On the stage at Monday’s English language leaders’ debate, Maxime Bernier stood just to the right of Andrew Scheer. Scheer was probably only too happy to have him there.
Bernier’s post-convention trajectory may be unprecedented in Canadian politics. A top cabinet minister in the Harper government, a leadership candidate who came within a plastic-wrapped cheese slice of heading the Conservative party, in defeat he stomped off the edge of the political spectrum to start his own registered political troll farm, the People’s Party of Canada.
That has given Scheer an opportunity to position himself as a representative of the reasonable right, and Monday he attempted to take it. He lectured Bernier: “You are making your policy based on trying to get likes and retweets from the darkest part of Twitter.”
And when Scheer appeared on CBC the week before, taking questions from five undecided voters, he was a right friendly feller. He told one questioner he cared deeply about climate change. He claimed to another that he welcomed new immigrants and would at least maintain current immigration levels. He told a third that services for people on the margins will be maintained. Of course, you would say that on the CBC, wouldn’t you? You’d be less likely to mention that while running for the Conservative party leadership you proposed chopping the CBC News division. Perhaps Scheer misplaced that particular cue card.
Grant this to Scheer — he is savvy enough to shape his message to his audience. Donald Trump doesn’t have the situational awareness for that. These days, Bernier is in honey-badger-don’t-give-a-shit territory. And Ontario Premier Doug Ford has helped to lower the bar to the point where Scheer can appear statesmanlike just by failing to bite the head off a live bat.
Adjusting your message to different audiences may be chalked up to pure cynicism, but it does speak to a recognition of those viewpoints and perhaps even an understanding of the need to accommodate them. Failed Conservative leadership candidate Brad Trost is an example of a candidate who refuses any such accommodations, which is at least part of the reason why he is on his way out of Parliament and Scheer has a legitimate shot at becoming prime minister. Trost has said the pro-life crowd is disappointed in Scheer for abandoning them after courting their support in the leadership race. Expediency is not always a bad thing in politics.
Yet Scheer’s CBC set piece merits a close listen, because unlike Monday’s soundbite smack down, it offered the Conservative leader space to elaborate. He chose to fill it with code words and shifts in emphasis. A question on how to help marginalized communities led to a comment on... balanced budgets. Climate change was framed in a way that references China (i.e. the real malefactors, not us). And since Scheer has recently declared B.C.’s quite arguably successful carbon tax a failure and listed one of his climate change initiatives as “wider roads,” his assurances to the CBC audience may seem less than convincing.
Then it was time to hear from Umair Ali, a 30-year-old Muslim man from Brampton and one of the five citizen interrogators on the CBC program. Ali called Scheer out on the company he keeps, like his campaign chair, Hamish Marshall, who helped invent and find money for Rebel Media (the “hate-filled Breitbart North” as Maclean’s termed it).
Ali also wanted Scheer to explain his endorsement of a Conservative candidate Ghada Melek in Mississauga who made Islamophobic tweets, as well as his attendance at a Yellow Vest rally also attended by Faith Goldy, who is banned by Facebook for spreading hate. (It was, Scheer insisted, a rally in support of the energy sector; Goldy was only hanging out down the street; and Scheer assured Ali that Melek has repented. Afterward Ali described himself as “not yet satisfied.”)
Saying the loud part quietly
As the saying goes, lie down with dogs and you wake up with fleas. Scheer has been a regular down at the kennel. His first big political job was in the constituency office of MP Larry Spencer who was later booted out of the Canadian Alliance caucus for saying homosexuality should be criminalized.
Scheer did not leave Spencer’s employ when the MP was ejected from caucus. Spencer recently told HuffPost Canada: “I took it to be that he was in agreement with what I had to say... I know he was in agreement with what we were trying to say.” (Conservative Party director of communications Brock Harrison emailed a statement to HuffPost saying: “Mr. Scheer disagreed with Mr. Spencer’s comments then. He still disagrees with him now.”) As noted in the second instalment of this series, Scheer has previously declared his admiration for former South Carolina Senator Jim “Gays and promiscuous women shouldn’t be allowed to teach school” DeMint.
Scheer’s 2005 House of Commons speech against same sex marriage was a cri de couer, a statement of his personal convictions. He has more recently described the speech as representative of the views of his constituents. What he hasn’t said is that his personal convictions have since changed — only that he will not pursue changes in the law. The CBC’s Rosemary Barton asked him why he won’t march in Pride parades and, after Scheer had waffled a bit, pointedly asked, “Why is so difficult for you to explain how your thinking has evolved?”
“Society has moved on,” Scheer answered. To which many of Scheer’s supporters might reply, “Not all of it, pal.” And while it is only speculation, the most obvious explanations for Scheer’s squirming on the issue of gay rights are a) He is not willing to alienate his base, and b) He still prays for a day when society will move LGBTQ people right back into the closet.
Scheer’s forthright support for anti-abortion groups, like his anti-gay rights past, is another subject of his “Yes, I believe it but don’t worry about that” approach.
Scheer insists that the abortion issue is settled in Canada, skipping the fact that his wooed allies are succeeding at making abortion difficult to access for many Canadian women. He has clearly signalled where his sympathies lie, and the implied message seems to be: “Can’t talk right now. But support me and I will be your sleeper agent in the halls of power.”
Scheer is savvy. He is ambitious. These traits may lead one to hope that a Scheer administration would be constrained by an awareness of political realities and would follow the typical political playbook that instructs candidates to throw red meat to the base in the nomination phase before moving to the centre for the general election. Still, there’s little doubt where Scheer’s heart lies. The only question is how far he will be moved by his competing instinct for political pragmatism.
Scheer has had some breaks in this campaign, primarily furnished by Justin Trudeau’s Scrapbook o’ Memories. And while some have suggested that Bernier’s People’s Party could split the right-wing vote, it is more likely that Bernier did Scheer a favour with his new crusade. Having the intemperate Bernier on the scene allows Scheer to paint himself as a more moderate option. See Monday debate moment above.
When given the chance on national TV this election campaign, Scheer has certainly attempted to sound reasonable. Except, given the core beliefs he has espoused in the past, we have a pretty solid idea of who is the real Scheer. So the key question is: Will the real Andrew Scheer stand up?
This concludes the Tyee’s three-part series Scheer Ambition. Here are parts one and two.
Read more: Election 2019, Rights + Justice, Federal Politics, Gender + Sexuality
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