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Scheer takes campaign full circle, refocuses on Trudeau’s ethical record

HAMILTON — Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer pledged Wednesday to impose massive fines on politicians who break Canada’s ethics laws as he took his campaign message back to its basic proposition: Justin Trudeau has rendered himself unfit to govern.

Accusing Trudeau of ethical lapses has been an attack line for Scheer since long before the campaign began in mid-September, and it — along with Scheer’s promises to address affordability questions — were the one-two punch the Conservatives intended to use to knock the Liberals out of office.

But even as scandals piled up during the election, the polls suggest the two main parties remain deadlocked in national support.

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For the next couple of days, Scheer is seeking to break that logjam in Ontario, campaigning Wednesday in the southwestern part of the province. There, he was in both Liberal and NDP ridings, and he’s taken his attack lines against Trudeau ethics and added a new twist — the spectre of a Liberal/NDP coalition government.

“The NDP fought side by side with Conservatives against Justin Trudeau’s corruption in the SNC Lavalin scandal, but now we see what they’re really made of,” Scheer said at an event in Essex, Ont.

“When they found they had a shot at power by being the junior partner in the coalition Canadians can’t afford, their principles went out the window. We now see they are willing to prop up a corrupt prime minister.”

Scheer changed up his daily routine Wednesday to showcase the momentum his party insists is building behind its leader.

Earlier in the day, he traded making his daily announcement only surrounded by Conservative candidates in favour of standing in front of a hockey rink stand filled with a raucous crowd of supporters, more than happy to boo alongside his denunciations of the Liberals.

The cheers and jeers visibly energized Scheer, though he did call for the crowd to be more civil after they attempted to shout down journalists’ questions.

After an evening rally in Hamilton moved to a larger venue to accommodate the boisterous crowd, Scheer took a dig at a high-profile endorsement received Trudeau — a message of support from former U.S. president Barack Obama.

“I’ve got millions of Canadians endorsing me, coming out to our events, voting for us in advance polls and we’re going to finish strong on Monday, we’re going to win this thing,” he said.

The promise Wednesday to introduce penalties of up to $20,000 for breaking the Conflict of Interest Act builds on a series of announcements already in Scheer’s platform that address one of the perceived weaknesses of federal ethics laws: they come with very little punishment.

Trudeau was found to have violated the Conflict of Interest Act twice in the last four years: first for accepting a free family vacation at the private Bahamian Island of the Aga Khan, and second for trying to influence his former attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to overrule a decision by the public prosecutor not to offer a deal to SNC-Lavalin.

The Quebec engineering giant is accused of fraud and bribery related to some of its overseas operations.

In neither case did the act provide for any sanction against Trudeau beyond the public embarrassment of the findings.

The Act allows for a fine of up to $500, but only if public office holders fail to report conflicts of interest within a specific period of time.

Bill Morneau, Trudeau’s minister of finance, was fined $200 for failing to disclose to the ethics commissioner the existence of a property he owns in France.

Scheer’s plan would make the financial penalty proportional to the severity of the violation, to be applied for conflicts of interest, giving preferential treatment, using insider information or influence, accepting gifts and other violations.

He is also intent on strengthening the restrictions on lobbying, reforming laws for whistleblowers and closing what he says is a “loophole” in the Conflict of Interest Act that allows for a cabinet minister to hold indirect shares in private companies.

Canadians expect accountability when leaders break the law, Scheer said.

“They expect strong democratic institutions that have the power to investigate corrupt politicians to the fullest extent and they expect appropriate punishments for politicians who get caught, and that’s exactly what I will deliver.”

“Lock him up,” came a cry from the crowd.

Earlier Wednesday, Scheer wrapped up what’s likely his final visit to Quebec this election campaign by stopping by a Montreal-area Tim Hortons with one of his star candidates in the province, former Olympic champion Sylvie Frechette.

She attracted her own share of controversy at the start of the campaign. She was among the Quebec candidates who were saying publicly that a Conservative government wouldn’t allow backbench members to bring forward motions or legislation seeking to curtail access to abortion.

While Scheer has said he’d personally oppose the idea, he has not said he’d forbid his members of Parliament from trying.

The confusion saw abortion rights suddenly become a question Scheer could not avoid, as his party, the public and the media sought clarity for days on both the leader’s personal position and how he’d handle it in government.

It would take until after the first French-language debate — which saw Scheer get pummelled by his opponents for obfuscating his position — for Scheer to be clear: he is personally opposed to abortion, but would not back any effort to re-open the debate.

Frechette chalked the whole thing up to a misunderstanding, and said Scheer had always been clear about where he stood.

“For me, it’s just very sad that we wasted so much energy on something that was already covered and was clear,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Oct. 16, 2019.

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press