Bob Plamondon is the author of The Shawinigan Fox: How Jean Chrétien Defied the Elites and Reshaped Canada and Full Circle: Death and Resurrection in Canadian Conservative Politics.
Maxime Bernier was cruising to victory in the 2017 Tory leadership contest. Then Andrew Scheer aligned with dairy and poultry farmers, which – along with a quiet nod to social conservatives – created a narrow path to victory. Mr. Bernier, who had called for an end to agricultural cartels while advocating for enhanced personal responsibility and greater freedoms, led on the first 12 of 13 ballots.
Mr. Scheer shrewdly cozied up with the agricultural lobby to win. But in the aftermath, he needed to find some common ground with Mr. Bernier, who had the majority of the party with him minus some special interests. Had Mr. Bernier won, the traditional conservative universe would have instinctively embraced his proposal to equitably dismantle state-sponsored price fixing in the agricultural sector.
After months of trying to move Mr. Scheer on a range of policies and receiving nothing but disdain, Mr. Bernier felt he had no choice but to establish a principled conservative alternative on his own.
Predictably, Conservative MPs rallied behind Mr. Scheer. But the Bernier blow is hard to ignore. Two polling companies over the past week have revealed that 16-17 per cent of Canadian voters are open to or would likely vote for a Bernier party. Conservative MPs facing tight races in 2019 will become increasingly anxious if Mr. Bernier’s party holds anywhere near that level of support going forward. And Mr. Scheer will find it difficult to attract quality candidates in the ridings they need to form government.
Mad Max not only has ideas on his side, but charisma and that rare political quality of authenticity. If Conservatives in Ottawa doubt its importance they have only to look at the election of Doug Ford in Ontario, where he began the leadership race with virtually no support in caucus or among party apparatchik.
It is inevitable that conservatives will once again come together for the sake of power as they have done many times before, but when? Preston Manning wrote that the current rupture might only work itself out after the next election.
So far, Mr. Scheer is sticking with his program, but at what cost? First, he is asking Canadians to pay more every time they go to the grocery store. Second, he is making it tougher for Canada to reach a new trade deal with the Americans. Donald Trump is right that a 270-per-cent tariff on butter is neither free nor fair trade. What will Mr. Scheer say to Ontario and Quebec auto workers if Mexico gets a deal and Canada gets shut out? Mr. Sheer also appears to be out of step with conservative voices when he appears weak on opposing identity politics and strong on muzzling social conservatives.
Mr. Scheer may feel he is saddled with his promises. But he should remember Peter MacKay’s leadership in reuniting conservative forces in 2003 despite promising David Orchard there would be no merger. Seizing an unexpected opportunity to unite conservative-minded parties on favourable terms, Mr. MacKay cast Mr. Orchard aside for the good of the country. With the use of emissaries – and after launching a massive consultation within the party – Mr. MacKay showed that good political leaders can break bad promises.
Despite the many openings given to him by Justin Trudeau, Mr. Scheer is behind on the preferred prime minister question by a margin of almost two-to-one. The current splintering makes him look even weaker. To extricate himself from losing the libertarian wing of his party, Mr. Scheer needs to be bold.
If Mr. Scheer followed Mr. MacKay’s lead and assembled a panel of experienced hands for advice, I suspect he would receive three suggestions. First, propose a policy that is fair to farmers and consumers on agricultural products and that enhances the prospect of a trade deal with the Americans. Second, allow individuals MPs to represent their constituents and speak freely in the House of Commons about their socially conservative views. And third, affirm the view that while diversity is a Canadian characteristic, it is unity that is our strength. These positions might unite conservatives and demonstrate that Mr. Scheer is serious about winning the next election.
Tough things have been said and pride may prevent Mr. Scheer from reaching out. Mr. Bernier is building momentum and he may not accept Mr. Scheer’s leadership even if he changes course. But if Mr. Scheer can’t sustain a united conservative coalition, he doesn’t deserve to lead.