Andrew Scheer, the head of Canada’s Conservative Party, is a nice man, a bright man, and by any objective standard, a man capable of running the country.
However, Scheer has 14 months to make the case that he would not merely make a decent prime minister, but a better one than Justin Trudeau. Only by doing so can he convince voters to make the relatively unprecedented move of unseating an incumbent Canadian majority government after a single term.
Scheer, who was born in Ottawa but spent a few formative years in Saskatchewan, was elected to the House of Commons in 2004, at age 25. He was made deputy speaker four years later, before being elected Canada’s youngest-ever speaker in 2011.
This basic sketch provides context for understanding Scheer’s political temperament. His job was to be the legislature’s apolitical moderator during Stephen Harper’s polarizing tenure as prime minister. Scheer emerged as a gentle pragmatist sensitive to Ottawa’s norms, and as disinterested in the aggression of more traditional partisans. Polls reveal around 30 percent of Canadians have no real opinion of Scheer — and it’s not a stretch to believe much of the other 70 percent is lying.
When Scheer was narrowly elected as Tory leader in 2017, beating wilder rivals, it was declared a victory for continuity with the norms of Harper. Yet Scheer’s leadership often feels more in line with Rona Ambrose, the acting party leader who filled the 18 months between Harper’s defeat and Scheer’s ascension. Like Ambrose, Scheer seems content to let Trudeau remain the star of Canadian politics — so long as he’s also the villain.
The logic is that Trudeau is such an obnoxious, smothering presence, prone to scandal, gaffe and incompetence, that the sanest strategy is to simply get out of his way. Conceding the truism that all leadership changes are mini-revolutions against the style of their predecessor, Scheer’s considered calm can be sold as backlash against Trudeau’s overbearing celebrity.
If this thesis is true, Conservatives have much to risk in presenting themselves as anything edgier than a reasonable alternative waiting in the wings.
Whatever Scheer’s private revulsion at Trudeau’s performance as the global poster boy of identity politics, the Conservative leader has avoided using it as the pretext for a voter revolt. Sometimes he’s run hard in the opposite direction.
In January, Scheer expelled from the caucus Sen. Lynn Beyak, whose desire to air “the other side” of Indian residential schools surely caused little bother to his base. He’s pointedly marginalized three of his party’s most outspoken populists, Kellie Leitch, Brad Trost and Maxime Bernier. More recently, Scheer abruptly pulled a short-lived ad about illegal immigration.
Amid the immigration debate, Scheer has been careful to frame the party’s position, striking a balance between disappointment and outrage, emphasizing that bad border management hurts refugees and undermines Canada’s “compassionate and fair” system of legal immigration.
Whatever this is, it’s no crusade against political correctness.
Scheer’s Conservatives are more willing to challenge Trudeau on tax policy — particularly carbon taxes — reflecting the standard Tory retreat to the perceived safety of “pocketbook” issues over anything sociocultural. On trade, however, there’s little margin — like Trudeau, Scheer has expressed deep loyalty to Canada’s dairy cartel even as it continues to encumber NAFTA negotiations.
An alternative approach for Conservatives would be positioning a candidate like Donald Trump or Doug Ford. Perhaps Bernier, the dissident member of parliament waging a social-media blitz to portray himself as the anti-Scheer by taking aim at progressive bromides like “diversity is our strength” or “check your privilege.”
While picking culture-war fights could turn Scheer into a right-wing folk hero, many fear the risk of alienating a critical mass of less-ideological swing voters in the process. The sort of cautious, middle-class suburbanites broadly upset with Trudeau, but anxious about supporting anything capable of being portrayed as bigoted, nasty or (perhaps worst of all) American.
But a “safe” strategy also has its risks. An abundance of caution might make the Tories less offensive to middle-class suburbanites, but that presumes middle-class suburbanites are the most ideal voters for the Tories to be targeting, as opposed to trying to make inroads in the Maritimes or parts of rural Canada that presently vote left. It takes for granted that the Conservative base will never be disillusioned into nonvoting apathy, and that mild-mannered swing voters will punish any politician who offends them by breaking this-or-that sacred taboo.
On this last point, Trudeau’s come-from-behind victory in 2015 presents some contrary evidence. The prime minister was elected on a platform of deficit spending and immigration hikes that was never terribly popular, yet the passion and confidence with which he pushed it helped make him a compelling alternative to an unloved status quo. Gains were made in some unexpected terrain, and the Canadian left obtained a broad mandate.
Today, of course, there’s plenty of buyers’ remorse. A recent Ipsos poll found that on a host of metrics, from the environment to “the affordability of your day to day life,” large majorities feel Trudeau has either effected no improvement or made things worse.
It will not reflect well on Canadians if they vote to reelect a man they claim to find so deeply unsatisfactory. And it will reflect no better on a Conservative Party that could not close the deal.