The Scheer Strength: Relatability

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September 12, 2019

The Scheer Strength: Relatability

Andrew Scheer flipping pancakes at the Cenovus Energy Stampede breakfast in Calgary in July 2019. Just an ordinary guy. Flickr photo

Written by Yaroslav Baran for Policy Magazine. Click here to read the original.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer heads into this election without the baggage of his predecessor, Stephen Harper. As longtime Conservative strategist Yaroslav Baran points out, he’s not likely to win a charisma contest against Justin Trudeau but he can claim the mantle of Canada’s soccer dad at a time when context could make it an exploitable advantage.

Parties don’t win elections—governments lose elections. The assumption in Canada’s political culture is that change does not come about from some grand new vision that captures the public imagination, but from a collective sense—sometimes sooner and sometimes later—that it’s time to “throw the bums out.” 

Yes, there are things Opposition parties can do to hasten a government’s demise: good “opposition research” or “oppo”, clever issue positioning, or skillful illumination of the incumbent’s flaws of competence or ethics. 

When that happens, the logical alternative gets a turn. Historically and with few exceptions, it has been the Liberals and Conservatives alternating occupancy of the roles of prime minister and leader of the Opposition. This pattern—and current polls—suggest the prime ministership is Andrew Scheer’s for the taking, sooner or later. The chief threat for Opposition leaders, whoever they may be, is that their own party members grow impatient with their leader more quickly than the public grows weary with the incumbent. Meanwhile, they don’t have to do much other than remain inoffensive, waiting in the wings, ready to take over when it’s their turn. 

So what does Andrew Scheer need to do? What is the key to capitalizing on current polls, which suggest the public is almost as tired of Justin Trudeau after four years as it was of Stephen Harper after nine? A number of regional dynamics in vote-rich areas present opportunities, but also some delicate challenges, for Scheer. Atlantic Canada, British Columbia, Quebec, and Ontario all have many seats up for grabs if we believe the latest polling. 

In Newfoundland, the government’s unfriendliness to oil and gas—the sector that turned the province’s economy around—should be a Liberal liability. A gentle, friendly, non-confrontational nudge should be all that’s required to tilt the vote blue. In the Maritimes and in Labrador, the biggest challenge for Scheer is to demonstrate that he understands the East—that he isn’t a continuation of the Reform Party genes that evaluate Canada through a Prairie-centric lens. For an Ottawa native representing a Saskatchewan riding, that will mean strong candidates, household name candidates, frequent visits, and a demonstrated understanding of the vernacular of regional issues: cod, crab, quota, shipbuilding, tourism, energy, and a grasp of the principle of reciprocation: you have my back, I’ll have yours. 

British Columbia has often been unpredictable electorally, but its volatility can be harnessed to a challenger’s advantage. The ongoing saga of the Trans Mountain pipeline, if played right by all Opposition parties, should have a centrifugal effect on the electorate. For pipeline opponents, the script is that the Liberals are false environmentalists—they talk a good game, but then go and cut deals to build pipelines. For pipeline supporters, the script is just as simple: they promised a pipeline, and there’s no pipeline. 

It doesn’t have to be a brash, Alberta-first message; it just takes an unapologetic—yet respectful—message that an Andrew Scheer government believes in diversity when it comes to our energy sector. Yes, we will invest in renewables R&D. And, yes—we will also get Canada’s fossil fuels to market. Because nation-building shouldn’t be about winners and losers—it’s about mutual accommodation, forward thinking, wise investments, and respect. 

Quebec is an equally challenging arena, with more parties and greater political complexity, but Scheer is on the right path. His embrace of Big Milk is a good start, inoculating against a neo-conservative libertarian straw man as a threat to supply management. Other issues will be more challenging: the asylum seeker question is a balance beam, with political peril on each side. Many Quebecers are rightly displeased with the ongoing exploitation of a loophole that has upended our asylum system. Compassion coupled with orderly queues and due process is a legitimate position. In fact, it is politically unassailable. But if tempered with charged language or anything that smacks of distrusting foreigners, the Conservatives risk losing three votes in Ontario or B.C. for each voter they appease in Quebec. Scheer did an excellent job in articulating his Immigration policy through his five-part spring speech series. All the balances were struck. He needs to keep this balance—not only he, but all his candidates. 

Current poling suggests the Conservatives have up to 20 seats open to them in Quebec. There is no reason they cannot and should not do even better. Scheer cannot turn himself into a Quebecer; and he is running against one. But the key to winning Quebec is remaining true to himself and not overthinking his strategy. In almost all regions outside downtown Montreal, Quebecers tend to be small-c conservatives in their values and outlook. Scheer embodies these values in a moderate and reasonable way. As they get to know him, a great many Quebeckers will see their own reflection in him. That means exposure. Lots of it. And just being himself. 

Ontario offers a similar challenge and opportunity. Again, Scheer needs only to be himself—the normal, “guy next door” soccer dad. The biggest liability in Ontario is Premier Doug Ford. The premier has demonstrated that Ontario—even inner-Toronto—is accessible to the Tory brand, yet his polling is currently abysmal. The good news in this for Scheer is that the two men couldn’t be more different. Ford is known for his brash style, impulsive decision-making, and oversimplification of public policy. Scheer, in contrast, is more reserved, thoughtful, and about as non-bombastic as they come, criticized often from within for being “too boring”. Bring it. That is precisely what Ontarian voters are in the mood for.

This brings us to the principal threat Scheer faces: weathering an aggressive smear campaign designed to demonize him while his name recognition is still relatively low with the public. The themes are entirely predictable: xenophobia, Islamophobia, abortion, and climate change. The Liberal campaign will throw tremendous energy and advertising behind this effort. In fact, it has already started.

An unfortunate fact for Scheer is that he bears the legacy of damage that others before him did to the Conservative brand. This includes miscues and inept policy proposals from the 2015 Conservative campaign, such as the barbaric cultural practices snitch line that widely flopped as a veiled Islamophobic dog whistle. It also includes the legacy of the recent Tory leadership race, which resurfaced (albeit by Scheer’s opponents) issues such as abortion and a Canadian values test. The sooner Scheer recognizes that this baggage is real, that he did not inherit the party throne with a clean slate, the better for his 2019 prospects.

Real politics now demands that he overcorrect for these transgressions of others. In a recent speech, he signaled that he will have no tolerance for anyone running
under his banner exhibiting intolerant views. He said he would show them the door. He will have to. In fact, he may have to expel several candidates over future eruptions to demonstrate he is serious. Is it fair Scheer should be held to a higher bar? Maybe, maybe not. It doesn’t matter. A failure to recognize reality could be politically deadly.

The Conservative machine will also have to develop a sharper instinct for tone in sensitive circumstances. Scheer was criticized for having failed to mention Islamophobia following the Christchurch mass murder in New Zealand. His tweet was, in fact, almost identical to Governor General Julie Payette’s, which also fell short of using the term. She, however, does not have to bear the legacy of Kellie Leitch, the 2015 Tory campaign, and other contributors to the Conservative Party’s reputation on tolerance. Andrew Scheer does. And his team needs to understand this.

Conservative parties have rightly recognized a need to offer hope to communities, neighbourhoods and demographics left behind by a relocation of manufacturing or decline in resource development. Think Hamilton, Welland, Windsor, New Glasgow….  And often, such communities feel talked down to by well-meaning but disconnected Liberal elites. This is a political opportunity, but the challenge is to offer blueprints for economic and social revival, but to do so “credibly”, and without oversimplification, anti-intellectualism or tonal anti-elitism, and without resorting to disingenuous promises, protectionism or environmental regressiveness that risk discrediting the party with other voters.

Then there is climate change. Carbon pricing will be a dominant election theme, with both the Liberals and Conservatives using it as a wedge. The Liberal script is already on display: an equation of their carbon tax with caring about climate change. And it’s clever positioning. The Conservatives’ response must be equally clever. They know that Canadians hate taxes—hence the anti-carbon tax message. The Conservatives must also, however, convince Canadians they care about climate change and are committed to fighting it. The winning message is an evolution of the one the Conservatives have already started: “There are two ways to address climate change. The Liberals have chosen a carbon tax that penalizes consumers—people like Sally who buys groceries and drives her kids to soccer and piano. That’s a legitimate approach, and that’s the Liberals’ choice. We believe in the approach taken by people like Barack Obama and Stephen Harper—regulating emission caps on the actual emitters. We believe in going after the actual polluters.” 

Scheer was elected speaker of the House of Commons by his peers. He was trusted by members of all political parties to preside over parliamentary proceedings with fairness and respect. These character traits are key to his personality, as attested by those who have known him a long time. He will not win a charisma war with Justin Trudeau. He also doesn’t have to. His folksy and shy relatability could allow him to judo Trudeau’s charisma and international star power against him: You go be the sexy playboy, jet-setting with celebrities. That’s fine. I’ll be the barbecue dad next door, cargo jeans and hamburger flipper to boot. And let’s have a discussion for 36 days about who gets the middle class—and those working hard to join it.