John Ivison: Andrew Scheer pulls off low key India trip devoid of dancing and celebrity chefs


Andrew Scheer’s trip to India is probably worth the cost to the Conservative party, if only because it allows the leader to repeat his joke about Canadians not having to worry: “I don’t dance and I am not bringing a celebrity chef.”

Any investment that conjures up the image of Justin Trudeau, in full sherwani frock coat, dancing to Bhangra beats during his disastrous visit to the subcontinent earlier this year, is money well spent by the official opposition.

Liberal support dropped nearly five percentage points in the wake of the trip in February, as voters wavered on whether Trudeau was a serious leader.

Those doubts apparently extended to India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, who didn’t meet Trudeau until the sixth day of his visit, amid criticism that the Canadian prime minister is too soft on Sikh extremists. Scheer met Modi on Tuesday in New Delhi, after the Conservative leader arrived on the weekend.

Notably, Scheer was dressed in sensible brogues, dark patterned socks and a conservative navy blue suit.

Modi recounted how the Canada-India relationship had been elevated to a strategic partnership during his visit to Ottawa in 2015, when Stephen Harper was still prime minister.

Scheer said he was visiting to “repair the damage” caused by Trudeau’s sojourn. Speaking from India, he said he had received a warm reception from Modi. He said he had adopted “a very serious tone” in a “serious effort” to improve relations and enhance trade. Canadian prime ministers have been saying that for over a decade, with the real purpose of ingratiating themselves with 1.6 million Indo-Canadian voters.

The trading relationship of $8 billion in two-way trade barely cracks the Top 10.

Modi’s pledge in 2015 to come up with a road map for a free trade agreement within six months of his visit remains a pipe dream, frustrated by India’s desire for labour mobility for its millions of cost-competitive white-collar workers.

Canada is well-positioned to expand its market share in finance, infrastructure and education but the real game changer would be energy pipelines that could open up the Indian market for Canadian producers. Proponents of the Energy East pipeline noted that the port of Saint John, N.B., offers a shorter shipping route to India than the British Columbia coast. Scheer has committed to rejuvenating that project.

He said his support for new pipelines was well-received by his host. “It’s a priority of mine to address that issue domestically. We hope to provide India with the energy it needs,” he said.

Scheer is open about his desire to develop Canada’s natural resources, with its inevitable spike in greenhouse gas emissions.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family in Ahmedabad, India on Feb. 19, 2018.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/File

Yet in the week when the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report saying Canada would have to cut its emissions in half over the next 12 years to avoid catastrophic results, Scheer is less clear about what a future Conservative government would do on the environment.

“I believe Canada should play a meaningful role in reducing global emissions,” he said. But he no longer says he will commit to the Paris Agreement targets of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. “I commit to having a plan,” he said.

During Scheer’s absence overseas, the domestic news agenda has been dominated by Harper’s new book and its blue-print for conservative populism.

Scheer said he hasn’t read the book but accepts the premise that left-liberalism is disconnected from the day-to-day challenges facing Canadians who are anxious about making it to the end of the month.

Harper said his government had been populist. Scheer was not prepared to go that far. “I’m worried less about labels and more about policies that will work.”

But he echoed Harper’s contention that it is important to be pragmatic, and not to be “just blinded by ideology” about the costs rapid change imposes on people.

If this is populism, it is a particularly Canadian variety: polite, cautious, with its shirt tucked into its underwear.

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