Photo: British High Commission, Ottawa/flickr

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The Conservatives have chosen a new leader who is well known in Ottawa and among Conservative party insiders. Andrew Scheer was Speaker of the House from 2011 to 2015, the youngest person to ever hold that job. But he is almost unknown in the country.

“Who the f*** is Andrew Scheer?” wrote one Facebooker, after the Conservatives chose the Saskatchewan MP by the narrowest of margins on Saturday night.

Forty-one years ago, when the Progressive Conservatives (as they then called themselves) chose a little-known western MP still in his 30s as their new leader, one headline said: “Joe who?” Back in 1976, the sitting prime minister was also named Trudeau, and the Progressive Conservative leadership race’s frontrunner had also been a Quebecker, former provincial Liberal justice minister Claude Wagner.

Wagner was a pro-death-penalty, tough-on-crime lawyer, judge and politician, with a blunt and abrasive manner. His supporters thought he could help the Progressive Conservatives make a breakthrough in Quebec. Others considered him to be too divisive a figure.

There was another Quebecker in that race, Montreal lawyer and business executive Brian Mulroney, who had never run for elected office, and who, in 1976, projected a bit too much big city flash for a good part of the Progressive Conservative base.

Joe Clark was the compromise choice. His main virtue was that while he excited few, he offended even fewer.

Supported by both social conservatives and Red Tories

For his part, Andrew Scheer was up against a Quebecker who advocated two-tier health care and eliminating marketing boards. On top of that, Maxime Bernier’s English is less than perfect, and his lifestyle is not one likely to appeal to the family values-espousing social conservatives who still occupy a big place in the current Conservative party. The better-than-expected results for the two social conservatives in the race, Pierre Lemieux and Brad Trost, testify to the continuing influence of social conservatives, a fact that seems to have escaped the notice of most professional observers before Saturday.

Andrew Scheer is a sufficiently nebulous figure to have been able to capture both social conservative support and some of the small contingent of still-extant Red Tories who backed Michael Chong or Lisa Raitt.

Scheer is a family man with five children and a dutiful political wife, a big contrast to the handsome bachelor Bernier who, famously, once dated a one-time biker’s moll.

Scheer has not promised to revisit abortion laws, but he has signalled his affinity for social conservatives by proposing a tax break for those who choose home and private schooling. And he does tend to use a lot of coded rhetoric about “respecting parents’ choices.”

If most of Michael Chong’s supporters also opted for Scheer as a second or third choice it was probably because the former speaker might have seemed like a more comfortable choice than hard-right libertarian Bernier. Chong, readers will remember, is the one and only Conservative leadership candidate who unequivocally accepted the science on global warming. His signature policy was a carbon tax, which Chong tried to sell as a market-based tool in the fight against climate change. What did the Chong folks think, then, when one of the few pledges Scheer made in his victory speech was to immediately repeal the Liberal carbon tax? Whatever they thought, they should not have been surprised. Scheer might be a smiling version of Stephen Harper, which is how many in the party see him. But on most key files — notably the environment and First Nations — he is pure and unadulterated Harper. 

The entirety of Scheer’s stated policy on First Nations is a return to the punitive, Harper-era policy of publishing Indigenous bands’ financial statements online. That practice puts the entire responsibility for a broken, dysfunctional funding system — one which auditor general Sheila Fraser condemned on numerous occasions — on the shoulders of poor and inadequately resourced First Nations communities.

On climate change, Scheer wants to return to Harper’s bogus policy of sector-by-sector regulation, in lockstep with the United States. Given who is in power in the U.S., it is easy to guess how that would work out.

The man they called Joe Who in 1976 went on to win the election three years later. At that point, the Liberals had been continuously in power for more than 15 years, and there was a natural time-for-a-change mood in the country. The economy was also sputtering, never good for a sitting government. Interestingly, Clark’s signature policy, and one that got him defeated on a confidence vote in the House, was, in effect, one that we would now call a carbon tax: 18 cents a gallon on gasoline at the pump. Joe Clark’s finance minister, John Crosbie, called it “short-term pain for long-term gain.”

The tax did not work out politically for the Progressive Conservatives back then, and Andrew Scheer will not likely offer any bold or innovative policies this time round. But Canadians should not be deceived by Scheer’s smiling, dimpled countenance. His government would be a sharp right turn, back to everything Canadians rejected about the Harper regime in 2015. 

Photo: British High Commission, Ottawa/flickr

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...