberal party in 2013, which asserted he was "in over his head."
In one respect, Liberals think Scheer's narrow win over Bernier may have been a blessing in disguise, at least when it comes to Liberal fortunes in Quebec. While Bernier's opposition to supply management cost him support in his home province, he likely would have fared better in Quebec in a general election than Scheer.
"It's going to be a challenge for (Scheer) in Quebec," said Rodriguez. "Nobody knows him."
There might be another bonus for the government in Scheer's upset. As a former Speaker who repeatedly called for decorum in the Commons, he may be less inclined to obstruct the Liberal agenda, which the Conservatives have been doing almost non-stop since January.
"I hope they're more constructive," said Rodriguez, the Liberal whip. "They can't be less than what they were, blocking, playing all kinds of games on a daily basis."
Trudeau called Scheer on Sunday to congratulate him on his come-from-behind victory. A brief summary of the call distributed by the Prime Minister's Office said the two discussed issues of importance, "including making Parliament work for Canadians."