Scheer determination needed to refloat Tories’ big blue boat

Phase 2 of national party leadership is when the real slog begins, when you broaden your listening from the last race to get the job to start listening to the wider country in the next race for the big job.

Andrew Scheer is ensconced in that education now, here in the Lower Mainland last week and trying to hear as much as he could and say as much as he is able. Among the party faithful, he is still defining his mark; among the wider populace, he is a question mark.

What he provided to a variety of audiences was a thorough comprehension of policy, a thoughtful personal touch whenever he could to present a more affable and accessible Tory boss and an early blueprint for the blue vote in 2019.

The softer qualities of his presentation include an admission that the Conservatives need to spend more time explaining the “why” in their ideas – as in, why we need a balanced budget, not just that we need one. He hates the idea of government “reaching into my kids’ future.”

There remain some challenging edges: he isn’t yet speaking in tight focus, his social conservatism puts him in the minority on cannabis legalization, and his vague statements on First Nations relationships and the environment are far too open to ungenerous interpretation.

Following his squeaker of a victory in May, Scheer was planning a listening tour of some duration when the House of Commons broke for the summer, then was handed a gift on July 18 when Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced a pox on small-business owners.

Scheer, 38, first elected as an MP at age 25, and the youngest Speaker in Commons history, is at his most effective – as are all public officials – when he uses his life experiences to describe the strength or weakness of a policy.

In his case, he talks at length about his first job in an Ottawa restaurant, thanks to a small-business entrepreneur who took a chance on him, and his turning-point job in Regina in his early 20s in a mom-and-pop insurance business that helped him gain accreditation for a profession that, in hindsight, he hasn’t much pursued.

He can speak from experience on how the tax measures afforded to those business owners permit them to defer tax in stressful times, perhaps avert layoffs or closures, and help them plan effectively for retirement. These are at the heart of Canada’s success and need to be nurtured and protected.

He believes the country’s small-business climate has been chilled since July and that the uncertainty has been enough to affect the tactics and strategies of the community.

He recognizes that Morneau has publicly walked back a fair amount of the proposals amid a firestorm that threatened to burn down the house. Still, he remains skeptical until he sees the plan on paper in the next budget.

He is also skeptical of Justin Trudeau’s commitment to Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. No matter that the prime minister forcefully announced its approval, no matter that it ties into his larger climate change plans by gaining Alberta’s consent for a carbon tax, Scheer believes the political pressure in British Columbia may compel the prime minister to soften and relent.

Scheer’s argument for the pipeline, and for national energy infrastructure in general, is that Canada is a far better player than other countries on environmental, labour and other standards. Is it really better, he argues, to get oil from the ground of a country that doesn’t abide by those standards than it is to get it from ours?

In this and earlier visits to Vancouver, he has taken in countless anecdotes about the reasons behind housing unaffordability. While he is quick to decry the slow permitting process of development approval, he believes the time has come for a larger conversation involving all levels of government, the real estate and development industries and the wider public on how to tackle the supply and demand issues. And he doesn’t necessarily believe this need be a national policy but one tailored to certain markets or circumstances.

They are not exactly the same person, to say the least. But in his first few months as Liberal leader Trudeau also toured Canada ceaselessly to define his vision and identify the target. We will see soon enough if Scheer’s listening has the same effect.

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver Media Group and vice-president of Glacier Media.