It has been billed as a strategy session, although it's unclear whether this week's gathering of federal Conservatives in Winnipeg is about forging a new strategy or just revamping the old strategy under new leader Andrew Scheer.

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Opinion

It has been billed as a strategy session, although it's unclear whether this week's gathering of federal Conservatives in Winnipeg is about forging a new strategy or just revamping the old strategy under new leader Andrew Scheer.

Since its thunderous loss in the 2015 federal election, the Conservative Party has floated somewhat aimlessly back and forth across the right side of Canada's political spectrum.

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper got the ball rolling in the last election when he adopted edgier right-wing rhetoric and identity politics with disastrous results. In the race to replace Harper, there were times when it appeared the Tories were going to migrate even further right, as some candidates started emulating the populist rantings of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Thankfully, both for the party and the country, the Tory faithful rejeted those candidates trying to pull the party into choppy populist waters, ultimately calling on Scheer to lead them into the next election.

While Scheer's ascension solved one program, it did not define what the party stood for or explain how it was going to unseat the Liberal juggernaut of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Where are the Tories headed under Scheer? For the most part, it appears to be back to the path set by Harper.

Manitoba Sen. Don Plett said there is a strong case for sticking closely to the agenda that helped Harper earn a decade in power. Plett said the 2015 election was not a battle of ideas; instead, it was a result created by the electorate's loss of affection for Harper and the explosion of support for Trudeau.

"I've never been unhappy with the agenda we have had," Plett said. "We didn't lose the last election because of the things we did or said, we lost because people were really angry at one leader and they fell in love with another leader."

True to that analysis, Scheer outlined the three principal policy issues he will focus on in the upcoming session of parliament, issues that come straight out of the Harper playbook.

Scheer said he and his caucus would protest the flow of asylum seekers crossing the Canadian border illegally from the U.S. Scheer mocked the asylum seekers — many of whom are concerned about being sent back to their countries of origin by the anti-immigrant Trump administration — for fleeing a country that poses no real threat to them.

"Canadians are proud to do our share to help the world's most vulnerable," Scheer told a hotel banquet hall full of Tory Senators and MPs. "But you know, I've been to upstate New York and I've been to North Dakota. Those places are safe."

Scheer said he and his caucus will continue to protest the federal government's decision to award a $10.5-million settlement and an apology to Omar Khadr, the Canadian-born man who was found guilty of war crimes by an American military court and who is now appealing his conviction.

Finally, Scheer identified a growing furor over recent Liberal tax policies as perhaps the central focus of his party's efforts in the 24-month ramp to the next election. These policies include the imposition of a national carbon tax by 2018, increased Canada Pension Plan payroll deductions and proposed changes to small business tax rates and rules.

Given that he is considered to be a Harper disciple on fiscal issues, taxes certainly came out as the No. 1 plank in the Scheer platform going forward. He suggested the Liberals were "demonizing" small businesses by bringing in new rules that would force them to pay more taxes.

"These are good people, hardworking people, these are honest people who are being demonized by Justin Trudeau's Liberals just to pay for their out-of-control spending," Scheer said.

Scheer's rhetoric around Liberal tax hikes is pleasing to the ear, particularly if you're a hardline fiscal conservative that believes taxes of all kinds are unjustifiable and destructive. However, this may not be the issue that ultimately breathes new life into the Tories.

There is every reason to believe the Liberals will walk-back some of their proposed changes. Finance Minister Bill Morneau has emphasized that Ottawa is consulting far and wide to ensure the changes — a bid to curb loopholes that allow certain wealthy small business owners to avoid taxes by turning business income into investments or paying salaries to family members that don't do any work — don't unfairly punish the kind of people Scheer is describing.

If — and it's a pretty big if right now — Morneau can tailor his tweaks to penalize the least sympathetic of small business owners, the furor will die, and along with it the potential to energize Tory support.

And there lies the rub for the Tories going forward. With a choice between charting a new path with new ideas and an old path with updated rhetoric, the Conservatives seem destined to choose the latter. And for the record, it's a path that has more problems than just the guy who created it in the first place.

The Conservative Party continues to harp on tax increases and immigration despite the fact there is little evidence that a clear majority of Canadians agree with any of their positions. Nobody likes taxes, but Canadians are patently aware the price of lower taxes is less government, and that was a bargain that was heartily rejected in 2015.

Scheer may have new ideas that may bubble to the surface before the next election. Diehard Conservatives better hope he does, because the repackaging of the old ideas is unlikely to get them very far.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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