Published On: Thu, Nov 29th, 2018

On GM plant closure, Andrew Scheer has become Doug Ford’s Mini-Me

No doubt about it, General Motors’ plan to close its auto plant in Oshawa is a jolt to Ontario’s economy. A perfect opportunity, you’d think, for an aspiring political leader to step up with fresh ideas on how to respond to the impending loss of some 2,500 good manufacturing jobs.

In the case of Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, however, what Canadians have seen this week is a remarkable example of incoherence, confusion and backward thinking.

Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer addresses the Ontario PC Convention in Toronto.
Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer addresses the Ontario PC Convention in Toronto.  (Chris Young / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The GM decision raises a host of questions. Can the plant, or other auto jobs, be saved? What should be done to support the workers? And most important, what’s the best way for governments to deal with the ongoing transition from the traditional manufacturing-based economy to the new world of technology-driven change?

Less than a year before a general election, voters want to know who they can trust to meet those challenges. From Scheer, the most obvious alternative to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, they’ve heard practically nothing but a stream of complaints about the federal carbon tax. “It’s going to make it more expensive to make things in Canada,” he keeps repeating.

Among the many problems with this simplistic assertion is that there is zero evidence that carbon taxes had anything at all to do with GM’s decision.

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The Oshawa plant, let’s remember, is just one of five North American plants on the chopping block. The other four are in places like Lordstown, Ohio, Detroit, Michigan, and Baltimore, Maryland, and the last time we looked none of those states had a carbon tax.

Challenged on this obvious point, Scheer retreated quickly, admitting that “there’s a lot of factors” in what GM is doing and he didn’t mean to suggest there’s “one particular thing” that would change the situation. But in fact he harped all week on “one particular thing” — namely the carbon tax — that by all accounts did not enter at all into corporate thinking.

GM’s CEO, Mary Barra, has laid out the company’s thinking in some detail. It has to do with declining demand for smaller cars and sedans and a desire to concentrate production on better-selling vehicles in a smaller number of plants. Plus a longer-term shift toward higher-tech, greener and self-driving cars. She’s calling on the U.S. government to develop a national zero-emission vehicle strategy.

A lot of the corporate rationalization can and should be challenged. GM has already started investing in advanced auto technology in Ontario, and surely there are ways to build on that if the company truly wants to move quickly into the future. Our governments should be working hard to make sure Ontario gets at least its fair share of the investment and jobs that will come with that.

A potential prime minister would surely want to demonstrate that he has thought about these issues and has something serious to offer. Instead, Scheer seems content to bleat on about carbon taxes and leave it at that.

Worse, he and his party have no climate plan of their own. Scheer has promised for months that he will come up with a plan that will allow Canada to meet its greenhouse gas targets under the Paris Agreement on climate change. And he has in fact criticized the Trudeau government’s plan for falling short. Yet he has nothing of his own to offer.

In all this, Scheer risks becoming a pale echo of his Ontario counterpart, Premier Doug Ford, who at least has a forceful personality to amplify his absence of sound policy thinking.

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No wonder that, according to some reports, federal Conservatives are grumbling in the background, worried that their leader has failed to establish himself as a decisive alternative to Trudeau. Instead he has turned into Ford’s Mini-Me.

Scheer will have to do a whole lot better, and soon, if his party wants to earn the confidence of voters next year.

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TORONTO STAR

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On GM plant closure, Andrew Scheer has become Doug Ford’s Mini-Me