Two men in need of redemption stood across from each other in the House of Commons on Friday.
The first man looked upon the other and declared himself disappointed to see that nothing had changed. The second man rose and made a point of showing that he would be taking a slightly altered approach, at least to this particular moment.
Between these two men — the leader of the Opposition and the prime minister — there’s the question of what should change in federal politics in response to the results of the October election.
Through that election, Andrew Scheer argued, “the people sent a clear message to all of us.”
“That the status quo had failed. That the approach of the previous four years just wasn’t good enough,” Scheer said. “Canadians want better.”
Specifically, he said, Canadians rendered a verdict on the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau. The “talking heads and pundits” might be trying to dissemble the result, Scheer said, but the Liberals had lost seats and votes.
And while Trudeau hinted at changing his approach in the weeks following the election, Scheer said he sees the throne speech as too much of the same-old.
“Yesterday, in the speech from the throne, [Trudeau] revealed that he hasn’t learned a thing, that he hasn’t changed at all,” he said. “Even though the people of Canada sent a message that they demand better … They demand a fundamentally new approach from a government that is prepared to rise to this moment in history.”
Maybe Canadians did demand a new approach. But they were at least as loud in not demanding a Conservative government led by Andrew Scheer. Which is where the glaring irony in Scheer’s analysis lies.
Justin Trudeau’s party won 157 seats. Scheer insists that Trudeau must change his approach to government and his policies, markedly and substantively, as a result.
Scheer’s party won 121 seats and Scheer is adamant that he doesn’t need to change — except to the extent that his party needs to communicate better and hire better advisers.
Re-litigating October while looking ahead to April
Aside from some artful comments about the honour of occupying a seat in the House of Commons and a new focus on national unity, most of Scheer’s remarks resembled a reprise of the fall campaign. Possibly because the campaign hasn’t really ended for Scheer.
“Over the past several weeks, there’s been a chorus of voices from elite corners of Canadian high society demanding that our party endorse the carbon tax,” Scheer told the House on Friday. “Well, let me be clear, Mr. Speaker, we will always oppose a carbon tax because we know the real cost it imposes on the Canadian people.”
Members of the Conservative Party will be asked in April whether they’d like to change leaders. Scheer apparently has decided that his best chance of surviving that vote is to put the onus on Trudeau and acknowledge his own need for change as little as possible — particularly when it comes to climate policy.
That sort of obstinacy on the major policy issue of the day could doom the Conservative leader in the next general election. That assumes, of course, that Scheer will still be the Conservative leader in May.
Has Trudeau changed his tune?
Rising to respond to Scheer, Justin Trudeau told the House that his office had written him a speech for this occasion — a “very excellent speech,” Trudeau claimed — but he would not be reading it. The speech had been written a day before, but Trudeau said it was important for MPs to listen to each other and he decided instead to actually listen to what Scheer had to say and respond to what he heard.
“I know that we need a new approach — we all need to take a new approach here — and I appreciate the opportunity to be able to make some remarks rather than simply reading a speech that reiterates everything that we want to do together,” Trudeau said.
The decision to eschew the prepared remarks was apparently taken about 20 minutes before Trudeau spoke.
There were no great surprises in what followed, but it was different from the usual Trudeau product — a little less lofty, slightly more direct. Without a script, Trudeau was nimble enough to note that Scheer had neglected to mention Indigenous reconciliation or any area of health policy in his remarks. He pointed to what he called the similarities between the Liberal and Conservative tax cut proposals. And he attempted to parry Scheer’s criticism of the federal carbon price.
“If he is serious about reducing people’s anxiety about the future, if he was serious about reassuring Canadians in their ability to tackle new challenges and support their families, it would be good if we were able to lay out the actual facts of what our plan for putting a price on pollution means for Canadians across the country,” Trudeau said, pointing out that the average family is expected to receive a rebate that exceeds the added cost of the carbon levy.
The performance had something in common with Trudeau’s showing at the National Press Theatre two days after the election. In both cases, there seemed to be just a bit less artifice on display.
Between that news conference in October and his appearance in the House on Friday, Trudeau was noticeably less prominent (with the notable exception of that cocktail reception at Buckingham Palace). And his two public forays to date have displayed a different tone.
If Trudeau’s style and manner has been grating on some voters, this might be the appropriate response.
Such things may change. But Trudeau’s wager might be that his party’s election result had less to do with what it set out to do, and more to do with how it went about it — the brutal messes they made when they weren’t being careful.
Scheer might complain that Trudeau should be changing a lot more than that. But Trudeau might believe that — at least as long as it’s Andrew Scheer standing across from him — he doesn’t need to reinvent himself so much as he needs to clean up his act.