The early reviews are in, and they are a little confusing. The bottom line is it may be months before it’s clear which way the federal Conservatives are actually going. After Andrew Scheer won the Conservative leadership on the weekend, edging out Maxime Bernier by the slimmest of margins, discussion of Scheer took two different tracks. On one side was the “who is this guy?” discussion, while on the other was the dissection of his stands on various issues during his time in Parliament.
Since Scheer is far from a parliamentary neophyte – most people who watch issues unfold in the House of Commons know him from his time as Speaker of the House during the Stephen Harper years. His positions on issues that are important to the social conservative side of the party, like opposition to abortion, are well known.
Social conservatives may well feel that they now have a better representative than Bernier would have been for their particular niche interests. The problem is, if they actually do have any ideological sway with Scheer, they may well push their own party further away from electability.
That is almost certainly the side of Scheer that the federal Liberals will attack first, even though Scheer has been clear that his personal views do not mean that he plans to reopen divisive arguments of that kind.
What Scheer will have to do – and quickly – is start to define what he plans to do, rather than what he plans not to do. He’s been clear that he wants Parliament to work better, to be more effective and less didactic. He’s talked about making trade deals more balanced, and has called for stronger Canadian efforts against ISIS. About the need for Canadians to buy Canadian, rather than foreign, fuels (implicit in that, probably, is support for pipelines, as well) and about tax breaks for home schooling and independent schools.
In other words, his past words have framed him as a bit of an archetypal old-school rural Conservative. (His home riding is Regina, but he’s primarily, in truth, an Ottawan.)
But at this stage, the direction he plans to take is far from clear.
In his victory speech, Scheer talked about the need for the Conservative party to be a big tent, with plenty of room for different views – that is, of course, the model that finally led the Tories back to power under Stephen Harper.
What’s yet to be seen is in what part of the ideological campground Scheer will decide to push in the tent pegs, and whether his decisions will pull people into the tent, or keep them away.
The plain truth is that he can’t afford to have any Tories feel like they are on the outside looking in. And that is a very difficult balancing act.