The Conservative Party seems to think that over the weekend it found the answer to voters’ resounding rejection 18 months ago of its hurtful and destructive policy book: paint a happy face on it.
By electing Andrew Scheer as the new federal leader, members of Stephen Harper’s party have sent a clear signal that they still embrace the policies of their former leader, if not his style. Indeed, the general consensus coming out of the weekend convention is that Scheer “represents no radical change from the Harper era, he doesn’t challenge Conservative orthodoxy.”
Scheer himself has said that the biggest issue facing the party was the tone of Conservative communications – not the ideas themselves.
“We just need to do a better job of making our policies resonate with everyday Canadians on a more practical level,” he told Global News.
He could not be more wrong.
The problem wasn’t how the policies of the Conservative Party were presented, it was the policies themselves. It wasn’t just the tone that was nasty, though it certainly was. The policies of the Conservative Party undermining manufacturing, signing on to ideologically driven trade deals, and cutting health and education spending were nasty in their own right.
It was the politics of slash and burn of our public services, the trampling of workers’ rights and democracy that Canadians rejected when they tossed the Conservatives out of power in 2015. No amount of big smiles and dimples, as Scheer is known for, can hide the fact that the party remains deeply out of touch with the progressive views of the vast majority of Canadians.
More than two thirds of Canadians in the last election voted for a party other than the Conservatives. Voters weren't looking for a more amiable message, they were looking for an end to what they recognized as the party's regressive policies that amounted to a fundamental attack on our rights and which favoured on the elite.
In fact, in many ways, Scheer represents the worst of the worst of the Conservative agenda, despite his cheery demeanor.
His voting record in the House of Commons reveals socially conservative views on marriage, LGBTQ rights, abortion and more that are wildly out of step with most Canadians. Anti-abortion groups deemed his voting record “impeccable,” though they backed away from endorsing Scheer after he told reporters he wouldn’t push such policies if elected leader.
One of the things social conservatives have liked about Scheer is his pledge to cut funds from post-secondary institutions where there have been protests against right-wing speakers. He calls this a defense of free speech, but it's tough to see how cuts to education are good for anything, especially the free exchange of ideas.
Still, Scheer is believed to have won the leadership – by the thinnest of margins after 13 rounds of a ranked ballot electoral system – because social conservatives fled to his campaign after their two preferred candidates were forced off the ballot.
In one of her final speech to the party as interim leader, Rona Ambrose echoed that there was nothing wrong with the policies her party had pursued while in power, and continues to espouse, telling a crowd she invited to a breakfast meeting that "Canadians asked us to change our tone and we listened."
If this is what the party leadership, past and present, believes, it shows that the party still just doesn’t get it. It was the Conservative’s message that was rejected by voters, not how it was delivered.
It is, really, an insult to voters to argue that a broad smile from the country’s youngest party leader would be enough to paper over polices that will hurt most working people in Canada.
Canadians understand that trade policies that undercut manufacturing in Canada and hand over too much power to corporations are bad for them and their communities. They understand that cuts to healthcare will hurt them and their families in times of need and vulnerability.
Working people from coast to coast to coast know that attacks on the rights of unions will only weaken their collective voice and bargaining power with employers to raise standards, and in turn further the precarious situation and rights of temporary foreign workers.
In short, Canadians know what was wrong with the Conservative agenda in this country, and it wasn’t the way it was delivered.
Harper’s sneer may have become a smiling face, but Canadians can see behind the mask.