Does true conservative philosophy ever evolve?
This was the question hanging in the air Monday, as federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer addressed a modest crowd summoned by the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce to the Metropolitan Entertainment Centre in downtown Winnipeg.
The federal opposition leader made quick work of his speech, largely because he was on a tight timeline to make a return flight to Ottawa in the early afternoon. Still, there was a decided lack of impact to his appearance.
No new points to be made, no new policies to extol. No fresh and profound observations to pass on.
It was medley of greatest, contemporary conservative hits. Which is to say, it was music to the ears of dyed-in-the-wool voters but perhaps a bit tinny for anyone outside that one band of the electorate.
Now, it should be said Scheer is just completing his 10th month as the opposition leader. In political terms, that is little more than the blink of an eye, and certainly not enough time for most to master their profession. Still, there seems to be something alarmingly passive about the way Scheer is going about the job.
The Winnipeg event was part of a pattern, allowing the Tory leader to headline extremely small, chamber of commerce-hosted events to get out and — in his words — connect with Canadians by spreading "that positive Conservative message." The locations for these meet-and-greets are not exactly off the beaten path, but they are decidedly smaller communities: London, Sarnia, Hamilton, Milton, Cambridge and Oakville in Ontario; Mission and Kamloops in B.C.; Winnipeg and Regina on the Prairies.
If the Winnipeg appearance is any indication, and news reports from other communities suggest it is, Scheer is putting in a rather underwhelming, coast-to-coast performance.
That might have something to do with the fact Scheer is offering, as it stands, the policy platform that time forgot: concerns about deficit financing and the mortgaging of our children's future; all taxes, including the carbon tax, are bad and strangle the wealth creators that generate prosperity for all Canadians; government desperately needs to cut red tape and regulation to allow entrepreneurs to create jobs; Ottawa must support freer trade policies with a Canada-first mentality.
These are all live issues, and the staples of small-C conservatism. It would be unfair to expect Scheer to abandon them altogether. But given it's 2018, shouldn't there be something else?
In those rare moments he has strayed from the greatest hits, it has been to take tenuous positions that appear, at times, to be out of step with current events.
Last month, Scheer surprised many when he echoed U.S. President Donald Trump by saying a government he leads would take steps to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Trump's proclamation has proved to be incendiary in a region of the world that hardly needs added fuel for its fire. Although it does resonate loudly for a pro-Israel audience in this country, it also largely means the dismantlement of decades of diplomatic efforts in the region.
Then, there is gun control. Less than a month after the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., Scheer made headlines when his office confirmed he was still committed to a series of controversial policies that would significantly loosen gun-control laws and regulations in Canada.
These measures — which include the creation of a firearms ombudsman to advocate for gun owners, and preventing the RCMP from reclassifying guns as restricted or prohibited — seem so desperately out of step with the tone of the gun-control debate.
Scheer told reporters in Winnipeg none of the mass shootings change his view that nothing should be done to compromise the rights of law-abiding gun owners, a position that is putting more and more lawmakers in the U.S. on the wrong side of public opinion.
Again, it's not surprising Scheer would stick to his guns (pun intended) on this issue; the conservative base would accept nothing less. But the parameters of this debate are changing, and conservative policies either need to keep pace or risk appealing to a smaller and smaller constituency.
Scheer is currently living through the opposition leader's dilemma, which requires anyone with aspirations of forming government to walk a very fine line between policies that appeal to core supporters and those that might frustrate the core but appeal to a broader swath of the electorate.
There isn't a political leader or a party that can get elected in this country with policies that only appeal to the base.
Although the federal NDP has struggled with this equation, it's particularly confounding for conservative leaders.
Most NDP and Liberal leaders have less difficulty navigating the opposition dilemma, largely because their parties are more middle of the road, and able to borrow rapaciously from the left and the right of the political spectrum whenever the mood of the electorate shifts. Conservatives, on the other hand, almost always find nobility in shackling themselves to traditional policies.
This could be a critical time in Scheer's tenure as leader. On the heels of a disastrous trip to India and a lacklustre budget, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals are sagging in national polls, with at least one survey giving the Tories a shot at winning the next election. Although mid-term polls are dangerously volatile, it's still reason for conservatives across the country to gird themselves for the 2019 election with knowledge it is suddenly a much more competitive affair.
However, Scheer and the Tories will have to evolve from classic conservative dogma and produce something much more intriguing than easing gun control, relocating Canada's embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and railing against the carbon tax.
In this country, those are policies that appeal to some Canadians, but not a majority.
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.