Nice Guys Do Finish First

After 13 painful rounds of elimination, Andrew Scheer was dubbed the victor in last weekend’s leadership race for the Conservative Party of Canada, proving for once that nice guys can finish first.

The results were extremely close, with Scheer picking up roughly 51 per cent support on the final ballot. His closest rival and presumptive frontrunner Maxime Bernier came in at 49 per cent, with Erin O’Toole, Brad Trost, and Michael Chong respectively rounding out the top five in a field of 13 candidates.

Scheer Excitement

Despite a snarky headline from the Toronto Star suggesting otherwise, Scheer is a well-known figure within the Conservative Party. The 38-year-old MP from Regina—Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan started his political career by beating an NDP incumbent who had been the longest-serving member in the House of Commons. He then succeeded Peter Milliken in 2011 to become the youngest Speaker of the House ever recorded.

Scheer’s convening power was forged and tested in his role for four years as Speaker. For the uninitiated, Question Period is the most rambunctious, visceral, and exciting part of an MP’s daily routine in the House of Commons. The regular symphony of zingers, potshots and heckles should impress on the observer that any Speaker who could keep such boisterous MPs in line as graciously and as tenaciously as Scheer did is worth their weight in parliamentary gold.

Scheer is largely recognized as a brokerage candidate. He carries little, if any, of the baggage of the Harper years, and his voting record is limited to a few months before he started serving as Assistant Deputy Speaker in 2006.

Many, including the Liberals, had been expecting Scheer’s opponent Maxime Bernier to take the crown with his coloured past as a minister in Harper’s cabinet, his bold, libertarian policies and a solid endorsement from Shark Tank celebrity Kevin O’Leary.

In the wake of the upset, the best attack the Liberals could muster was a reversion to tired, old talking points about the dangerous spectre of social conservatism that Andrew Scheer raised. The NDP deigned to call Scheer “baby Trump”. We’ve heard this all before.

Such accusations are laughable at best, and absurd at worst, given Scheer’s failure to receive the endorsement of the most prominent anti-abortion group, Campaign Life Coalition, something earned by both his competitors Brad Trost and Pierre Lemieux. Much to the Liberals’ disappointment, Scheer appears inclined to honour that classical liberal tradition of separation of church and state, and rightfully so.

The Other Half

For Scheer, it was more important to build a broader coalition among conservatives in Canada and preach unity within the party than it was to propagate any single ideology. In the pre-merger shadow of the PC-Reform split, Scheer continues to be anxious about “skipping the breaking apart phase” after this leadership race.

If the numbers tell us anything, Scheer’s win was not as clear-cut as we imagined. Some have attempted to simplify the Scheer and Bernier camps as a contest between rural and urban Conservatives, Western Canada against Eastern Canada, or even traditionalists against libertarians.

Source: Conservative Party Leadership Election 2017 Map, Wikimedia Commons

Looking at the numbers, it’s clear the narrative doesn’t hold true. Scheer picked up ridings in the suburban areas of Montreal, Vancouver, and Toronto; in southwestern Ontario; and in the Maritime provinces. Bernier won support broadly from coast-to-coast-to-coast, urban and rural, with the exception of Scheer’s provincial heartland, Saskatchewan.

The map is a stark reminder for Scheer: 49 per cent of Conservative Party members voted for a libertarian candidate. In fact, this is the first time that we have seen libertarian ideas gain widespread traction and popularity among the Conservative faithful, especially among youth. Libertarians have consistently faced challenges with political organization, which some have characterized as the equivalent of herding cats (i.e. how do you organize people who don’t believe in centralized authority?). Bernier was certainly onto something.

It’s worth noting too that the policies presented by Bernier are not necessarily incompatible with the typical small-c conservative ideology advocating for small government, lower taxes, and individual freedoms. Scheer would do well to learn from Bernier on how to craft and deliver these policies to galvanize voters, especially if he is serious about building a broader coalition going into 2019.

To Keep Us Humble

The antics of his core campaign team aside, Maxime Bernier was a very different man on May 27 than the selfless ideological warrior he had been on the campaign trail. Pride goeth before the fall, and Bernier’s campaign is a testament to how arrogance can destroy political integrity. Adam Radwanski put it succinctly: “There was ample reason to wonder if Mr. Bernier was the right fit to lead a big-tent party”.

While the Conservatives would do well not to harp on the “should-haves” and “could-haves”, the truth is that such a narrow victory should keep both camps humble. Scheer knows he cannot win a general election without the other half that supported Bernier. This humility should encourage the Conservative Party to unite, return to its roots and sharpen this virtue as its greatest weapon against the Liberals.

In fact, Scheer has already started that work. His first question in the House of Commons on the following Monday was a direct attack on the Prime Minister’s most cherished file: youth. The new Leader of the Conservative Party criticized Trudeau’s tax-and-spend policies that he claimed hurt economic opportunities for youth.

The message hits a little closer to home when you consider the Liberal’s recent track record. Getting rid of the public transit tax credit, eliminating tax breaks on textbooks, and raising taxes on Uber and alcohol  all of these moves hit young people hardest from a party and a Prime Minister that has presumed to be the champion of youth.

While in its waning days, the Harper government was prone to absolute corruption brought by absolute power (did anyone say $16 orange juice?). Such behaviour is a drop in the bucket when you see the (re)iteration of Liberal arrogance in its various forms: limousine services, six-digit moving bills for PMO staff, and swanky, private fundraisers.

Canadians gave Trudeau a mandate because they thought he represented hope and change. Let that thought keep them humble, and the new Conservative leadership most of all.