September 25, 2018

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Party unity remains Andrew Scheer's biggest test

Editorial

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s scheduled trip to India seemed like a clever idea when he announced it a week ago — a way to remind the country of Justin Trudeau’s calamitous India dress-up tour, which gave him his worst week in nearly three years as prime minister.

But a week, as they say, is a long time in politics. Mr. Scheer showed since then that he could not hold his party together. Four-term Beauce MP Maxime Bernier bolted last Thursday; no one yet knows how many will follow, but already Mr. Scheer’s authority in the party and in the country is undermined.

Mr. Scheer’s story now is that Mr. Bernier is an ego-driven person who decided to quit a long time ago. Why did his leader not know this? Why did Mr. Scheer not strike first, by kicking Mr. Bernier out before he could do more damage?

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Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s scheduled trip to India seemed like a clever idea when he announced it a week ago — a way to remind the country of Justin Trudeau’s calamitous India dress-up tour, which gave him his worst week in nearly three years as prime minister.

But a week, as they say, is a long time in politics. Mr. Scheer showed since then that he could not hold his party together. Four-term Beauce MP Maxime Bernier bolted last Thursday; no one yet knows how many will follow, but already Mr. Scheer’s authority in the party and in the country is undermined.

Mr. Scheer’s story now is that Mr. Bernier is an ego-driven person who decided to quit a long time ago. Why did his leader not know this? Why did Mr. Scheer not strike first, by kicking Mr. Bernier out before he could do more damage?

Maxime Bernier announces he will leave the Conservative party during a news conference in Ottawa, Thursday August 23, 2018.

ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Maxime Bernier announces he will leave the Conservative party during a news conference in Ottawa, Thursday August 23, 2018.

The Conservative leader has more urgent business before him than a publicity stunt in India. He has to cement the loyalty of his caucus members to ensure there will be no more defections. He has to show he has the confidence to expel traitors before they defect. He has to tour the country and reconnect with all the riding executive members whose efforts will re-elect Conservative MPs — or not.

It may be too late to back out of the India tour. He may have to go through with it and just hope and pray that no more sheep will stray from the fold while the shepherd travels overseas. But if a decent pretext for cancelling can be found, he should use it. He should show the party and the country that he recognizes the gravity of the current challenge to Conservative unity. He should teach Conservatives that discipline wins elections and indiscipline loses them. At this moment, he has no higher duty to his party.

Disagreement about supply management of eggs, poultry and dairy products was the immediate occasion for Mr. Bernier’s departure. Mr. Scheer likes the system, Mr. Bernier does not. But Canada’s supply management system has already sprung leaks through trade negotiations with the European Union and the Pacific Rim countries — and will probably spring more leaks in the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

On Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump took another verbal shot at Canada’s dairy sector, while announcing a U.S.-Mexico side agreement on trade. When you’re choosing which hill to die on, supply management is a poor one to choose: the matter is being decided elsewhere and the hill is eroding.

Conservative Party of Canada leader Andrew Scheer delivers remarks at the party's national policy convention in Halifax on Friday, Aug. 24, 2018.

ANDREW VAUGHAN / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Conservative Party of Canada leader Andrew Scheer delivers remarks at the party's national policy convention in Halifax on Friday, Aug. 24, 2018.

"I have come to realize over the past year that this party is too intellectually and morally corrupt to be reformed," Mr. Bernier said as he slammed the door on his former colleagues. Mr. Bernier was first elected to Parliament for the Conservatives in 2006. Odd that it took him 12 years to figure out the party did not meet his high standards.

Conservative stalwarts are painting last week’s Halifax party convention as a great success for party unity, but there is no concealing the high-profile defection and the humiliation of the leader.

Mr. Scheer has to pick himself up, get back on the horse and lead his troops into battle — after first making sure they’re with him. He can console himself with the thought that Justin Trudeau also has bad weeks. The next election is still a year off and, as they say, a week is a long time in politics.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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