Opinion: Scheer targets fallout of Harper years

A year into his new job as Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer is methodically trying to mend some of the fences broken by his predecessor.

Fresh from a weekend appearance on Radio-Canada’s talk show Tout le monde en parle as part of a public-relations campaign designed to bring about a thaw in the icy relationship of most Quebecers with his party, the Conservative leader travelled to another kind of venue Stephen Harper did not tend to grace with his presence.

On Tuesday, Scheer crossed the Ottawa River to personally deliver an olive branch to one of the country’s largest association of trade unions. Canada’s Building Trade Unions (CBTU) is the national umbrella of 14 international unions that together represent more than half-a-million construction workers

In the last federal campaign, the country’s top labour organizations made the defeat of the Harper government an overriding priority. At the time, the CBTU spent more than $400,000 advocating for the election of a “worker-friendly” government and for more public spending on infrastructure.

Notwithstanding the union movement’s long-standing ties with the NDP, this umbrella group has – in the words of one of its members – quite a bit of time for Trudeau’s agenda.

The relationship has so far been reciprocal. Before and since he became prime minister, Trudeau has courted the union movement with more assiduity than the average Liberal leader. His government has repealed Conservative laws that organized labour found offensive. He has been a regular at union venues, and this week’s CBTU convention was no exception.

That stands in stark contrast with the treatment meted out by Harper’s government. On his watch, the party’s branding included casting itself as no friend of organized labour. The latter responded in kind. Scheer is on a mission to avoid a repeat of the same scenario in next year’s election.

The union movement was never a natural Conservative constituency but past Tory governments stopped well short of treating it as little more than a nuisance. In his day, Brian Mulroney would cancel appearances rather than cross picket lines to deliver a speech.

Scheer’s message is that he wants to do things differently and rebuild some bridges burned by his immediate predecessor.

If the Conservative leader had to pick an organized labour audience liable to be receptive to his overtures, it would be one made up of construction trade unions. This is one venue where the Conservatives’ pro-pipeline position tends to play well.

As with Quebec, Scheer cannot realistically expect to turn union foes into converts overnight. At best, he can hope to reopen some channels of communication.

But if Trudeau’s appeal to the labour movement is to be blunted, Jagmeet Singh will also have to up his game. That did not happen when the latter visited the CBTU convention on Tuesday.

An hour before his Conservative counterpart, the NDP leader delivered a rambling speech whose main point was drowned in a sea of boilerplate statements.

It is hard to connect with an audience when one’s talking points come across as disconnected. On that score, suffice it to say that Singh spoke for more than 20 minutes and was only interrupted with applause once.

Since becoming leader, Singh has not always been a model of clarity in his public communications. Some of his scrums have left journalists interviewing each other to fathom his meaning.

It may be that he still has not completely mastered all the federal files. On Tuesday, he fell somewhat short of converting party policy into effective talking points.

Be that as it may, the NDP leader may not get much of a second chance to make a strong impression on the labour audience he addressed this week. NDP MP Kennedy Stewart is considering a Vancouver mayoral run. If he does switch the municipal arena, his departure would open a federal seat for Singh.

But Stewart’s Burnaby South riding is at ground zero of the opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline, and he has been one of its most vocal critics. If Singh were to run in that riding, it would almost certainly have to be on a platform that would not make him a more sought-after guest of pro-pipeline construction workers’ unions.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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