The Andrew Scheer factor in election 2019

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Andrew Scheer. Image: Andrew Scheer/Flickr

In the first weeks of the 2019 election, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer received an unexpected gift: images, then a video, showing a younger Justin Trudeau wearing blackface makeup, which as Trudeau explained on the Radio-Canada Sunday night talk show Tout le monde en parle, caused grief and sorrow among supporters he spoke to -- leading to apologies that could not erase the hurt and disappointment the Trudeau actions had caused.

With Prime Minister Trudeau personally weakened in visible minority communities where his party has historically dominated, the election campaign had turned into an opportunity for other political leaders.

Fortunately for the Liberals, the Conservative Party had given them an unexpected gift as well -- a big one: Andrew Scheer as leader.

Despite the best efforts of many active Conservative voices inside and outside media to cover for him, Scheer is still having trouble talking to Canadians about why he should be the next prime minister.

With less than two weeks remaining before voting day on October 21, the Conservative Party had yet to release its costed party platform.

The Scheer leadership win in May 2017 provoked a split in the Conservative Party, with defeated rival Maxime Bernier leaving to start the People's Party of Canada (PPC). Polling at just two per cent, PPC support nonetheless represents the slim margin needed that could cost Conservative candidates ridings in close races.

Suspicions surround the Scheer victory over Bernier in the leadership contest. Reports that his supporters used fraudulent vote counting to put him over the top in a race where Bernier was the real winner have prompted an RCMP investigation, currently suspended because of the election.

As Speaker of the House, Scheer presided over Parliament, carrying out his ceremonial functions adequately, but allowing the level of debate in question period to deteriorate to new lows.

As then NDP leader Tom Mulcair pointed out, while the Speaker sat silently, the Conservative government replied systemically to questions on any subjects with statements accusing the opposition questioner of wanting to inflict a "jobs-killing carbon tax" on Canadians.

Scheer does look like a leader. He is tall, six foot four inches, youngish (he is 40) and goes casually tieless in blue suits. Looking the part has carried him this far, but it is not enough to give him job security.

The first televised French-language leadership debate revealed to Quebec voters that Scheer speaks French poorly. After he stumbled badly in the debate, Mario Dumont, a prominent Quebec political figure turned media personality, observed he "loses his French."

Despite having spent 14 years as an MP, attending Ottawa University which has a mandate to promote French language and culture, and growing up across the Ottawa River from Quebec, Scheer has not made the effort necessary to use the language skillfully.

As leader of the federal Conservatives, Scheer has been overshadowed by recently elected provincial conservative premiers Doug Ford of Ontario and Jason Kenney of Alberta.

Instead of looking like the national leader, he has managed to look more like a subordinate. His association with an unpopular Ford has made him an easy target for Trudeau and the Liberals in the vote-rich areas around Toronto.

Rather than stepping up, Scheer persuaded Ford to hide out for the duration of the election campaign.

Formerly responsible for relations with multicultural communities under Stephen Harper, Jason Kenney was brought in to help Scheer out in Ontario with recent immigrant voters. With Kenney tainted by his "Alberta-first" rhetoric, it looked like a desperation move.

Though he has been in Parliament since 2005, it recently came to light that Scheer is a dual American citizen who registered for selective military service, at one time applied for and received an American passport, and files U.S. income tax.

In an election where climate is an issue -- has become climate emergency as an issue -- Scheer has been unable to break away from the aura of climate denial that began with Stephen Harper and envelops Kenney, Ford, and the other four conservative premiers who are contesting federal climate policy in court. 

On the defining issue of our times the Conservative party leader cannot break with the American Republican orthodoxy that has defined the Conservative Party of Canada from its days as the Reform Party, be it on abortion, same-sex marriage, militarism, or tax cuts leading to spending cuts substituting for economic policy.

Rather than highlight his own beliefs in the official English-language leaders' debate on October 7, Scheer resorted to personal attacks from the outset, calling the prime minister a fraud and a phoney. Scheer's goal throughout the campaign has been to demean his main opponent.

He had better hope it works -- if it does not, he is likely to be looking for a new job.

Duncan Cameron is president emeritus of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Image: Andrew Scheer/Flickr

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