Andrew Scheer: social conservative trojan horse, or Harper with a smile?

On Saturday, Andrew Scheer was elected as the leader of the Conservative Party. Who is he? What does he stand for? What does this mean for Canadian politics?

We don’t know much yet. Very few people saw this coming (even the media got their predictions almost entirely wrong), and everybody’s grappling with questions around what his win means for the policy direction of the Conservative party, the tone of the Conservatives’ opposition for the next three years, and the dynamics in the 2019 election. But here is a rundown of what we do know:

Andrew Scheer 101

Andrew Scheer is a Saskatchewan transplant from Ottawa, and has held the riding of Regina—Qu'Appelle since 2004. At 38 he was the youngest candidate running for Conservative leader. He was the Speaker of the House between 2011 and 2015 (also the youngest Speaker in Canadian history). He’s deeply respected by his caucus, and had the most endorsements from sitting CPC MPs as any other candidates.

Scheer is a social conservative who’s against abortion, equal marriage, transgender rights, and assisted-suicide — although he ran a campaign focused on party unity and staple conservative issues like balancing the budget.

“Harper with a smile”

While there’s still lots up in the air, Scheer doesn’t seem to represent any major break with the CPC. He ran on a platform of fiscal conservatism, and he looks like more of the same. A Harper 2.0, or as John Ibbitson is calling him— “Harper with a smile”. He’s apparently a very likeable guy —  which actually makes him scary. Remember how bland and unlikable Harper was — and all the damage he still managed to do over 10 years? Picture a a happy Harper with none of the baggage, and you’ve got Andrew Scheer.

He’s someone who can energize the base, attract swing voters, and ultimately compete with the Liberals (remember: the CPC did not lose by much in 2015). We should be on guard. The main difference between Harper and Scheer will unlikely be about policy — it will be about their image.

After a decade of Harper rule (and the fact that Canadians rejected his secretive, inaccessible, autocratic style of governance), the Conservatives have been trying to re-shape their image to reflect a more modern, accessible, less-boring style of politics —one that can re-gain 2015 losses and even build a bigger tent.

The CPC knows it needs a more affable leader. Someone a little more relatable (something that Harper deeply lacked). This could be Scheer. He’s young, he’s articulate, and he will have an army of communications experts to help him appeal to that bigger tent, while maintaining the classic Conservative (self-) image: the reasonable, stable choice. It could work.

Social conservative trojan horse?

While Sheer says he'll keep his radical, social conservative views to himself, there’s reason to think that he could be a trojan horse for the anti-choice and LGBTQ movements. He owes a sizable part of his win to the social conservative base, and they aren’t going to let him forget it.

The truth is no-one really knows what he would do as Prime Minister but there is reason to be worried. During his campaign Scheer nodded to the possibility of re-opening the abortion debate when he said, “‘I believe 100 per cent that members of Parliament have the right to bring forward and debate any legislation of importance to them.” There are also ways to get around the House of Commons to block access to abortion — for instance, by defunding groups and creating regulatory restrictions.

So what’s it all mean?

Whether or not Scheer tries to put his social conservatism into policy, we know he's bad news.

He likes guns and wants to soften gun restrictions. His campaign manager is a director of far-right website, The Rebel, which peddles in extreme hate and xenophobia. He supports the energy east pipeline and is a “drill baby drill” kind of man (as long as it’s Canadian oil). His refugee policy mirrors Harper’s Islamophobia in that he wants to prioritize “real refugees” — by which he means Christians instead of Syrian Muslims. He wants to gut CBC News, and cut funding to universities that “limit free speech” (read: that ban anti-choice groups). He wants to send more fighter jets to Iraq. His indigenous policy is focused on punishing First Nations by forcing bands to publish salaries, while completely ignoring the broken federal funding model, as well as the litany of other issues that have plagued First Nations for decades. [Sources for above, here.]

So what’s it all mean? Mainly that electoral reform really matters and we cannot give up on it — we have to ensure that parties that don't represent a majority of people in Canada cannot win 100% of the power.

We're going to have to keep working hard to hold our politicians to account and to build a progressive movement that can take on Scheer's Conservatives in 2019.