Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS Conservative Party of Canada leader Andrew Scheer speaks at his shadow cabinet meeting in Winnipeg, Thursday.

Tory gathering not just about attack strategy

WINNIPEG — Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer pledged Thursday that when Parliament resumes later this month he’ll hammer the Liberals on three of the hot button issues of the summer: taxes, asylum seekers at the border and a payout to Omar Khadr.

“Our job from now until the 2019 election and beyond is to convince Canadians there is a better way,” he said during the party’s two-day strategy meeting.

What a Conservative better way might look like is also beginning to take shape.

The summer coughed up a trifecta of events the Conservatives easily seized upon — a Liberal review of the tax code, a crush of asylum seekers crossing the border and a $10.5 million settlement with former Guantanamo inmate Khadr.

To oppose each was a simple riff on Conservative values of seeking to keep taxes low, the border and immigration system secure and having little sympathy for Khadr, who was captured in a fight against U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

Scheer pledged Thursday the Tories will hold the government to account on all three when Parliament resumes.

But there are other issues where the Tories are only just starting to map out their positions.

Foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole raised some eyebrows recently when he said the Conservatives have no time for the Liberals trying to push the environment, gender and Indigenous issues into the NAFTA renegotiation.

Indigenous affairs critic Cathy McLeod said that doesn’t mean the party has no time for First Nations issues writ large.

She and other MPs spent time Thursday afternoon at the National Truth and Reconciliation Centre in Winnipeg, which is archiving and preserving stories told about the country’s residential school system.

A Conservative policy on Indigenous issues would likely focus on encouraging economic development, but that will be discussed at the party’s 2018 convention, she said.

“Right now, what we need to do is look at what the Liberals are doing and hold them to account for the work they’re doing,” she said.

O’Toole said the Conservatives’ position on missile defence for Canada is also up for discussion.

Canada needs to find a way to work with the U.S. now that North Korea is testing missiles capable of hitting this continent, O’Toole said. Canada is not currently part of the U.S. continental missile defence system.

“At an absolute minimum, we should always be willing to be at the table with our closest ally on this and we’re going to be talking about how we might propose this to the government,” he said.

O’Toole is among the defeated leadership candidates to win a spot in Scheer’s shadow cabinet; his proposal to turn illegal border crossings currently being used by asylum seekers into a formal points of entry has already been adopted by Scheer as one new policy idea.

Maxime Bernier, another former candidate, said he intends to drop his signature leadership campaign promise — the end of supply management — from his efforts to shape Conservative policy on the innovation file, where he’s now the critic.

While it remains his personal belief, party members didn’t vote for it and whether it goes forward as policy also rests with next year’s convention, he said.

For now, he’ll push for inclusion of another key idea from his platform: the end to any federal support for corporations.

“We’ll have these discussions at the shadow cabinet and after that we’ll take a position in the House and that will be the position of the party,” Bernier said.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, a former Progressive Conservative MP, told the group he’d like to see the federal Conservatives rethink their position on health-care funding.

In 2011, the Conservative government at the time announced it would reduce the rate of growth of health-care transfers to the provinces to three per cent a year, from the earlier rate of six per cent.

The change was to take effect this year and the Liberals, though they’ve signed deals with the provinces for additional funds for other elements of health care, have left the so-called escalator rate at three per cent.

Pallister said he encouraged the Tories to come up with a better plan.

“I’d like the federal party to do its own research, I’ve shared with them that there are numerous research articles, work that’s been done, that clearly demonstrate that there is not a sustainable model in place right now,” he said.

Sources who were in the room said Pallister’s pitch was met with silence.

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