OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer painted a stark vision of the political battle on the horizon Friday as party faithful gathered in the national capital to plot a course towards a ballot-box victory in 2019.
The choice, Scheer told the Manning Networking Conference in his first major speech to conservatives since becoming leader last May, won't be between left and right.
"It's now a question about being free or unfree," said Scheer, seeking to finally define himself — and redefine his party — as a viable choice for voters 20 months from now.
"The choice is whether Canada will continue as a free and open country, or whether Canadians will live their lives afraid to say what they think, always looking over their shoulders before they dare to suggest that maybe, just maybe, the government is not the solution to every problem."
Scheer pilloried Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for appearing to forget the lessons of history, tossing out a quip about Trudeau's memory perhaps dulled by his admitted past use of marijuana.
The 1990s taught people about the dangers of deficits, yet Trudeau wants to run them, Scheer said.
He alluded to the Liberals' efforts to normalize relations with Iran, saying he thought the lesson of what happens when dictators are appeased had also been learned, as had what happens when free speech is suppressed.
"In the 21st century it is necessary for us as a society to re-fight those fights," Scheer said.
"It adds another dimension to the next election."
But the Tories need to also give Canadians a reason to vote for them, not just against the Liberals, Scheer said.
He offered one: if elected, a Conservative government would pursue a free trade deal with the United Kingdom, something he had also promised to pursue during the leadership race. A deal is already being sought by the governing Liberals.
What other Conservative policies could be on the table was a subject much debated on the first full day of the 10th Manning conference, a conservative confab that once upon a time was the pre-eminent place for those on Canada's right to hash out politics and policy.
But while in previous years conservatives have packed the main ballroom of a downtown Ottawa convention centre, it was not until Scheer's closing remarks on the day that the more than half the room was filled.
Even Caroline Mulroney, daughter of former prime minister Brian Mulroney and a rising star in the party, drew only tepid applause as she took the stage for an interview early Friday in her nascent bid to lead the Ontario Progressive Conservatives.
That campaign, of course, was launched in the wake of a scandal rocking the conservative establishment — allegations of sexual misconduct being levelled at Ontario PC Leader Patrick Brown and his party president, Rick Dykstra.
Both have resigned but deny the allegations, which have not been proven in court nor tested by The Canadian Press.
Several female conservatives said Friday the so-called #MeToo movement must be addressed as part of the party's efforts to broaden its appeal to women.
But the claim of the governing Liberals to being the only feminist party must also be challenged, MP Rachael Harder said during a panel on conservatism and feminism.
The Alberta MP was blocked from being the head of the Commons status of women committee last year by the Liberals and the NDP, who argued that her pro-life views made her an unsuitable candidate.
Trudeau gave his MPs that talking point, Harder said.
"When the prime minister gives that direction that 'Rachael is an inappropriate choice,' then the feminist prime minister of Canada just stated that he gets to dictate what a right kind of woman is, and what a wrong kind of woman is," she said.
"He will tell you whether or not you are an acceptable woman in this country. That is not feminism."
Women are a central piece of the Conservatives' re-election strategy, in the form of so-called "pink-collar labourers" — people who work in traditional female jobs, said Hamish Marshall, the Conservative party's campaign chair for 2019.
Regaining the support from new Canadians the party ceded to the Liberals in the last campaign will be another, he said.
"We have to do a lot more work on the brand."
Stephanie Levitz and Geordon Omand, The Canadian Press