Election 2019, the Conservatives: Challenges and Opportunities

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January 15, 2019

Election 2019, the Conservatives: Challenges and Opportunities

Published January 2019 in Policy Magazine. Click here to read the original.

The Conservative Party of Canada went into the 2015 election campaign with a significant disadvantage against the young and charismatic Justin Trudeau. It was called Harper fatigue, and it will not be a factor in 2019. At the same time, Andrew Scheer, the party’s boyish, boy-next-door leader, has recently been denting his Jimmy Stewart aura with a distinct embrace of both the tactics and policy themes of Donald Trump and Doug Ford. Veteran Conservative strategist Geoff Norquay provides a look at the hazards and opportunities for Scheer and his party in this election year.

With the Justin Trudeau Liberals just finishing their first term, many observers will be tempted to consider them prohibitive favourites to win in October. After all, only two majority governments have ever been defeated after just one term in office—Alexander Mackenzie’s in 1878 and R. B. Bennett’s in 1935. 

But more recently, another first-term government had a close call: in 1972, a certain Trudeau père, seeking re-election four years after a smashing victory in 1968, came within two seats of being defeated. So, let’s not be too quick in writing off Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives for 2019.

What must the Conservatives do to have a shot at victory this fall?

The first priority for the Conservatives should be a platform that is accessible, relevant and moderate. In the issues the platform addresses, Canadians need to see their concerns and preoccupations reflected, as well as practical and attainable solutions offered. If it is moderate, the platform will help counteract the inevitable Liberal allegations of extremism, which are now a staple of their positioning against the Conservatives, and which we will see again in 2019.  

Hamish Marshall, the Tories’ national campaign director, gets the need for moderation. Last November, he told Susan Delacourt of the Toronto Star, “If I just appeal to the most Conservative Canadians, we’re going to get 25 per cent of the vote. We’re not going to win with 25 per cent of the vote. It’s the only way that either of the only two parties have ever won…by appealing to a large section of Canadians.” After a 2015, Conservative campaign that inexplicably drove negative wedges into potential pools of moderate voter support, these are welcome words.

The centrepiece of the Liberal platform will be a strong “promises made, promises kept” element that they will push hard, but which also provides significant openings to the Conservatives. They must argue that in addition to breaking their 2015 promises for modest deficit spending and a predictable return to budget balance, the Liberals continue to spend in the midst of a strong economy, thereby foreclosing their own options when the next recession hits. At a time when global risks include the impact of Brexit, President Trump’s potential trade war with China and the cost of shut-in Canadian crude oil as much  as $80 million per day, the Liberals’ spendthrift ways are whistling past an inevitable graveyard.

There’s another issue with the Liberal economic record that bears some scrutiny—its apparent beauty is only skin deep. To be sure, the cumulative growth and employment numbers for the economy look fine, but they mask some harsher realities and more serious questions. The government has invested heavily in future innovation but not in the transitions necessary to seize its promise or care for its victims.  

The oil price crash has cost Alberta and Saskatchewan hundreds of thousands of jobs. In recent months, technology-prompted disruptions have hit Bombardier in Montreal and GM at Oshawa, ending thousands more jobs. With the gig economy and artificial intelligence approaching rapidly, these events likely signal a prolonged period of disruption. And just to complicate things, at the same time, economists are forecasting that labour shortages of up to 500,000 may persist in Canada for up to a decade.

Canada is not ready for the wave of change that is accelerating. As Sunil Johal of the Mowat Centre recently argued, too many unemployed Canadians cannot access skills training because they are not EI eligible, many provincial training programs are not effective, and Canada’s investment levels in training are weak: countries such as France and Denmark spend proportionally three times more than Canada on skills training. Policy solutions to these questions will become critical in the mandate of the next federal government.

The Liberals made way too many promises in 2015, leaving themselves hostage to the practical realities of governing, the challenges of getting money out the door, federal-provincial-territorial relations, unexpected court decisions and such external events as the election of Donald Trump. As a result, there are some huge holes in their list of promises kept that will provide lots of opportunities for the Conservatives:

  • The promise to replace first-past-the-post balloting with some form of proportional representation was abandoned.
  • The Prime Minister promised that the federal budget would be balanced with a $1 billion surplus in 2019-20: the November 2018 fall update pegged the deficit at $19.6 billion for the current year, with balance nowhere in sight over the next five fiscal years.
  • After arguing that the Harper government’s emission targets were inadequate, in office the Liberals quietly adopted the same targets. The United Nations now says that Canada won’t even meet those targets, never mind meet the tougher standards of the
    Paris Accord.
  • Despite their many promises to treat veterans with respect and “fix” the delays in their benefits, the Liberals have found that the Department of Veterans Affairs is just as broken and dysfunctional as it was under the previous government.
  • Trudeau promised to restore door-to-door postal delivery…well, never mind.

The environment will be a major campaign issue this coming fall, and here the Conservatives face a challenge. Trudeau’s entire climate change plan is under serious attack, with his national framework now disavowed by at least five provinces amid court challenges. But the Conservatives will have little credibility on this key file until they provide details of their own environmental plan.  Canadians need to see it soon.

The costs of Canada’s inability to construct pipelines to tidewater have now come home to roost. While the government now owns a pipeline it cannot allow itself to build. Bill C-69 will make it even more difficult to approve and construct necessary infrastructure. 

The Liberals are apparently unable to find the money to help Alberta pay for additional engines and train cars to enable rail transport to move the glut of oil to markets. Ottawa’s many missteps on this file are building a national unity crisis and will likely hasten the defeat of the Alberta NDP government in the spring election, costing Trudeau a key ally on the environment file. The Conservatives will feast on these multiple failures in the coming election.

Canada has always been a nation of immigrants. Over successive Conservative and Liberal governments, a strong consensus has emerged that our economic future depends on robust immigration to make up for a low natural birth rate. That consensus is being threatened by the continued illegal border crossing by tens of thousands of would-be asylum seekers, who, according to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, are set to cost Canada a billion dollars by the end of the next fiscal year.

The issues here are not Canadian understanding, compassion or concern; they are the damage caused to those laudable values by the perception that people are being allowed to game the system, the creation of the three-year backlog of 65,000 cases blocking the adjudication of valid refugee claims and the corrosion done to confidence in the fairness of the overall immigration and refugee system.

The Conservatives have released a “fair, orderly and compassionate” vision for Canada’s immigration system. Their biggest challenge will be to defend it against the extremes—Max Bernier’s dark side anti-multicultural visions and the Liberals’ predictable distortions. Speaking of Mr. Bernier, election 2019 will determine whether the appeal of his new Peoples Party of Canada extends beyond the hard-right cranks and immigration haters to do damage to the mainstream Conservative cause.

Winning an election is not only about putting forward attractive policies, it is also about staying out of trouble and anticipating challenges:

  • Support from provincial Progressive Conservative governments and opposition leaders can be helpful, but it can also be a trap. The recent decision by Ontario’s Ford government to scale back French language services put Andrew Scheer in a difficult position. On issues such as minority language rights, a federal leader of the opposition must tread very carefully, and national considerations must come before provincial interests.
  • The new Quebec government of François Legault is a likely source of difficulty for all federal parties in this election year, aiming as it does to reduce immigration levels, especially from the family reunification and refugee classes. They have also promised to impose a secular dress code on public sector workers. Given the Conservatives’ shameless dog whistling in the last election on these issues, they will need to be careful in how they respond.
  • Canada has a small but active cadre of radical right-wing groups, many with views inimical to democratic values, immigration and diversity. The Conservatives need to be prepared for these groups to try to associate themselves with some Conservative candidates, while others will likely attempt to provoke and embarrass the party. Timely and effective crisis management will likely be necessary.

Finally, national elections are often influenced by wild-cards, pop-up issues and gaffes that no one can foresee in advance. Will President Trump commit some kind of tariff or sovereignty-challenging outrage that hands victory to the Liberals?  Will a party blow itself up on a thorny issue? Will a leader implode or score a knock-out in a TV debate?

We will all be there watching.  

Geoff Norquay, a principal of Earnscliffe Strategy Group, was senior adviser on social policy to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.