When we last saw our members of Parliament in action, in June as they were rushing off on their three-month summer recess, Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer was on his feet hectoring Justin Trudeau for allegedly spending $7,500 in public funds on a swing set for the Prime Minister’s official summer residence at Harrington Lake.
Scheer’s facts were wrong. The Trudeaus paid for the swing set; the National Capital Commission installed it, and the NCC will retain ownership when the family moves on.
But let’s ignore that factual inexactitude. Why, you might ask, is the official opposition wasting time on trivia when there are so many real issues to address – from Donald Trump’s trade war to the global warming that threatens the planet?
That’s a good question, and you may take your choice of two answers. First, Scheer’s Conservatives are reaching out to marginally engaged voters – the Ford Nation variety – by arguing that Justin Trudeau and his Liberals are a bunch of elitist wastrels who will spend Canada into the poor house unless stopped.
The swing set is just a symbol. Average voters may not be able to get their heads around expenditures in the millions or billions, Conservative thinkers reckon, but a $7,500 swing set is an extravagance everyone can grasp.
And the second answer: the Conservatives are trying to disguise that they have been operating in a policy vacuum ever since Scheer became leader in May last year. So it’s safer to rail against an expensive swing set than to address issues that really matter.
Of course, it’s not easy being in opposition when you don’t have a sense of direction or a set of priorities.
How do you oppose the Liberals’ carbon tax without being labelled climate-change deniers?
How do you censure the government for the influx of refugees at illegal border crossings without sounding like a bunch of anti-immigration racists?
How do you attack the government’s handling of the NAFTA negotiations without appearing to side with Trump and his bullying tactics?
How can you continue to blame Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland for the rift with Saudi Arabia without turning a blind eye to the Saudi record of rights abuses, from arbitrary arrest and torture, to human trafficking and public beheadings, to suppression of women and criminalization of same-sex relationships?
These are some of the questions the Conservatives need to address when they assemble in their national convention, which opens in Halifax on Thursday this week. They also need to beat back an effort that is being orchestrated by Campaign Life to commit the party to a policy of recriminalizing abortion.
Meanwhile, the Liberal cabinet will spend three days this week in a retreat in Nanaimo, B.C., getting its act together for the return of Parliament on Sept. 17 with a new Speech from the Throne. I’ll be watching to see if the speech includes a national pharmacare program and if it announces legislation to ban the possession of handguns in Canada’s big cities, as Toronto and Montreal have asked.
While the emphasis will be on putting a new face on a three-year-old government heading into a re-election campaign, the cabinet will also have to deal with pre-existing issues, including Trump, trade, refugees and, now, Saudi Arabia. And how will they deal with Ontario’s new premier, Doug Ford, who takes such delight in challenging Trudeau at every opportunity? He seems determined to escalate tensions between the provinces and Ottawa in anticipation of a federal-provincial first minister’s conference that was requested by the provinces and has been promised by Trudeau for this fall.
The bottom line. Both Trudeau and Scheer are going to have to step up their game.
Scheer needs, first, to show Canadians why he wants to be prime minister and, second, to demonstrate he is capable of mounting a credible alternative government.
Trudeau’s task is no easier. It is to persuade Canadians that the last thing they need is a change of government.