It’s relatively early days yet, but three months and change into his tenure as Conservative leader, it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for Andrew Scheer — not because he’s done a poor job positioning his party to take on the government when the House reconvenes next week, but because somehow, despite a determined summer-long effort to get the Liberals on the defensive, it just doesn’t seem to be working.
In fact, if you buy into the latest polls, both the Liberals and the prime minister have seen their overall approval ratings inch back up into the high 30s/low 40s since the House shut down in June, while the Conservatives appear to have settled somewhere around the 32 per cent mark — a slightly higher ceiling than they’d hit before choosing Scheer to lead them on the electoral battlefield in 2019, but not exactly closing the gap.
Such lacklustre early results would, of course, be mildly disappointing (if not necessarily unexpected) under any circumstances.
In this case, though, the Tories and their new leader would be justified in grumpily wondering whether they’d fallen into a just-slightly-alternate universe: one in which Trudeau hadn’t spent much of July under fire over a $10.5 million payoff to former Guantanamo detainee Omar Khadr, for instance, or in which his finance minister hadn’t unveiled a plan to tighten the corporate tax rules — a plan interpreted by some of Canada’s most influential lobby groups as an outright declaration of class war.
And after a quick double-check of the horizon for Zeppelins or superfluous moons confirms that they’re still in this timeline, the Tories must’ve been even more disheartened to realize that it’s not even as if the Liberals beat them fair with a masterfully crafted communications strategy to counter the Conservative message machine.
Quite the opposite, in fact: in both cases, the government seemed astonishingly ill-prepared to counter what was an entirely predictable reaction, both from the opposition and from the public.
Now, that might be forgivable on the Khadr file, where word of the seven-figure payout initially leaked via unofficial channels.
Presumably, the Liberals knew they’d eventually have to go public with the decision to cut Khadr a cheque, which means they should’ve had a full set of talking points ready to roll out when they did, but it’s entirely plausible that they figured they’d be able to do so on their own timeline. The payment was also part and parcel of a formal legal settlement, which, like virtually all such agreements, barred the parties from disclosing most of the pertinent details, which likely added still more complexity to the pre-release communications planning sessions.
As it turned out, the Conservatives may have unwittingly wound up doing more damage to themselves than to the Liberals by taking their outrage campaign across the Canada-U.S. border. Or perhaps, despite polls showing more than 70 per cent of Canadians opposed the deal, the public simply didn’t see the Khadr deal as the indictment of Trudeau that Scheer and his party tried to make it out to be.
But there are no such mitigating factors to explain away the ham-handed, haphazard response the government offered to outrage over Bill Morneau’s bid to crack down on income sprinkling, passive investment, and other perfectly legal workarounds used by doctors, lawyers, consultants, and other highly paid self-incorporated professionals to lower their tax load.
For one thing, most of the groups now leading the charge against the proposed changes first raised the alarm last spring, when Morneau served notice, via his budget speech, that he intended to look at those so-called loopholes that, in some cases, allow wealthy Canadians to clock in at a lower tax rate than far more modestly compensated wage-earners.
No, it didn’t immediately dominate the headlines — it was more of an also-noted in mainstream coverage of the fiscal plan — but it was definitely near the top of the watch list for those groups likely to be most affected by the change, which Morneau and his office (and the central planners at the PMO) should’ve been monitoring through the spring, and particularly in the weeks leading up to the mid-July reveal of the specific proposals the finance minister was considering.
More crucially, Morneau and his team should’ve been ready with a full-court roll-out to pre-emptively defend the plan against what was an entirely predictable backlash from the various business lobby groups that had been gearing up for this fight since the budget dropped.
But right up until the last week or so, the Liberals seemed all but incapable of explaining the rationale behind the new policy with anything but bumper-sticker slogans about “tax fairness” — a communications strategy that veteran Liberal MP and finance committee chair Wayne Easter recently described, with characteristic Maritime flair, as “just godawful.”
On the other side of the aisle, the Tories were a bit slow to join the chorus against the proposed changes: it wasn’t till early August that the caucus Twitter feed became a steady stream of drum-beating against yet another Trudeau tax hike. But since then, Conservative MPs have been doing their level best to make the point that the Liberals are out to drive Canada’s doctors from the country while bankrupting farm families and shuttering mom-and-pop businesses — an effort that’s resulted in a surge of distinctly critical coverage of the changes in the press. In theory, all the elements should be in place for Scheer to kick off the fall sitting with a bang.
Those pesky polls, however, don’t just show Liberal support inching up over the course of the month; the few surveys that have asked specifically about the changes have found that a sizeable plurality concur with Trudeau’s core message that wealthy Canadians should pay their fair share of tax.
A late August poll by Mainstreet Research found that 76 per cent of respondents agreed “tax loopholes are a problem,” while 54 per cent thought high-income earners were indeed paying too little; an Insights West survey found cautious support for specific elements of Morneau’s proposed overhaul, though it concluded that only 35 per cent of the public was actually paying attention to the debate.
It’s that last metric Scheer and his party might want to give the most serious consideration when they finalize their strategy for the fall sitting.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that, with the lazy days of summer now firmly behind us, Canadians may suddenly be seized with the issue, which would provide the Conservatives with a belated payoff for all the time and energy they’ve invested in their campaign against the changes.
Then again: they may not. In which case, it would be foolhardy to keep pressing the Liberals over a policy that affects such a small, albeit quite vocal, minority of potential future undecided voters.
We’re now officially past the halfway point to the next election, which means Scheer can’t afford to waste a minute — nor an opportunity to hobble his adversaries. How he decides to act over the next few weeks could determine whether he’ll be the one occupying that particular hot seat in the next Parliament.
Kady O'Malley writes for iPolitics.ca, and also appears regularly on television and radio.
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