Keeping Conservatives united is now Scheer’s top challenge


MONTREAL—With all the friendly fire coming his way, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer may need a political flak jacket to campaign in next year’s federal election.

The next 12 months are about to test his capacity to keep the conservative movement from splintering into fratricide factions.

While the daily duels between the official opposition and Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government will resume with a vengeance when the House of Commons reopens on Monday, some of Scheer’s more defining battles could well take place outside Parliament and involve not Liberals but fellow conservative travellers.

The internal tensions only start with Maxime Bernier’s breakaway party.

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For all the Beauce MP’s talk about looking beyond Conservative voters for support, they are his natural audience and it is Scheer, not Justin Trudeau and Jagmeet Singh, who will be under pressure to keep the People’s Party at bay next fall.

Ditto in the case of the ongoing constitutional turmoil set in motion by Ontario premier Doug Ford’s decision to override the Charter of Rights and Freedoms so as to shrink Toronto’s council.

The Conservatives under Stephen Harper spent more than a decade fending off calls from the religious right to use the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution to turn back the clock on abortion rights, same-sex marriage and/or medically assisted suicide.

For all of its efforts, the party could never completely dispel suspicions that it had a hidden social conservative agenda. Ford’s move will provide Scheer’s opponents with fresh ammunition.

On the one hand, the CPC leader can hardly vouch that he would never, as prime minister, use the notwithstanding clause without breaking ranks with the Ontario premier. On the other, Trudeau would relish the opportunity to set his main opposition rival as the anti-Charter candidate in next fall’s campaign.

Ford’s embrace of the notwithstanding clause has exposed a fault line within the conservative movement that is virtually non-existent over on the Liberal and New Democrat side of the spectrum.

Toronto Mayor John Tory is a lifelong party insider who once led the Ontario PCs. Conservative party elders such as former Ontario premier Bill Davis and former prime minister Brian Mulroney have spoken out forcefully against Ford’s end run around the Charter.

Many federal Conservatives have been cheering for the Coalition Avenir Québec in the ongoing Quebec election campaign. But if CAQ Leader François Legault does become premier after the Oct. 1 vote, he too could be a cumbersome ally.

With the Bloc Québécois in disarray, the CPC has been courting nationalist voters more assiduously than at any time since Mulroney was Tory leader. Scheer has already promised to transfer the responsibility for collecting all federal income taxes in Quebec to the province.

But how will the Conservative leader respond if and when a Legault-led government comes knocking at his door demanding federal backing for the CAQ’s controversial immigration policy?

Legault wants Ottawa to relocate outside Quebec or deport back to his or her country of origin any immigrant to the province who after three years fails to meet the requirement of a government-sponsored French exam.

He would also demand that the federal government reduce the number of refugee claimants and candidates for family reunification allowed in Quebec by 20 per cent.

By the time the next federal election comes around, the Tories could be back in power in Alberta. Since Scheer has become leader, no light has been allowed to shine between the federal party and Jason Kenney’s provincial Conservatives.

The two former federal caucus mates stand shoulder-to-shoulder against the federal carbon-pricing initiative. Scheer is committed to removing the additional environmental controls on pipeline projects introduced by the Liberals and to using all legislative means at federal disposal to complete the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

Doubling down on a pro-pipeline agenda will be popular in the Prairies but possibly not so much in British Columbia where the CPC needs to make gains if they are to return to government. It is not an accident that the pre-eminence of the pipeline debate in that province in the last federal election coincided with the worst conservative showing in decades.

Keeping the coalition Harper rebuilt together could be Scheer’s biggest pre-election challenge.

Chantal Hébert is a columnist based in Ottawa covering politics. Follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert

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