John Ivison: Andrew Scheer goes at his critics head-on over gay marriage and abortion

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Andrew Scheer must have known there would be days like these. He’s been under pressure to clarify his position on same-sex marriage and abortion, amid growing evidence that he is becalmed in the polls.

Of the 79 public polls in the past six months, the Conservatives have been leading in 65 of them. Yet, it is Justin Trudeau’s Liberals that appear to have the momentum, despite the ethics commissioner’s report into the SNC-Lavalin scandal earlier this month. Allegations about Scheer’s innate social conservatism have not helped in this regard.

The Conservative leader decided to address the issue head-on in a press conference in Toronto on Thursday, saying Trudeau can’t run on his record so is dredging up divisive issues that were settled by Parliament 14 years ago.

A video of Scheer’s views on same-sex marriage as a callow rookie MP in 2005 was released by Liberal Ralph Goodale last week (it should be noted, incidentally, that Goodale also opposed changing the legal definition of marriage in parliamentary votes in 1995 and 1999).

In the clip, Scheer explained why he couldn’t support the proposal, namely the inability to conceive children. In Goodale’s exposé of something that happened in plain sight, he also cited Scheer’s “lifelong boycott of Pride events” as evidence of his intolerance.

In his press conference, Scheer said nothing has changed in the Conservative Party under his leadership – MPs have the right to express their views but a Scheer-led government would not re-open legislation on same-sex marriage or abortion. He fudged questions on whether his own views had evolved but said voters could have confidence that he would govern for all Canadians. “Society has moved on – I have moved on,” he said.

The Harper government was in power for a decade and there no attempts to change the laws on same sex marriage or abortion, he pointed out.

That should be that, though of course it won’t be.

Scheer’s critics want him to say that he will block backbenchers from introducing legislation to restrict abortion services. But he views that as an intolerable restriction on free speech which would change the balance of power in the House of Commons.

As Speaker of the House, Scheer made a landmark ruling that established MPs privilege to speak freely, even when party whips try to gag them. The late Conservative MP for Langley, B.C., Mark Warawa, claimed the right to speak on sex selective abortion, despite his removal from the roster of members allowed to speak before Question Period by the Conservative whip.

Warawa claimed that as a breach of privilege, and even though Scheer did not find in his favour, the Speaker protected the independence of backbenchers by ruling that any MP who stood and caught his eye would be ceded the floor.

Warawa duly rose the next day, only to disappoint a packed press gallery preparing itself for a broadside against the Harper government, when he offered a fulsome tribute to the “must see” event of the season – Langley Has Talent. Still, the point had been made.

Scheer is not likely to renege on that position now – nor should he – but he could explain it more clearly to Canadians.

The Conservative leader needs to have what Abraham Lincoln called a “patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people” and trust that they see through these transparent diversionary tactics.

A far greater dilemma — or what Sean Speer, the Munk senior fellow for fiscal policy at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, calls a “tri-lemma” — looms on how to live up to his pledge to make life more affordable for Canadians.

Speer, a former adviser to Stephen Harper, said he believes the deficits wracked up by the Liberals are a trap designed to lure the Conservatives into advocating spending cuts, thus allowing Trudeau to link Scheer to Ontario Premier Doug Ford and the politics of austerity.

In this view, the Conservatives can pick two of three options – first, a commitment to balanced budgets; second, tax cuts; or third, avoiding the incorporation of deep spending cuts.

In 2015, Harper decided he wanted to balance the budget and not include any cuts in the platform. But that meant a 100-day campaign with very few spending announcements.

Scheer has already back-pedalled on a commitment to balance the budget within two years of taking power, instead saying it would take five years to get the books back in the black.

But even that pledge may have to be re-visited, if he is going to live up to his promise to make life more affordable for Canadians.

The deficit is forecast to come in at around $17 billion this fiscal year. Moving toward balance over a five year time-line is going to mean some spending cuts, particularly if the Conservatives platform contains measures to reduce the cost of living.

. Gary Clement/National Post

Scheer is not without leverage. He is genuine and smart and at the wheel of a well-oiled electoral machine. The party has already nominated 332 of 338 candidates, of whom 101 are women. By contrast, the Liberals still have to find 68 candidates, some in ridings like Don Valley North and West Vancouver that they hold.

If Canadians have not warmed to him, he is not alone – his main competitor has squandered much of his credibility. Only 13 per cent of voters were committed to Trudeau’s re-election in a recent Angus Reid poll, compared to 25 per cent committed support for Scheer.

There is a market for the Conservative leader’s message – “It’s time for you to get ahead”. As Speer showed in a new research paper for MLI this week, Canada’s strong labour market performance in recent years conceals challenges for some sub-sections of the workforce, particularly working age men without post-secondary qualifications.

The Trudeau government has made much of its drive for “inclusive growth” but that has most often been focused on minority groups and women. “Inclusive” policies do not seem to apply to men without qualifications or workers in rural areas, who are in danger of being “forgotten people in forgotten places”, in the words of Speer’s study.

There are enough undecided voters out there to suggest better days may lie ahead for Scheer.

Too often in the past he has been petrified by excessive prudence. Engaging his critics head-on and relying on the ultimate justice of Canadian voters is progress.