Federal election race into the final innings with Liberals and Conservatives deadlocked
Andrew Scheer — former speaker of Canada’s House of Commons, leader of Canada’s Conservatives, and the main rival to the Liberals’ Justin Trudeau in the country’s Oct. 21 general election — is an extraordinarily ordinary man. He sports US$23 haircuts and off-the-rack suits. He smiles a lot and is quick to blush. His one cooking rule: It’s better with bacon and butter. He’s the opposite of whatever flashy is.
In other words, he’s the anti-Trudeau.
The Conservatives have framed the national vote as a referendum on Trudeau’s leadership at a moment when, even among those who like the prime minister, the fatigue over his perceived penchant for style over substance is palpable. What better way to emphasize the point than to pit the millionaire, globe-trotting, virtue-signaling, feminist, Rolling Stone cover-gracing prime minister against a family man born into middle-class unremarkableness?
“Prime Minister Trudeau is asking for support to fix the world,” says Chad Rogers, a partner at Crestview Strategy and a Conservative Party strategist. “Opposition leader Andrew Scheer is proposing to help people fix their own household budget. Big problems vs. small problems. Global vs. local.”
The relatability card serves a more important political function for Conservatives than simply allowing for a clash of personalities. The party has spent the better part of two decades shaking off the image — constructed successfully by the Liberals — that it’s a caucus of right-wing ideologues, beholden to oil companies, riddled with troglodytes who want to roll back women’s and gay rights, rife with bigots, and drooling at the possibility of cutting essential social services.
In truth, the Conservative Party contains a mishmash of factions that includes social conservatives, business-friendly Tories, fiscal conservatives, libertarians, Quebec nationalists, and Western Canadian populists. But its strength lies in small towns, oil-dependent regions, and rural areas, which has led it to adopt a fiercely pro-resource platform. In a country where the environment has emerged as a top-three ballot issue in most polls, the party isn’t considered serious about climate change, and occasionally indulges in politics that come off as intolerant and divisive.
Political attacks work best when they contain a little bit of truth, and the Conservatives are hardly a big-tent party. The share of Canadians nationwide who would even consider voting for them barely surpasses 40 per cent, according to polling from Nanos Research Group. The Liberals appeal to a broader universe of voters, but barely. Trudeau’s party does well in urban centers, which are more receptive to the prime minister’s progressive agenda and more activist approach to governing.
Conservatives are no innocents in the vilification game, painting the Liberals as a bunch of big-city elites more interested in global causes than the interests of working Canadians. The end result is a mounting animosity between the two parties — echoing the division between the Democratic and Republican parties one country to the south — that’s producing dedicated bases of support, but with less room to grow as polarization hardens.
In some ways, Scheer would seem an easy target for the Liberals. He’s openly pro-life and a practicing Roman Catholic who opposed the legalization of gay marriage early in his political career. He also represents a district in Saskatchewan, one of the country’s oil-producing provinces. But the Conservative leader has taken pains to promise not to reopen the debate on abortion or same-sex rights. “Society has moved on — I have moved on,” he has intoned at multiple press conferences. And while Scheer is a lifelong politician who was first elected to Parliament at the age of 25, he’s never been seen as an obstinate partisan. Nor is Scheer associated with any of the party’s often-competing factions. As Yaroslav Baran, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Ottawa and a former communications adviser in the last Conservative government, puts it: Stick all the factions in a blender and out comes Scheer.
In this campaign, the Liberals’ attack narrative has often bypassed Scheer altogether to evoke a less sympathetic nemesis: former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the secretive Conservative leader who lost to Trudeau in 2015 after a decade in power. The current prime minister mentioned Harper’s name at least eight times in a televised debate between party leaders in early October, conjuring images of what the Liberals claim a future Conservative government would entail: stubborn efforts to balance the budget, steamrolling of environmental concerns, and indifference to indigenous issues, among other things. (Trudeau came to power pledging to reconcile with Canada’s native peoples, but entered his campaign for reelection facing a slow-burning scandal stemming in part from his decision to demote the country’s first indigenous justice minister into a new role at the start of the year.)
Elections are won and lost in Canada among centrist voters and in immigrant-heavy communities, and many of each can be found in the vast suburbs that surround Toronto. These voters tend to ignore partisan dog-whistling and put greater weight on basics like jobs, cost of living, and the economy. Despite his unpopularity at the end, Harper won many of them to his camp over the years by pitching a conservatism devoid of ideological rigidness.
Scheer has chosen a similar path. In addition to deferring to the status quo on same-sex marriage and abortion, he’s abandoned free-market dogma and tailored the party’s platform to appeal to suburban voters with measures like tax credits for kids in sports. He’s wary of globalization (he endorsed Brexit at one point), particularly when it comes to China, but supports free trade with Canada’s traditional allies. Crucially, he opposes a carbon tax, but is in favor of increased regulations for polluters.
That said, the everyman strategy hasn’t given him much of a lift, however. His approval ratings — hovering in the low 30s — are on par with Trudeau’s own sluggish numbers. The Conservatives aren’t polling that much better than Harper did ahead of his 2015 loss. At this point, their only hope of forming a government hinges on a poor performance by Trudeau.
Scheer isn’t exactly the sort of visionary leader future generations build statues of. But the party hopes he’s the perfect choice for those who, above all, want a conservative who’s not a threat. “His folksy and shy relatability could allow him to judo-move Mr. Trudeau’s charisma and international star power,” says Baran. “You go be the sexy playboy who jet-sets with movie stars on St-Tropez yachts. That’s fine. I’ll be the barbecue dad.”
Election 2019. Find more in-depth coverage of the federal election campaign here. On Oct. 21, tune into BNN Bloomberg’s special election coverage starting at 5 p.m. ET and stream full coverage of the vote on BNNBloomberg.ca.