Past offers lessons for Scheer,
The Conservatives dodged two potentially deadly bullets at their leadership “event” over the weekend.
They dodged the Maxime Bernier bullet. By the slimmest of margins, they avoided turning their party over to a man determined to dance along every political third rail he could find: undermining medicare, defunding the CBC, scrapping supply management . . . and on and on. It would have offered a feast for their opponents.
And they dodged the Kellie Leitch bullet. By relegating her to seventh place with just a hair over 7 per cent of the vote, Conservatives showed to their credit that they have little time for Leitch’s brand of nativist race-bating. She was never going to win, but a strong showing would have been a terrible sign for the party, and indeed for our national politics.
In the end, thanks to the mysterious alchemy of their ranked ballot voting system, they ended up with a young, personable leader who is presenting himself as firmly in the tradition of Stephen Harper — in substance if not in style.
Andrew Scheer will get the benefit of the doubt for a while from many Canadians who barely knew who he was before Saturday evening, and still have only a fuzzy notion of what he stands for. But as he comes into focus, they aren’t going to like everything that they see.
Scheer may not be the right-wing extremist that Liberals are trying to paint him. But there’s no escaping the fact that his voting record is firmly on the social conservative side of contentious issues like abortion. More importantly, he owes his victory to supporters of the unapologetic socons who showed such unexpected strength in the weekend voting.
Brad Trost, who ended up in fourth place with just over14 per cent of the vote, campaigned along with Pierre Lemieux on the old-tyme religion of social conservatism – opposition to abortion and gay rights in particular. While many were sounding the alarm about a rightist threat from Leitch, it turned out the real surprise was the resurgence of the so-con wing of the party.
That’s always part of the Conservative coalition, but under Harper they were told to pipe down and sit in the back row, lest they spook liberal-minded voters the party needed to win power. The risk for Scheer is that they will feel so emboldened by the weekend’s results that they will pressure him to at least let social conservative MPs speak out again on their pet issues. Lemieux, in particular, is talking that way.
That would be a dream come true for the Liberals, who are already dangling the spectre of a reinvigorated religious right pulling Scheer’s strings in front of voters.
And it would be a nightmare for Scheer and the Conservatives. Surely, if the party has learned anything from the past decade and a half it is that it wins only when it stays united and fights the other parties for the political middle ground. Revisiting old debates on abortion and same-sex marriage would be suicidal.
Scheer clearly know all this, which is why he is parrying every attempt to get him to talk about social issues and the influence of the religious right. Still, he can’t run from his own contributions to the so-con theme — notably his odd suggestion that the federal government withhold funds from universities that fail to uphold free speech, presumably by right-wingers. How that would work is anyone’s guess.
The country needs a strong opposition party with a leader wise enough to avoid divisive distractions. It needs a Conservative party with a leader far-seeing enough to concentrate on putting together a strong alternative policy agenda that draws from the best traditions of Canadian conservatism.
Andrew Scheer has been handed an opportunity to be that leader and forge that party. He will succeed only if he heeds the hard-won lessons of the conservative movement and focuses on core issues like the economy and ensuring prosperity for all.
Scheer’s infectious smile shows he’s already got the style part right. Now it’s time to work on the substance.
Scheer will succeed only if he heeds the hard-won lessons of the conservative movement