Andrew Scheer spent most of his first two years as Leader of the federal Conservatives in near obscurity. Rarely had a new national leader generated such little interest or curiosity on the part of Canadian voters or the media. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sprinted from one selfie to another, Mr. Scheer seemed destined to end his political career as Andrew Who?
Then, a funny thing happened on the way to the 2019 federal election: Mr. Trudeau’s carefully managed image began to unravel. At first, voters were relatively indulgent of the Prime Minister’s slip-ups and mood swings. But as the Jody Wilson-Raybould affair exposed the inner workings of his Prime Minister’s Office, Mr. Trudeau could no longer boast of his sunny ways.
So Canadians will go to the polls this fall with a much better idea of who Mr. Trudeau really is (and isn’t) than they did in 2015, when he came across as a breath of fresh air after a decade of Stephen Harper’s leadership. Back then, Mr. Trudeau managed to perform well enough on the campaign trail to defuse questions about his lack of experience.
This time around, Mr. Trudeau will have to answer for the promises he has failed to keep – on electoral reform, on balancing the budget, on uniting the country, on providing more transparency in government and on changing the tone in Ottawa – and for his unsunny handling of the SNC-Lavalin file. He will no longer be able to rely on the benefit of the doubt or the wholesome image he projected in 2015.
This has made Mr. Scheer a contender in spite of himself. Canadians are increasingly dissatisfied with Mr. Trudeau’s leadership, or lack thereof, and are open to alternatives. Aggregate polling suggests the Conservatives hold a slim lead over the Liberals in voter support, though their odds of winning a majority government remain well below 50 per cent.
Mr. Scheer needs to make an impression, and fast. With barely four months to go until the Oct. 21 election, the Conservative Leader does not have a ton of time to change the narrative about him that has taken hold amid Liberal depictions of him as Stephen Harper-lite.
He has even been overshadowed by two of his provincial counterparts, Ontario Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford and Alberta United Conservative Premier Jason Kenney. They have leapt to fill the leadership void left by the federal Conservatives by challenging the Trudeau government on high-profile files. This has not made Mr. Scheer look good.
Then again, pretending to be someone he’s not would have been a mistake on Mr. Scheer’s part. You can keep that schtick up for only so long before voters begin to see through the veneer. Mr. Trudeau is learning the hard way about what happens when the paint rubs off.
The series of policy speeches the Conservative Leader has delivered in recent weeks – four so far, with one still to come – have been light on details. But in tone, they appear to capture the essence of Mr. Scheer. He is a cautious politician, though more calculating than you might think. We saw this during the Tory leadership campaign, too, as he rushed to the defence of supply management to win over Quebec farmers and beat his ideological rival Maxime Bernier.
Mr. Bernier, who quit the Conservatives last year to form the People’s Party of Canada, has embraced a strident anti-diversity discourse that Mr. Scheer, after some hesitation, has thankfully decided not to emulate. As Prime Minister, Mr. Scheer would provide continuity on immigration policy, though seek to reform the way Canada processes asylum seekers.
Mr. Scheer would balance the budget but take five years to do so. He would not cut the Canada Child Benefit or transfers to the provinces. He would assert federal power to create an east-west energy corridor for oil pipelines and electricity transmission, although he has not explained how this fits with his vow to respect provincial autonomy and run a more decentralized federation.
It is on foreign policy that Mr. Scheer would offer the biggest break with the Liberals, vowing to join the U.S. ballistic missile defence shield, boost the military, back Israel and confront China. But he would maintain strong support for the multilateral institutions that Liberals love.
There are low expectations for Mr. Scheer’s final policy speech later this month on the environment. He has already promised to kill the federal carbon tax, leaving him with a credibility gap that he needs to address if he is serious about fighting climate change.
Still, Canadians know somewhat more about the real Andrew Scheer than they did just a few weeks ago. Not enough to seal the deal for him in October, mind you. But enough to make him worthy of the attention he will need if Andrew Who? is ever to become Prime Minister Scheer.