Scheer has caucus support, for now

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Andrew Scheer has more than a communications problem. He has a substance problem and so does his party. The April reckoning in Toronto will bring it to a head.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on November 11, 2019.

OTTAWA—Andrew Scheer dodged a bullet in caucus last week.

That was not surprising because it would have been highly unlikely for caucus to unilaterally usurp the role of party members.

Even those who privately do not support Scheer would be publicly loathe to take him out in a caucus vote.

Instead, his enemies in the party are working overtime to ensure that the April review convention in Toronto votes to kick Scheer out.

By rights, all Scheer needs to survive is a vote of 50 per cent plus one. But a lukewarm response from party supporters would not bode well for the party’s growth in the next election.

Scheer lost support in every single province except Alberta and Manitoba. He was blown out of the water in every major urban centre except Edmonton and Calgary.

And his post-election caucus statement last week did not augur well to turn those numbers around. Much has been debated in the past two weeks about the economic disaster falling on oil-dependent Saskatchewan and Alberta. Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, representing three per cent of the population, went so far as to issue a demand that the Liberal government abandon its carbon-pricing plan. That plan was supported by the vast majority of Canadians across the political spectrum and even Tories now are owning up to the fact that their party’s myopia in climate change hurt them badly in Ontario and Quebec. Peter MacKay laid the blame for a bad campaign squarely on his leader’s shoulders. He said that Scheer basically had an open net to shoot into and he simply could not make it. The inference to the “stinking albatross” of social conservatism must have hurt. But MacKay elucidated clearly the problem facing Scheer.

His refusal to march in gay pride parades and his ambivalence on abortion rights cost him dearly. Most male observers downplayed the role of social conservatism with one columnist chiding female reporters for bringing the situation up. But women, who have spent much of our lives fighting for equality, are less than enthusiastic when a would-be prime minister does not vigorously defend our rights.

The post-election post mortem shows a clear gender split. With fewer women supporting the Conservatives, Liberals also suffered losses in this important demographic but still managed to score ahead of the Tories even after the ugly showdown between the prime minister and his colleague Jody Wilson-Raybould. The NDP was the beneficiary of an increase in women’s support with double the number of women to men supporting their party.

The issue of social conservatism is not simply a problem of one leader. Instead, the key voices in the current party are largely social conservatives.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, in the first month of his leadership, moved to reduce protection for gay and lesbian high school students who join support clubs but do not want their parents to know.

Kenney also moved quickly to can a panel that had been established to review the legality of conversion therapy in Alberta. Kenney said the panel was unnecessary but did not rule out the possibility of going along with a federal conversion therapy ban.

During the bitter spring election, Rachel Notley’s struggling party released a two-decade old tape of Kenney saying his greatest achievement in university activism was managing to ban gay partners from being with their loved ones on their hospital death beds. Kenney later said he regretted making the comments.

Many other Conservatives have similar views. In rural areas that return to the old days of father knows best. But the urban swathes that denied Scheer his government are definitely opposed to his backward social perspective

Scheer and Kenney both share a devout support for Catholicism.

MacKay and other progressives understand full well that Bible Belt politics does not work in Canada. However, the party that MacKay merged with the Canadian Alliance May not support his assessment.

Canadians tend to be a fairly secular people. We support the separation of church and state. But we also want citizens to experience free expression of religion. Hence the general distaste across the rest of Canada for a Quebec law that denies citizens the right to wear hijabs, crosses and turbans.

But at the end of the day, we do not support leaders whose religious positions overreach their political decision-making.

Scheer has more than a communications problem. He has a substance problem and so does his party. The April reckoning in Toronto will bring it to a head.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.