No one will accuse Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer of stepping in his Ontario counterpart’s limelight since the June 7 provincial election was called. Indeed, since Doug Ford was elected leader last March, Scheer has stuck to his federal knitting. If they are going to share a campaign stage it will have to happen soon.
His Ontario MPs have been lending a hand to the local Tory candidates with whom they share some electoral acreage or some political history but when it comes to Ford’s provincial campaign, they too have been keeping a relatively low profile.
The federal Conservatives’ discreet approach to the ongoing Ontario battle stands in contrast with the combative one once favoured by some key Ontario members of Stephen Harper’s cabinet team.
From his pulpit as federal finance minister for instance, the late Jim Flaherty was not averse to
lambasting the ruling Ontario Liberals. In the immediate lead-up to the 2011 provincial vote he opined that the province could not afford four more Liberal years.
At the time, Harper himself mused about an Ontario trifecta, with the Conservatives ruling on
Parliament Hill, at Queen’s Park and at Toronto City Hall. It was not the former prime minister’s best chess move. His statement probably did the Ontario Tories more harm than good on the campaign trail.
In the past, Ontarians have not put their federal and provincial eggs in the same basket.
If anything, Ford’s leadership victory has given Scheer an additional incentive to keep the bulk of his powder dry for his own upcoming election battle in 2019.
Ford was anything but a leadership favourite of the federal caucus. Most Ontario MPs - starting with the members of Scheer’s shadow cabinet - endorsed either Christine Elliott or Caroline Mulroney. Keeping some distance from Ford comes easily to many of them.
In this case discretion may be the better part of valour.
Regardless of the outcome of the June 7 vote, chances are a collection of selfies starring Scheer arm-in-arm with Ford would not be a big asset for the federal Conservatives in next year’s battle.
By then, Ford will either have joined the list of Ontario Tory leaders who have managed to turn pre-campaign gold into election night lead or else he will be overshadowing Scheer from the heights of the office of the premier of Canada’s most-populous province.
From the federal Conservatives’ perspective the latter might be worse than the former.
The last thing Scheer probably needs next year is for the federal election in Ontario to turn into a plebiscite on a potentially polarizing Ford-led provincial government.
Meanwhile, the turn of the campaign - from projected Tory cakewalk to tight race against the NDP - has provided Scheer and his brain trust with plenty to chew on as they look to their own first campaign.
Here are some highlights:
The Conservatives forget at their own peril that their base is not large enough to alone carry the party to victory. Nor is that base always a reliable sounding board for what will resonate positively with mainstream voters. The opposite is more often true.
For all the talk about a return to so-called Rae days under the Ontario NDP, memories of the more recent Mike Harris tenure at Queen’s Park are more vivid - in the negative sense of the word for the Tories - in many centrist quarters. (That stands to be even truer of Harper in the federal campaign.)
A majority of Canadians hail from the progressive side of the spectrum. Most of the time they disagree about which party best represents their ideals and split their vote accordingly.
But given enough reasons to see a Conservative victory as a threat to their core values, they will tend to coalesce behind the strongest non-conservative option on offer. Trudeau’s Liberals are counting on that in 2019.
In Ontario, a lot of voters who twice gave Andrea Horwath a pass in the past may support the NDP on June 7. If they do, some of the credit for that will belong to Ford just as Harper was at least in part responsible for the NDP’s 2011 orange wave in Quebec.
It has by now become conventional wisdom that the Tories would likely have the June 7 election in the bag by now had they opted for a leader who raised fewer red flags outside the party base than Ford does. I don’t know about that, but chances are that pounding the pavement on behalf of his Ontario cousins would have come to Scheer and many of his MPs more easily.
- Chantal Hèbert is a columnist based in Ottawa covering politics. Follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert