A New Old Hope

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(Image Credit: Chris Wattie/Reuters)

On Saturday, federal Conservatives elected a new leader: Andrew Scheer, the MP representing Regina-Qu’Apelle. The victory was a stunning turn in a race that had been dominated from the beginning by Maxime Bernier, who, after the withdrawal of Kevin O’Leary, was considered the heavy favourite going into this weekend’s convention.

But Bernier, who received just under a third of first-choice votes under the new ranked ballot system, saw his lead erode in the critical final ballots, as Scheer gained ground. Scheer ended with just 51% of the vote, barely enough to clinch the leadership.

After a dramatic convention, the Conservatives will immediately be turning to the issue of preparing for the 2019 election, in which they hope to unseat Prime Minister Trudeau’s Liberals. Scheer’s first task will be to pick a deputy leader, as well as a shadow cabinet, and this process will give us some clue as to what direction Scheer intends to take the Conservatives and how he intends to consolidate the party behind him.

It’s unclear how difficult that process will be. Social conservatives featured prominently in the convention, with Brad Trost in particular outperforming expectations. Michael Chong, meanwhile, also did somewhat better than expected, surviving into the top five candidates before his elimination. These two opposite wings of the party will need to be reconciled if Scheer hopes to challenge Trudeau in two years.

But like past elections, 2019 will almost certainly come down to the leaders themselves, and so it’s worth looking back to see what the pasts of these two leaders can tell us about their upcoming battle.

Comparing Trudeau and Scheer reveals a strange mix of some similarities and many intense differences. Beginning with their respective roads to party leadership, the two politicians could not be further apart. Scheer is a lifelong politician who was first elected as MP in 2004 (at the age of 25) and he served as the youngest ever Speaker of the House from 2011-2015. He has spent his entire working life in conservative politics, first in the Canadian Alliance and then the modern Conservative party.

That’s a real point of differentiation from Trudeau. Though of course born into a political family, he only became an MP in 2008, and was re-elected in 2011 before winning the Liberal leadership in 2013. Prior to the mid-2000s, Trudeau had not been especially active in the Liberal organization. Where Trudeau relied on a dynamism and a celebrity-quality to win his leadership, Scheer’s long career with the Conservatives was instrumental in winning his own race, with his strong caucus support and good relations with the base likely giving him the edge as many voters’ second, third, or fourth choice.

The personal circumstances of the leaders during their races also could not be more different. At 41, Trudeau was considered young for leadership and that added to his image as an unserious, celebrity candidate. But at 38, Scheer is actually seven years younger than Trudeau, and this has not been a major feature of his campaign. Moreover, Trudeau rose to power after a decade of Conservative government in Canada, and was all-but-crowned leader after a landslide win (79% of the vote) on the first ballot in 2013. Scheer, meanwhile, has spent most of his political life in government, with only two years spent in opposition since 2017. Most importantly, during the convention he trailed Bernier on every single ballot until the last, the 13th ballot, after which he finally eked out a victory.

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As the Conservative convention unfolded, Trudeau met with G7 leaders in Sicily. (Credit: CP)

But the most important comparison between the two men lies in their images as leaders and their visions for the country coming out of their leadership conventions. After successive electoral failures in 2008 and 2011 that saw their party reduced to its lowest point in decades under the old guard, intellectual leadership of first Stéphane Dion and then Michael Ignatieff, the Liberals fundamentally reworked their image. Trudeau represented a shift towards a new youthful dynamism, a reimagining of a diverse, innovative Canada, and an end to the elitist, backroom-ruled Liberal party that Canadians had grown tired of. Trudeau created a new Liberal party that reasserted Canada’s role as a progressive, moderate, honest broker — in theory at least.

After their loss in 2015, meanwhile, Conservatives seem to have united under the consensus that what went wrong was not their policies, but simply the way they were sold to the Canadian public. After experimenting with the dark arts of division and xenophobia under Harper, the party seems committed to a public relations exorcism, while the underlying policy structure remains. Scheer has gleefully embraced his image as “Stephen Harper with a smile,” a phrase that captures well the new modus operandi of the Conservative party: do everything the same, just nicer.

But will doubling down on the Harper agenda succeed under new management? As mentioned above, Scheer will have to work hard to bring together a party that has very different views on some very important issues. How will he reconcile the image of a kinder, gentler Conservative party with an increasingly vocal social conservative wing that is fighting for “faith-based values” (read: anti-abortion)? The party itself is bitterly divided over these issues: over the weekend, Michelle Rempel, another Conservative MP, spent much of her time on the CBC panel attacking Pierre Lemieux and Brad Trost for their pro-life views.

Will the libertarian supporters of Bernier, meanwhile, be able to influence the Conservatives to engage with issues like supply management and a reformed federal health care commitment? And what about the challenges to Conservative environmental policy presented by Red Tories like Michael Chong? My instinct is that it will be extremely difficult for Scheer to simultaneously put forward a more positive image of the party and take the views of some factions, particularly the social conservatives, seriously.

In all these questions, it is Scheer’s leadership style, rather than his own rather conventional views that will be most decisive. Stephen Harper was notorious for his centralization of decision-making and the silencing of backbenchers during his leadership tenure. His iron-fisted rule kept controversial subjects like abortion out of the Conservative agenda despite the agitation of some MPs who are now agitating for change.

Silencing that kind of dissent is much easier for an established leader who is currently in office, with a mandate from the voters. For Scheer, a new leader who just barely won his race, the way in which he seeks party unity will be incredibly important. These battles are almost certainly going on right now, but they’ll reach a critical point by the time of the Conservative policy convention, scheduled for August 2018 in Halifax.

These internal struggles should preoccupy Scheer until next year, but after that the Conservative Party, however it looks at the end of next summer, will turn to their real enemy: Justin Trudeau. The unified hatred of the Liberals in the Tory caucus will doubtless be Scheer’s most important weapon in the coming debates.

The final factor that will influence where Scheer takes the party is, of course, the ongoing leadership race in the NDP, which will now take centre stage. How that leader will fashion the identity of the NDP, decimated as they were in 2015, will decisively shape the dynamics between the three major parties headed into 2019.

From the point of view of the Conservatives, the stronger the NDP the better. But before they can look forward to that, they have to put their own house in order. And for Scheer, that means deliberately arranging it in the same careful calibration as Stephen Harper. In bringing his party together, Scheer will not be afraid to show his teeth — by smiling.

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