The Conservative Party of Canada has elected Saskatchewan MP Andrew Scheer as its new leader. Scheer, who has represented the riding of Regina—Qu’Appelle since 2004 and served as Speaker of the House under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper from 2011 to 2015, won a narrow victory over rival Maxime Bernier in the 13th and final round of voting, taking 50.95% of the vote. With the election of Scheer, Conservatives have signalled their continuity with the Harper era and selected a leader seen as most able to reconcile the disparate ideological groupings within the party. As the new face of Tory reaction, Scheer combines muted social conservatism with a fierce devotion to the unbridled rule of capital. The fortunes of Scheer and his party going forward will depend greatly on the economic trajectory of Canada in the coming years and whether growing opposition to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals is channeled to the right or to the left.
“Andrew who?” was the reaction of many Canadians to Scheer’s victory. Bernier, a libertarian candidate often referred to as the “Albertan from Quebec”, was long considered a favourite for the leadership election and won out over Scheer in the first 12 rounds of voting. Despite Bernier’s popularity within the Conservative Party, his hard-right policy positions—chief among them his pledge to phase out supply management in the dairy and poultry industries, which protects the revenue of farmers through price controls on products such as milk, eggs, and chicken—proved his undoing. With even a majority of Conservatives in support of supply management, and three of every four Canadians approving the system, Bernier’s positions threatened poor results for the party in a general election. Despite strong support among Tory voters in Alberta and Quebec, Bernier attracted little broad support in other provinces.
Meanwhile, much of the initial media coverage surrounding the race revolved around two candidates evoking different aspects of the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. First was the nativist campaign of Ontario MP and former Harper cabinet official Kellie Leitch, whose signature proposal involved forcing immigrants to undergo screening to test their adherence to “Canadian values”. Then came loudmouth billionaire TV host Kevin O’Leary, of Dragon’s Den and Shark Tank fame, who ultimately dropped out of the race due to an inability to speak French and endorsed Bernier. Conservative voters decisively rejected these “Trumpist” candidates, with Leitch hovering around seven per cent support before her elimination in the ninth round of voting.
A major clue to Scheer’s success was the surprisingly strong showing of two leadership candidates identified with the social conservative wing of the party, Saskatchewan MP Brad Trost and former Ontario MP Pierre Lemieux. Both candidates oppose same-sex marriage and sought to re-open the legislative debate on abortion, while Trost was known for his opposition to transgender bathrooms, physician-assisted death, and legalization of cannabis. Support from social conservative voters in Ontario and the Prairies resulted in Lemieux making it to the eighth round of voting and Trost winning 14.3 per cent of the vote to take fourth place in the 11th round. A Toronto Star report analyzing the results suggested that “their down-ballot support looks to be what sealed Andrew Scheer’s victory.”
Other candidates who represented the “Progressive Conservative” wing of the party, including Lisa Raitt, Chris Alexander, Michael Chong—whose open support for a carbon tax left him a pariah in the eyes of many party faithful—collectively gathered a mere 11.95 per cent for members’ first choice as leader, with their support largely confined to Atlantic Canada.
The last remaining candidate to oppose Scheer and Bernier was Ontario MP Erin O’Toole, who placed third in the 12th round of voting with 21.3 per cent. Like Scheer, O’Toole was identified with “big tent” conservatives who represented continuity with the Harper era. Supporters of both candidates were spread out geographically, which the Star wrote “likely made the difference between a Scheer leadership and a Bernier leadership.”
Who is Andrew Scheer?
Consistent fundraising and strong polling—generally placing higher than any candidate except Bernier—were early hints that Scheer stood to benefit from the perception that he represented a consensus candidate able to unify the disparate wings of the party. A 38-year-old father of five, Scheer maintained a relatively low profile during his four years as Speaker and has a reputation in parliamentary circles as “nice” and “approachable”. Since his election as party leader, numerous commentators have described Scheer as “Harper with a smile”—an appropriate moniker for a figure whose public statements confirm that his policies would follow closely in Harper’s footsteps.
As the two big business parties that dominate the federal government, the Liberals and Conservatives in many ways resemble the “good cop” and “bad cop”, respectively, of bourgeois politics in Canada. Both parties defend the interests of the Canadian capitalist class. But where the Liberals present a “left” face during elections and posture as the kinder, gentler representatives of capital, Conservatives represent the “right” face of capital, openly defending the interests of the capitalists and attacking the working class. Thus, while Trudeau’s Liberals have presented deficit budgets to stave off austerity, Scheer’s Conservatives have declared a steadfast commitment to balanced budgets. For Canadian workers, however, the choice between the Conservatives and Liberals amounts to a choice between austerity now and austerity later.
Where the Liberals offer a foreign policy “brand” that supports the imperialist interests of the United States, Canada’s main ally and trading partner, by posing as champions of multilateralism and “peacekeeping”, Conservatives prefer a more openly militaristic approach. In that regard, Scheer advocates the reversal of Trudeau’s decision to pull Canadian fighter jets out of U.S.-led combat against ISIS in Iraq, amounting to a de facto restoration of Harper-era policy.
Though Scheer is identified as a social conservative who personally opposes abortion, voted against a law normalizing same-sex marriage, and has publicly come out against greater rights of transgender people by opposing Bill C-16—which would add “gender identity” and “gender orientation” to the Canadian Human Rights Act as prohibited reasons for discrimination—he has also pledged to adhere to party policy by not re-opening the debates around abortion and same-sex marriage. In that sense, Scheer looks to repeat the careful balancing act of Harper, who relied on support from social conservatives during elections while offering them little in the way of actual policy.
However, Scheer is less reluctant to throw red meat to conservatives on cultural issues, specifically around one of the more popular bogeyman of the modern right, “political correctness”. Aside from invoking the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism”, the new Conservative leader has pledged to withdraw federal funding from Canadian colleges and universities that do not allow for “free debate”, making “fostering and protecting free speech” a criterion for post-secondary institutions applying for grants to federal agencies such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.
As an example of precisely whose free speech he sees as threatened, Scheer has publicly supported University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson’s refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns and “concern” over Bill C-16. As described by the National Post:
Scheer, who opposes C-16, held up Peterson’s right to articulate his point of view as an example of why more incentives are needed to counteract political correctness on campus. […]
If a university had several incidents and identified a problem on campus, it could show that it was doing something about the problem, he explained, whether pressuring student unions through financial means or putting better security plans in place.
Students, and not institutions, are often the source of controversial actions on campus — but “I do believe the university does have a responsibility to step in and prevent small rabble-rousing groups from having an impact,” said Scheer.
Groups can be loud and proud about controversial views on either end of the spectrum, as long as they don’t prevent others from exercising their rights, Scheer said. “If universities are allowing small radical groups to infringe on that, I think they have a responsibility to prevent that.”
Here we see the hypocrisy of the Conservative approach to “free speech”! In essence, Scheer proposes that universities protect the “free speech” of individuals such as Peterson by infringing on the free speech of campus organizations and student activists, and specifically their ability to challenge views such as Peterson’s.
Contrary to the protests of the reactionary right, free speech does not confer an immunity from having one’s speech challenged by others. In the context of the rise of the “alt-right” and increasingly open manifestations of racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, defense of free speech has served as a convenient cover for what amounts to the protection of hate speech. Scheer, the great defender of free speech, argues that universities should forcibly prevent “small radical groups” from “having an impact”; the self-contradictory nature of this policy speaks for itself.
Fight Tory reaction!
Despite these early policy pronouncements, Scheer remains a blank slate for much of the Canadian electorate. Looking ahead to the 2019 federal election, the governing Liberals are already painting Scheer as a far-right extremist, while the Tories naturally aim to define their new leader in the most positive light.
While Trudeau’s honeymoon may be ebbing, with his approval ratings taking a dip as the Liberals follow their traditional bait-and-switch tactic of campaigning from the left and governing from the right, he remains popular with the Canadian public. The Liberals have benefitted from a relatively favorable economy and a lack of concrete rivals to Trudeau, as both the Conservatives and NDP remained mired in their respective leadership contests.
However, the real estate boom that has fueled the Canadian economy looks to be on the verge of a market correction, and a significant economic downturn could change the political situation completely. In the event of diminishing support for the Liberals, Canadians searching for an alternative would look either to the right, at the Conservatives, or to the left, at the NDP. Gains for Scheer and the Conservatives would depend to a great degree on whether Tom Mulcair’s eventual successor as NDP leader is able to offer a real alternative by putting forward bold socialist policies.
The way to fight the reactionary right is not through failed attempts at moderation, as the hapless results of the NDP in recent provincial elections across the country illustrate. The fight against austerity, whether of the Liberal or the Conservative variety, requires a struggle against capitalism itself. Only an independent working class movement fighting for socialism, led by a mass revolutionary party, can effectively stem the tide of reaction.