Opinion

Andrew Scheer's narrow vision of conservatism was his party's failing: Robyn Urback

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer's message was that he would make Canadians' lives more affordable, which was the Liberals' promise, too. But the Liberals' affordability measures came without the threat — real or perceived — of a backward slide on social issues and environmental measures.

It came with the obligatory concern about the economy and affordability, and not much else

The lesson for Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer following Monday's federal election ought to be that appealing only to the Conservative base is not enough to win an election — not in the way we elect our Parliaments, anyway. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Conservatism in Canada doesn't necessarily look like Andrew Scheer's concept. It doesn't have to, anyway.

It can be pro choice, like Lisa Raitt, who lost her seat in the Greater Toronto Area riding of Milton last night. It can be openly supportive of same-sex marriage, like Michelle Rempel, who was re-elected to hers in Calgary Nose Hill. 

It can be be responsive to social injustice, like Rona Ambrose, who pushed a bill for mandatory sexual assault training for judges even after she left her post as interim Conservative leader. And it can be concerned about climate change, like Michael Chong, who was re-elected to his seat in the Ontario riding of Wellington-Halton Hills.

Andrew Scheer's version of conservatism incorporated none of those things. It was about as narrow as Conservatism gets, with the obligatory concern about the economy and affordability, and not much else. He made perfunctory statements about the environment and awkwardly dodged questions when asked about social issues. 

The result was a candidate who would appeal to a Conservative base, which is not enough to win an election — not in the way we elect our Parliaments, anyway. Earning super-support in concentrated areas — 64 per cent in Saskatchewan or 69 per cent in Alberta — doesn't matter if you can't siphon enough votes away in Ontario, Atlantic Canada and Quebec. And that's hard to do when you make practically no effort to reach voters beyond those who are already loyal. 

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was mired in ethical scandals by the time Canadians headed to the polls. (Brett Gundlock/Getty Images)

This was a winnable election for a Conservative challenger, though it didn't seem like that a few years ago. Indeed, there was a sense back in 2017, when the Conservatives were deciding who would next lead their party, that the poor sap who would take the job was destined to sit on the opposition benches for at least one election cycle. 

At the time, Trudeau's flubs included a gushing posthumous tribute to former Cuban president Fidel Castro and a vacation on the private island of the Aga Khan that violated conflict of interest rules. And while he had broken a few key campaign promises even back then, like his pledge to usher in electoral reform, the Trudeau brand was still strong — he was still getting fluffy media attention, particularly from fawning international outlets.

But by fall 2019 and into the campaign, the mirage of a truly different type of government was gone. Trudeau was mired in ethical scandals, like the SNC-Lavalin affair; personal scandals, including the yet-to-be-determined number of times he'd worn blackface; and a running tab of policy failures, such as buying a pipeline, but failing to defend that pipeline. The prospect of a Liberal loss this election was viable. 

Yet, faced with these fortuitous circumstances, the Conservatives' approach was not to present a comprehensive vision for Canada, but rather to solidify its base, get out the vote, and trust that the Trudeau implosion would clear the path to electoral success. 

That would have been a decent strategy for a Conservative Leader Lisa Raitt or a Rona Ambrose — someone who wasn't so susceptible to Liberal war room attacks about a hidden social conservative agenda. But for Andrew Scheer, it meant parking himself at the end of the cliff, and hoping no one gave him a nudge.

Scheer's message was that he would make Canadians' lives more affordable, which was the Liberals' promise, too. But the Liberals' affordability measures — a tax cut, housing and wireless policy changes — came without the risk, as Liberals would constantly remind voters, of a backward slide on social issues and environmental measures.

Trudeau's promises came with baggage, too — mostly his own — but ethical scandals don't necessarily affect people's lives as directly and intimately as a threat, real or perceived, to the freedom to marry who you want and do what you want with your body.

Scheer's message was that he would make Canadians' lives more affordable, which was the Liberals' promise, too. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Granted, there were some circumstances beyond the Conservatives' control this election. Scheer's poor French didn't much help his prospects in Quebec. The Premier Doug Ford factor seems to have hurt the party's prospects in Ontario, particularly in the crucial 905 region, and the momentum for NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh appears to have come too late to meaningfully divide progressive voters, especially with the Liberals warning that a vote for Singh was a vote for Scheer, which was thus a vote against the planet and same-sex marriage.

Conservatism doesn't have to be the scary alternative; it can be a vision for Canada that includes fiscal responsibility and economic planning, good jobs as well as environmental measures, a coherent and practical approach to foreign policy and unabashed support for marginalized groups. 

Building a broad tent is how the Conservatives, in this social climate, with these sorts of regional divisions, will be successful. It's a vision that includes both pipelines and pride parades.

It is unclear if Andrew Scheer is capable of leading his party in that direction, but the results of last night's election suggest it will be a tough slog. He will spend the next few days downplaying his loss. He reminded his supporters last night that Stephen Harper first erased Paul Martin's majority, then went on to lead a Conservative government for nearly 10 years. He will also reiterate that his party won the popular vote (34.4 per cent compared to the Liberals' 33.1 per cent, at last tally).

But that won't be enough to convince swing voters that they made a mistake by voting strategically, or maintaining their support for the Liberals, or voting for the candidate who truly inspired them. No doubt many of them are breathing a sigh of relief today for dodging the threat of a destructive Prime Minister Scheer. That fear is the Conservative Party's failing.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

About the Author

Robyn Urback

Columnist

Robyn Urback is an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at:

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