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Bound for Tory glory: meet Andrew Scheer

John Bell

June 22, 2017

Canadians are often so transfixed by international news that domestic stories go unnoticed. As astounding/horrifying as is the unfolding Trump saga, as entertaining as is watching the meltdown of Teresa May’s Tories and the rebirth of the British left inspired by Jeremy Corbyn, our domestic political machinations take a back seat to no one.

Pop quiz: how many of you can name the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada? MP Andrew Scheer was hardly a household name, a deliberate choice to avoid the lingering stink of having been in Stephen Harper’s inner circle. Not knowing who the hell he was didn’t stop 37 per cent of respondents to an Angus Reid poll from saying he would make the best Prime Minister to handle financial matters.

Harperism returns

The first thing to know about Scheer is that he has always been a Harper loyalist. Unlike Maxime Bernier, Lisa Raitt, and Kelley Leitch who were among the throng that sought party leadership, Scheer was never a cabinet minister. But there was more than one way to serve the Boss.

First elected in 2004, Scheer joined other with-wing back benchers, learning to keep their more extreme ideas under wraps, until given permission by the Boss to trot them out. Scheer took to heart Harper’s mantra: Canadians will never give us a majority if they know what we really think.

While Scheer smiled and toed the line laid down by Harper, in some ways he has more in common with Jason Kenney. Like Kenney, Scheer is guided by a very right-wing variety of Catholicism. He has consistently opposed abortion rights. He is against same-sex marriage and was part of the move to “redefine” marriage as a union between a man and a woman. He gets top marks from Campaign Life Coalition.

In 2004 Scheer hosted an Ottawa luncheon meeting with guest Vicar Msgr. Fred Dolan, of Opus Dei.  For the uninitiated, Opus Dei is to the Catholic Church as the Taliban is to Islam. Breaking out the dimples, he used the time-tested tactic to avoid criticism: bait and switch. Specific (and justified) exposure of Opus Die is portrayed as a misguided attack on all Catholicism. “The last time it was a crime to be a Catholic was in 1827 in Nova Scotia when they repealed the penal laws,” he said. “It is a shame that some people are trying again to make members of certain faith groups disqualified from public life.”

You might think that this champion of religious freedom would have been vocal in defence of Muslim Canadians, but, oddly, such seems not to be the case.

Successfully camouflaging his right-wing ideology behind boyish looks, dimples that appear to be surgically enhanced and an “aw shucks” demeanor, Scheer was elected Speaker of the House, the referee of parliamentary debate. Thanks to Harper’s majority, Scheer didn’t have to preside over any obviously partisan manoeuvers. So when Harper went down to defeat, Scheer had managed to earn a reputation with his peers as a consistent social conservative and a loyal party player, while avoiding being too closely linked to Harper among an electorate that had grown tired the Boss’s right-wing policies.

When Scheer entered the race for Tory leadership he didn’t have the brand recognition of blow-hard reality TV star Kevin O’Leary. He didn’t go headline hunting with the dog-whistle racism of Kellie Leitch, although he did join her voting against Bill M-103. He didn’t hoist himself on the cross by putting his anti-abortion, homophobic ideas first, the way Brad Trost did.

What he did was gather the endorsements of more members of Harper’s caucus than any other candidate. He went to the church basements and Legion halls and promised the Tory faithful to wrap Harper’s politics in a fresh, dimpled wrapper.

New poster boy

It took 13 rounds of voting for Scheer to beat his rival, Maxime Bernier, by a wafer thin margin. Literally within minutes of his victory, his campaign website was wiped clean and replaced with a happy photo and a “Thank you.” Policy statements on issues from abortion rights, opposition to M-103, support for privatize education and homeschooling, and defending racism, sexism and homophobia on university campuses as a “free speech” issue. (Press Progress, June 2, 2017)

Gone was evidence of connections between his campaign and Ezra Levant’s far-right Rebel Media – his campaign manager is on Levant’s board of directors.

And in the end, according to Bernier’s supporters, Scheer may have had to cheat to win. After the dust had settles, almost 7500 votes were unaccounted for, when the gap between Scheer and Bernier was just over 1000. How’s about a recount? Well, a Tory Party director named Dustin van Vugt ordered all ballots destroyed the moment the results were announced.

But fear not, no one would ever suggest Tories would stoop to dirty tricks to win an election.

Make no mistake, Scheer is has none of the ideological fire that drove Harper. Say what you want about the Boss, he was the “alpha male”: he was a canny strategist and ruthlessly controlled his wolf pack. By comparison, Scheer seems to be leading according to a template: smile and flash the dimples, avoid being pinned down on the hateful beliefs that simmer beneath the surface, satisfy the Reform Party base with a wink and a nod. Will the back benchers keep their bigotry under wraps as they did for Harper?

Andrew Scheer may think he’s bound for Tory glory, but I don’t think it will sell. Will Kellie Leitch stop whipping up Islamophobia? Will Brad Trost stop screaming “What about the children?” It ain’t gonna happen. I think they Tories are going to discover that replacing Harper will be a lot harder than finding a new poster boy.

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