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Election 2019
Federal Politics

Scheer, Who Is Toast, Should Have Listened to Preston Manning

To win, Tories must chuck their leader and Harper’s old playbook.

Michael Harris 29 Oct

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributing editor, is a highly awarded journalist and documentary maker. Author of Party of One, the bestselling exposé of the Harper government, his investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

It is said that April is the cruelest month.

If T.S. Eliot has it right, that’s when Andrew Scheer will realize that only the winner gets the real cigar.

April 2020 is the date set for the automatic review of Scheer’s leadership. About that time Scheer will learn that if you want loyalty, buy a ferret. No matter what anyone is saying now, leadership politics has just one rule: only winners need apply.

And that’s just what Andy thought he was. For a few delusional weeks in the 2019 election, the CPC believed they were going to knock the snappy socks off Justin Trudeau. They were sure of winning the most seats, and there were even opium dreams of a slim majority.

Instead, there was no majority government and no photo finish. It wasn’t even close. And the best person to explain why is the godfather of today’s Conservative Party of Canada, Preston Manning.

It was Manning who more than three decades ago harnessed Western alienation to build the Reform party, which Stephen Harper then united with the Progressive Conservatives to topple the “natural” rule of the Liberals.

It was Manning who saw in the seeds of his own socially conservative, resource extracting prairie revolt not only potential but severe limitations — the ones that kept Scheer from winning this time. In fact, by 2019, even Harper’s alchemy had proved outdated.

Now the question is not simply what will the Conservatives do with Scheer, but what will they do with their increasingly antiquated brand?

Scheer did nothing to persuade Canadians that he was not Stephen Harper’s sock puppet. He ran the campaign straight out of Harper’s playbook, from immigration fear-mongering, tax cut fetishism, and fake deficit phobia all the way to pipeline envy. And he used a lot of Harper’s own people to do it.

Hamish Marshall is a perfect example. Scheer (or perhaps someone else) chose Marshall to run the 2019 campaign. Funny that. Back in 2006, Marshall was Harper’s manager of strategic planning. He was later a board member of Rebel Media, that well-known middle-of-the-ditch media outlet that stalks planet-saving teenagers and puts them in their place.

I don’t know what Scheer’s vacuous grin was supposed to convey during the campaign. But if it was to give the impression of the benevolent guy next door, the one who would help you shovel out after the blizzard, or look after your cat when you were out of town, it flopped.

Scheer was slippery as an eel on the abortion issue, adrift on same-sex marriage, sneaky about his dual citizenship until he was outed by the Globe and Mail. He also failed to convince voters that he wouldn’t take a chainsaw to social programs if elected — just as political cousins Doug Ford and Jason Kenney have already done in Ontario and Alberta.

And then there was the devious way he released his costed campaign platform — after the TV debates. Even the day he chose was sneaky, the Friday before Thanksgiving. You know, the day everyone is obsessing about whether it will be broccoli or Brussels sprouts.

Finally, at the very end of the election, Scheer’s most Harper-esque moment arrived, along with an elephantine epiphany for the electorate. Thanks were again due to the Globe and Mail.

The CPC was caught out hiring consultant Warren Kinsella to “seek and destroy” Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada. The idea seems to have been, at least in part, to keep Bernier out of the TV leaders’ debates. A further job description, according to Canadaland, was to deflect attention from the Conservatives’ own extremist eruptions.

When it came time for Scheer to face the music for this latest in a long line of CPC dirty tricks going all the way back to the In-and-Out scandal of 2006, maybe a flashing, electric bow tie might have helped.

But probably nothing would have distracted from the final image of the campaign — a wall-eyed Scheer standing in front of the cameras like a broken doll repeating over and over again that it was party policy never to divulge CPC “vendors.” It was a non-denial denial for the ages. Not only did this incident show that the leader lacked the royal jelly. He didn’t even have Aunt Mary’s marmalade.

A senior Conservative source speaking on background put it this way: “A couple of things are clear: There are a lot of Canadians who don’t like Justin Trudeau. But they also worry about Scheer’s ‘hidden agenda.’ So the answer is obvious. The Tories have to get a new leader. Someone who appeals to moderate Canadians.”

Scheer will never be that person. He stands for Harperland and nothing but Harperland. He has been exposed in the recent campaign as a smiling opportunist ready to play dirty to win. And if he can’t beat Trudeau in blackface, Trudeau in violation of the law, Trudeau in bad faith, and Trudeau in perpetual deficit, when can he beat him?

So Scheer has to go if the CPC want to rise from the ashes of the 2019 election. But that is a small part of the job, and by far the easier part. There will be no shortage of replacements waiting in the wings but it can’t be the darkest part of the right wing. It can’t be Peter MacKay, who lost his progressive credentials 10 years ago, or John Baird, who never had any. And it can’t be the man they both served, Harper.

As Philippe J. Fournier notes in Maclean’s, “among the 60 electoral districts with the highest population density in Canada, the Conservatives won a grand total of zero.” In other words, the route to victory these days is by appealing to the educated, urban and socially progressive, not a cabal of gun-loving, climate denying, xenophobic, northern Republicans who have never seen a social program or a foreign aid plan that they didn’t want to cancel.

Harper used that group as his base for the near decade his party was in power. Even then, the only time the CPC could produce a majority government was in 2011, when the NDP pulled off the Orange Miracle, copped 30 per cent of the popular vote, and got more than 100 seats in parliament. Without a strong NDP, the CPC is a regional party constantly brushing up on its skills at undermining democracy at every election.

Preston Manning understood the need for policy renewal when he told me that the two key issues that move millennial voters are social justice and the environment. The man who founded the Reform Party and gave Harper his first job said that these should be “sword” not “shield” issues for Conservatives.

Which is another way of saying that the absolute worst thing the CPC could do is conclude that the path back to respectability is merely about changing the messenger, not the message.

The Harper years blessedly came to an end. It’s time the Harper modus operandi and philosophy did too. Otherwise, the poet will be right. For the CPC, April will be the cruelest month.  [Tyee]

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