He’s not quite “the killer” Stephen Harper was and – some in his party say – not quite ready to be Prime Minister
Google released a list of some of the most searched questions in Canada before the Labour Day weekend. It was one of those throwaway polls meant to lubricate the news machine for the federal election, which was officially called by Justin Trudeau on Wednesday, September 11. Number seven on the list: Who is Andrew Scheer?
In some ways it’s a strange question.
The leader of the Conservative Party of Canada has spent most of his adult life in politics, part of that serving as the youngest-ever Speaker of the House. He’s just turned 40 and come election day October 21, he may also become the youngest prime minister (next to Joe Clarke who served only briefly) in Canadian history.
Most Canadians know very little about Scheer, except how he’s portrayed in mainstream media, which is to say that he’s a little socially awkward and vanilla but certainly not dangerous. Scheer has built a political career on being innocuous. Unless, that is, you happen to be gay or pro-choice. Scheer wears his religion on his sleeve. More recently, the Conservative leader’s views on same-sex marriage and abortion have come under greater scrutiny. Canadians have begun to pay attention to what may be the most consequential election since, well, the last one, which was uglier than most. Welcome to the culture wars 2.0.
The country thought it had rid itself of Stephen Harper back in 2015. Don’t look now but here he comes again, only this time a more half-baked version with choir-boy looks. Scheer is not quite “the killer” Harper was and – some people in his party say – not quite ready to be Prime Minister. He needs more seasoning. But it’s the company he keeps that should give voters the most pause.
Many Canadians (at least those living outside Toronto and Quebec) may look at the Conservative leader and see themselves. But the squeaky-clean image can come off a little contrived.
It’s taken a hit since the Liberals released a video of his 2005 speech in the House opposing same-sex marriage. Its release was meant to change the channel on l’affaire SNC-Lavalin. One Liberal strategist compared it to throwing mud against the wall to see what would stick. But it went viral. Maybe because it was late August and the media had nothing else to talk about. Besides, it’s never been a secret where Scheer stands on homosexuality – or abortion.
But, for the first time, Canadians got a glimpse of a another side of Scheer than the one they’ve been seeing on a loop in TV ads. His support has flatlined ever since.
“How many legs would a dog have if you counted the tail as a leg?” Scheer offers in the edited clip. “The answer is just four. Just because a tail is called a leg doesn’t make it a leg,” he goes on.
Some commentators described Scheer’s comments as awkward. Some described them as hateful. Scheer didn’t help his cause by remaining silent on the matter for days. When he finally did emerge, he made more of a mess of it. He hasn’t actually evolved on the issue.
It’s the same story on abortion. He has said he won’t reopen the debate if elected PM, but he’s also said he wouldn’t stop anyone in his party from putting the question to a vote in the House.
Scheer has shown a similar duplicity when it comes to placating seamier elements in the party. He took his time, for example, disciplining Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak for her comments on residential schools. And then there are the elements in the party with anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim obsessions with whom Scheer has found favour.
It’s that indecisiveness showing again, his supporters will say. “He can be convinced on an issue either way,” says one Conservative insider.
But others say there’s a nastier side to Scheer, or at least there has been lately. Check out the surrogates he’s surrounded himself with to do his dirty work. “The dirty little men, in dirty little suits, putting out dirty little memes,” as one Liberal pollster refers to them.
Chief among the cabal is Hamish Marshall, Scheer’s campaign manager.
Marshall has been particularly partial to the views of the displaced Trump fans in the party who get their news from the alt-right conspiracy website Rebel Media. Marshall used to be a director of the outlet. He ran Scheer’s leadership from the Rebel’s offices. He has been running from the Rebel association ever since following the fiasco surrounding the outlet’s racially-tinged coverage of the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, where one person was killed.
Depending on who you listen to, Marshall is either a brilliant political strategist, just another Oxford-educated nerd whose never worked a day in his life or a hate monger. One thing is for certain, he is a master of the wedge issue. On September 5, Marshall was named in a criminal complaint filed by human rights lawyer Richard Warman against Rebel Media. It alleges the organization is engaged in the distribution of Islamophobic hate propaganda. The complaint has been characterized as a political ploy. But many of the allegations against Rebel Media also happen to be true.
Andrew Scheer was billed as a kinder, gentler Harper – “Harper Lite,” “Harper with a smile” – when he won the party’s leadership back in 2017. To be sure, it was Harper’s 11th-hour intervention that won it for Scheer.
Scheer was supposed to be the so-called “folksy unifier” the party needed coming out the Harper era. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. The former leader’s grip on the party remains. He’s their chief fundraiser. And Scheer still counts Harper among his most trusted advisers.
The former PM has a lot to say these days about populist movements. He’s written about the subject in his book Right Here, Right Now, which was released last fall.
In it, he posits that the future is populist. He writes that Donald Trump’s surprise election win in the United States “[signaled] that political, economic and social institutions must be more responsive to legitimate concerns about public policy, market regulation, immigration and technology.”
The time may have not been ripe for a Trump-like takeover when Harper ran in 2015. Canada may be more fertile political ground today. Scheer is betting on it.
But after a summer of conservative-friendly polls, his electoral prospects are all of a sudden looking more complicated. The Liberals are leading in Quebec and in the key battleground of Ontario the Ford factor is messing with the program.
Some polls have the Liberals significantly ahead in Ontario, and Trudeau, not Scheer, as the preferred choice of voters nationally in a head-to-head on the question of who would make the better PM.
There’s a lot riding on this one for Scheer.
Anything short of keeping the Liberals from another majority may spell trouble. Rumours that former PC leader Peter MacKay may be in the background ready to launch a bid – or Caroline Mulroney for that matter – will only get louder. Either of those choices would mark a significant philosophical departure for the party. It’s probably too late for that. But Jason Kenney is another name that has been bandied about. Only, he’s busy these days fomenting Western separatist sentiment.
Scheer identifies as an anti-Ottawa working-class Westerner. But he was actually born and raised in the nation’s capital in a decidedly middle-class family. His father was a Catholic deacon in the Ottawa Archdiocese. He’s of the Ottawa political class, much like Trudeau. But don’t tell Scheer’s supporters that.
Much like his mentor Stephen Harper, who was raised in Etobicoke but moved to Calgary, it’s out west where Scheer would make his political career.
There, Scheer felt more at home in his socially conservative views. To be sure, he worked in the constituency office of Canadian Alliance MP Larry Spencer. The former Baptist pastor from Missouri was the party’s family issues critic but lost that job after he told the Vancouver Sun that he would support a law banning homosexuality. Spencer claimed there was a North American-wide conspiracy to “seduce” young boys into homosexuality.
He would end up leaving the party after the Canadian Alliance merged with the PCs to form the Conservative Party of Canada in 2003. Scheer moved on to vie for the Conservative party nomination in Regina-Qu’Appelle running on a family values platform.
Same-sex marriage was front and centre during the 2004 federal election campaign and Scheer, an unapologetic opponent, would use the issue to great effect to unseat the long-time NDP MP for the area, Lorne Nystrom. Scheer won by some 800 votes and seemed to take a page out of Spencer’s book when it came to political campaigning, accusing Nystrom of being “soft” on child pornography. It was during a debate on artistic expression and it seemed to turn the tide for Scheer. (Nystrom threatened to sue for libel, but never followed through).
Scheer, all of 25 and a political nobody at the time, seemed destined for a career spent in the backbenches. There was little to distinguish him from the crowd. Few, if any, saw him back then as leadership material – or cabinet material for that matter. He was passed over several times by Harper.
While the Young Turks in Harper’s inner circle like Tony Clement and Jason Kenney counted folks like Thatcher as ideological heroes, Scheer was part of the “god squad” of social conservatives in caucus.
He’d been involved in Reform party clubs and Unite the Right efforts while at the University of Ottawa, but he wasn’t part of the Calgary group of MPs that formed the heart of the old Reform party. He was a little goofy.
But Scheer didn’t just come out of nowhere to be elected Speaker of the House after the Conservatives won a majority in 2011. It was ordained by Harper, who saw in Scheer someone much like him – and who could be trusted.
The job came with all the trappings. A private residence in Gatineau Park, a quarter-million-dollar salary. The job has historically been viewed as a booby trap. Most Speakers have gone on to political obscurity. That’s because there’s nowhere else to go but back to your job as MP once your term is up.
But Scheer was there to help the government expedite its agenda in the House after successive minority governments. And to provide cover when required.
As Speaker, Scheer was supposed to act as an independent arbiter on disputes that arise in parliament. But he proved all too willing to block questions during debate in the House over the 2011 voter suppression scandal. Robocalls had been used by a number of Conservative candidates in close races to redirect voters to the wrong voting stations.
It would later be revealed that Scheer’s riding association had loaned $3,000 to the campaign of Guelph Conservative candidate Marty Burke. A Saskatchewan friend of Scheer’s, Burke’s communications director Michael Sona would later be charged and found guilty of ordering some 7,000 robocalls in the riding. Scheer has said he knew nothing about the donation. Some opposition MPs were willing to give Scheer the benefit of the doubt back then.
His career has seemed to follow the Peter Principle ever since.