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Politics Scheer vows free speech, but questions on social-conservative issues remain

Andrew Scheer speaks after being elected the new leader of the federal Conservative party in Toronto on May 27, 2017.

Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Andrew Scheer is starting his term as leader of the federal Conservatives by promising to fight for free speech, both inside Parliament and out, and by trying to present his party as more in touch with ordinary Canadians than the Liberals under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

But questions remain about how much Mr. Scheer owes to the socially conservative faction of his caucus that helped to elect him. Although he has promised not to reopen "divisive" issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, anti-abortion groups have praised his victory and at least one Conservative MP who opposes abortion says he is looking forward to seeing how Mr. Scheer works with the people who share his views.

"Most of my supporters voted for him so I am quite happy with everything and we will go forward together," Brad Trost, a Saskatchewan MP who placed fourth in the leadership race, told reporters after Mr. Scheer addressed the Conservative caucus on Monday morning.

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The fact that "most social Conservatives voted for him on the final ballot is proof that they trust Andrew, and he has my full support," said Mr. Trost, who said he would not personally introduce a private-member's bill to limit access to abortion in the current session of Parliament, but he did not know what other members of the anti-abortion caucus intended.

On Monday, the anti-abortion group We Need a Law issued a statement congratulating Mr. Scheer on his leadership and praising his "commitment to consistent values" and "his solid voting record" on socially conservative matters, including abortion.

The Liberals, meanwhile, wasted no time after Mr. Scheer's victory on Saturday to label him a product of the far-right wing of the Conservative party.

For his part, Mr. Scheer steered well clear of any mention of abortion or other socially conservative topics when he spoke to his caucus for the first time as leader. In an address that echoed much of what he said in the minutes after he claimed victory, he promised that, if the Conservatives win the 2019 federal election, he would balance the budget, rescind Liberal carbon-tax policies and recommit Canada's military jets to the fight against the Islamic State.

He also committed himself to the cause of free speech, restating his policy to remove federal funding from universities and colleges that don't allow a range of views on on campus, and accusing the Liberals of trying to stop MPs from debating bills in the House of Commons.

But Mr. Scheer is signalling that, in some ways, he is willing to diverge from the leadership style of Mr. Harper, even if he promotes a similar policy agenda.

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Under Mr. Scheer's predecessor, former prime minister Stephen Harper, debates in the Commons were often curtailed. In the 41st Parliament, the Conservative government unilaterally used time allocation to shut down debates 91 times on 56 of 160 bills. So far, in the 42nd Parliament, the Liberal government has unilaterally used time allocation 14 times on 9 of 49 government bills.

Mr. Scheer also said his party would not be the party of the elites.

"The Liberals can take their cues from the cocktail circuit," he told Conservatives, "we will take ours from the minivans, from the soccer fields, the legion halls and the grocery stores."

The mood in the caucus room was jubilant and supportive. As Mr. Scheer was introduced, the song Walking on Sunshine by Katrina and the Waves played in the background. There was much backslapping and hugging of the defeated candidates. And MPs rose repeatedly throughout the new leader's speech to applaud and demonstrate unity.

Outside the caucus room, Conservative MPs said they are not afraid that the Liberals and the NDP will be successful in creating a spectre of a hidden socially conservative agenda to frighten mainstream voters.

"Our party has always had a diversity of views on these things provided they are discussed in a respectful way, and that's what I think Andrew wants to ensure happens," said Ontario MP Erin O'Toole, who placed third in the leadership race. "Parliament is for debate. It's not for stifling it. So we shouldn't be afraid of these issues coming up and I think Andrew has said he wants to lead by building consensus first."

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