Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/5/2017 (844 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It’s hard to know who was more disappointed with the upset result in last weekend’s Conservative Party of Canada leadership vote: Maxime Bernier, the front-runner going into the weekend who stumbled at the finish line, or the Liberal government in Ottawa.
Bernier raised the most money of any candidate and seemed unstoppable going into the leadership convention last Saturday. He held the lead over the first 12 ballots.
However, once an overly complicated and elongated vote-counting process was completed, Saskatchewan MP Andrew Scheer triumphed on the baker’s dozen ballot. Bernier was gracious in defeat, but the crushing disappointment of the final result was plain to see.
That disappointment might have been matched by the mood in the Liberal party. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his team had to be crossing all their fingers and toes that Bernier would capture the Conservative helm. Bernier’s Libertarian rhetoric, robustly embraced by some of the more absurd and dangerous elements on the far right of the political spectrum, made him the perfect foil for Trudeau and the Liberals.
Throughout the leadership campaign, Bernier offered Conservative party members an odd mix of free-market economics and awkward social and environmental policies. He was committed to slowing immigration and severely curtailing the flow of government-sponsored refugees. He also expressed alarming concerns about the accuracy of climate change science, urging scientists to stop "politicizing" environmental policy.
That is the kind of raw political material the Liberals could have exploited in the lead up to the 2019 federal election.
However, Bernier did not win. Instead, the Conservatives elected Scheer, a leader who will not be as easily assailed or typecast by the Grits.
Scheer is a modestly bilingual MP from Saskatchewan who is, remarkably, only 38 years old, seven years younger than Trudeau. After spending so much time in the 2015 election assailing Trudeau for being too young and "not ready" to govern, electing an even-younger leader must be some sort of political karma.
In terms of policy, Scheer is often referred to as Stephen Harper-lite — a fiscal conservative who would rather focus on balancing the budget, lowering taxes and reducing the overall footprint of government than on debating abortion or same-sex marriage. In fact, Scheer has said he will not revisit either of these, the two most compelling issues for social conservatives.
Notwithstanding those policy stands, Tory social conservatives rallied behind Scheer on the weekend after the more vocal so-con candidates — Brad Trost and Pierre Lemieux — were eliminated.
Although that support may have been the difference, it also comes at a cost. Both Trost and Lemieux warned Scheer not to forget social conservatives when he begins to rebuild the party’s brand in the lead up to the next election. "If he’s wise he will (pursue issues important to social conservatives)," Trost told The Hill Times. "If he doesn’t, well, they can stay home, they can vote for minor parties. There are a lot of things that can be done."
Those comments serve as a sobering reminder for Scheer his principal goal — uniting the various contentious constituencies within the party — will be hard to achieve.
The Tories were left disoriented and fractured in the wake of the 2015 federal election after Harper, desperate to slow the Trudeau juggernaut, made a hard turn to the right. Harper forced issues such as the niqab and "barbaric cultural practices" into the campaign to mobilize the social conservative base of the party. The Tories also launched an unrelenting personal attack on Trudeau, making fun of his appearance, his lack of experience and relatively tender age.
When all the votes were counted, however, the strategy had backfired in spectacular fashion. Instead of slowing the Liberal campaign, Harper’s blunt and sloppy strategy only amplified Trudeau’s attempt to represent himself as a kinder, gentler and more optimistic leader. And in an election where the Tories needed to suppress voter turnout, their attacks on Trudeau drove a surge that carried the Liberals to a majority.
Over the past two years, the Tories have been involved in a non-stop debate over the consequences of Harper’s election strategy. Many within the party, including interim leader Rona Ambrose and former MPs such as Peter MacKay, claimed those hardline policies had driven voters to the Liberal brand. Others, including some of the more controversial leadership contenders such as Kellie Leitch, felt Harper’s mistake was not going far enough to the right.
Scheer has not ventured near any of the most contentious issues, and as such, has much less baggage. However, he still has some steep hills to climb as he searches for a new identity for his party.
Case in point: Scheer’s most popular policy has been his steadfast commitment to kill Trudeau’s national carbon tax. If there is one thing most Tories agree on, it is the fact that the carbon tax is the single worst policy to come out of Ottawa since the National Energy Program.
However, in his opposition to this policy, Scheer is steering his party against the current of public opinion. More than three quarters of Canadians already live in provinces with some form of carbon pricing, and none has experienced the economic apocalypse predicted by federal Conservatives. Rolling back carbon pricing may play well to the base, but it’s unlikely to have broad appeal come election time.
Scheer is young, articulate and seems to have the retail skills to compete head to head with Trudeau. He is also widely liked and respected by his colleagues in the federal caucus, support that will be extremely important.
Still, it is not clear Scheer has the capacity to heal the divisions within his party and create a true national conservative coalition. His party is still a mash-up of Prairie populists, hardline social conservatives, resilient but diminished Ontario and Atlantic progressive conservatives and freelance Quebec nationalists.
Previous Tory leaders have had some success whipping those often-competing constituencies into a unified force, but could not make it last. Eventually, their differences always overwhelmed the tenuous common purpose that brought them together in the first place.
Can Scheer build a new and lasting conservative coalition to challenge the Liberals? It’s far too early to tell, but one thing is certain. Given the two candidates left on the final leadership ballot, Conservative party members clearly made the best choice.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.