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Scheer on the Ford factor, cutting spending and why the Conservatives aren’t pitching national pharmacare

There’s a politician who’s not on the ballot — or even campaigning with his fellow Tories — but his name has come up regularly during the federal election campaign: Doug Ford

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has frequently warned that his chief opponent, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, would bring the Ontario premier’s cuts to Ottawa.

READ MORE: Here’s how often Trudeau has called out Harper, Ford instead of Scheer

Scheer says, however, that Conservative candidates aren’t hearing about Ford on the doorsteps of Ontario voters.

“They’re hearing about affordability, they’re hearing about the SNC-Lavalin scandal, they’re hearing about the crime in their communities,” he told West Block host Mercedes Stephenson.

Leaders’ Debate: Bernier takes exception to Trudeau suggesting he is polarizing voters
Leaders’ Debate: Bernier takes exception to Trudeau suggesting he is polarizing voters

“That’s what they’re focused on. That’s what we’re hearing at the doors. Questions about which other politicians are campaigning with federal leaders have never come up at the doors.”

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Ford brought the Ontario Progressive Conservatives to a majority government in 2018, but his popularity rating has fallen dramatically since, polling shows.

The Liberals appear hopeful some of that anti-Ford sentiment will rub off on Scheer.

READ MORE: Alberta premier hits campaign trail for Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer

If it does, it could be costly.

Ontario, and particularly the heavily populated suburban belt around Toronto known as The 905, is a key battleground for each of the parties as they look to win seats on Oct. 21. There are 121 federal ridings in Ontario, the most by far of any province or territory. (The runner up, Quebec, has 78).

An extended interview with Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer
An extended interview with Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer

Scheer has visited the province throughout the campaign, including appearances with Alberta’s United Conservative Party Premier Jason Kenney, another target of Trudeau on campaign trail.

He has even appeared in the heart of Ford Nation — the west Toronto neighbourhood of Etobicoke — without accompaniment from the premier.

READ MORE: Doug Ford factor looms large in election as Liberals seize on premier’s tanking popularity

Asked why Ford hasn’t made appearances, Scheer said Ford decided he was going to stay focused on Ontario politics.

“He’s got a big mess to clean up. After so many years of (former Liberal premiers) Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne raising taxes, running deficits, being mired in scandals, he’s got a lot of work on his plate,” Scheer said.

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(For his part, Ford has also said he’s “busy governing”).

READ MORE: Ontario cabinet ministers deny Premier Ford is laying low until after federal election

Scheer’s Conservatives are proposing to run a deficit of $23 billion next year if elected. They promise a return to balance in five years with a surplus of $667 million.

Their platform, released Friday, features an array of new spending and tax relief measures that amount to a combined $49 billion over five years.

The party also wants to find an additional $6.5 billion in the first year through cuts and new revenue measures, which would ramp up to $20 billion in the final year of the plan.

Conservative election platform will mean longer waits for municipalities seeking federal funds
Conservative election platform will mean longer waits for municipalities seeking federal funds

Despite what constitutes tens of billions of dollars worth of cuts over the course of the five-year platform, Scheer denied that he would be running an austerity government.

“It’s all about choices. It’s the priorities,” he said.

“What we’re saying is we’re going to take $1.5 billion out of the corporate welfare envelope. Right now, there are billions of dollars sent to highly profitable companies or companies that take the taxpayers dollars that they receive and actually invest it overseas.

“We’re going to reduce the foreign aid budget by 25 per cent. We also are going to look at how the government operates in and of itself, not programs and services, but how it spends money within departments.”

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READ MORE: Conservative platform projects $23B deficit in 2020-2021, return to surplus in 5 years

The Tories are also promising to spread the $187-billion Liberal infrastructure plan over 15 years instead of 12. Scheer dismissed the idea that a Conservative government wouldn’t be there to help cities in need of things like sewers or transit funds.

“Right now, the Liberals don’t have an infrastructure plan to actually get the money … into shovels in the ground. What we’re saying is that we’re going to spend the exact same amount of money over a slightly longer period of time in order for that plan to work.”

READ MORE: What you need to know about pharmacare this election

Unlike the Liberals, NDP and Greens, the Conservatives have not committed to a national pharmacare plan, an endeavour that would cost $15 billion a year, according to a government advisory panel.

Scheer said it’s because up to 95 per cent of Canadians are already eligible for prescription drug coverage — either through their employers or existing provincial plans. That stat is backed up by a 2017 Conference Board of Canada report.

READ MORE: 4 takeaways from the Conservative election platform

A Conservative government, Scheer said, would instead address gaps in the coverage, beginning with Canadians who have rare diseases and often face high drug costs.

“We’re going to start with that, and then we’re going to prudently work with the provinces to fill in those gaps,” he said.

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–With files from the Canadian Press and Andrew Russell, Global News