Firing two luckless patsies just makes Scheer look hapless: Neil Macdonald

After his election showing against a weakened, staggered Justin Trudeau, Andrew Scheer very much wants to appear leader-like, writes Neil Macdonald.

Andrew Scheer very much wants to appear leader-like these days

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, seen here speaking during a campaign rally in Vancouver on Oct. 20, has dismissed senior staff who worked with him during the election. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The most interesting sentence in the weekend's news flow was five paragraphs into a colleague's report about Andrew Scheer's announcement that with great regret, he'd fired two of his most senior aides.

Multiple Conservative sources, wrote the CBC's Elise von Scheel, "said Scheer informed them personally that they were to be let go and not be allowed to resign."

In other words, poor Brock Harrison and Marc-André Leclerc were not allowed to go for the high jump themselves. They had to let themselves be heaved over by Scheer, and then thank him obsequiously, which, loyal party men to the end, they did.

The idea, of course, is that for the leader to appear leader-like, he must be the fellow who makes the tough decisions and does the firing, not the fellow whose people quit on him.

And Andrew Scheer wants to appear leader-like these days.

Scheer fires 2 top staff after election loss | Sunday Scrum

3 years ago
Duration 12:22
Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer has fired two top aides in his office as the party deals with the fallout of an election loss.

As for the tactic itself, the subtext of which was that the party's problem during the election was not Andrew Scheer's message, but his hired help's failure to communicate it effectively, it would be funny if it weren't so hapless.

Conservatives I know roll their eyes and snicker fatalistically at Scheer's attempts to hang on to his high-salary job and rent-free accommodation while continuing to tap-dance around settled issues like same sex marriage and abortion. Liberals smile happily and carry on hoping that the red-meat social conservatives who helped vault Scheer into the leader's office see to it that he stays there for the next election.

Political professionals on all sides of the Ottawa aisle understand the same basic fact: given the electoral realities in this country, there is no path to victory without the support of urban centres and/or Quebec. Scheer has secured neither, and isn't likely to.

Even if he managed to get over his distaste for gay people and appeared in a Pride parade or two, and began declaring that abortion is a matter best left between a woman and her doctor, it's too late. Too many urban voters have him marked down as a member of the religious right. A sudden epiphany would just sound phony at this stage.

And that goes for small-c urban conservatives, too. As Stephen Harper's campaign manager Jenni Byrne, hardly a closet liberal, put it during a discussion on the excellent Herle Burly political podcast, people who 10 years ago disapproved of gay marriage now attend gay weddings and just don't care about the issue. Public opinion changed that quickly and decisively.

But not Scheer. He didn't have an albatross around his neck during the campaign, as Peter McKay famously declared. He was the albatross.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, right, missed a 'breakaway on an empty net' in failing to defeat Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the election, former Conservative minister Peter MacKay said at an event in Washington on Oct. 30. (Canadian Press photos)

And really, the party should have seen it coming. I did from the moment he won the leadership. 

In any case, the path to victory for his party should be equally obvious: the Conservatives have to resurrect the word "progressive," ripped out of the party name by Stephen Harper's bunch, and restore it. Or do something similar.

That means standing for fiscal conservatism – limited intervention in the economy, lower taxes, only such regulation as is demonstrably justifiable, helping society's neediest but resisting extensive social engineering – and taking a laissez-faire approach to social issues. Laissez-faire is supposed to be a core conservative value, after all.

One of Andrew Scheer's competitors for the party leadership, a fellow named Rick Peterson, preached all those things during the leadership race three years ago.

Alberta businessman and former Conservative leadership contender Rick Peterson. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Peterson is a fluently bilingual venture capitalist from Alberta with a graduate degree from the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris. His French crackles; it's at least as good as Justin Trudeau's. He is a pro-choice, pro-same-sex-marriage, pro-LGBT rights, pro-assisted suicide Westerner. He thinks immigrants are a valuable economic resource, and doesn't care where they worship. His focus was entirely on fiscal issues: tax reform, corporate welfare, competitiveness.

"There is a reason Conservatives have no MPs in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver," he told me in early 2017. "We have lost the progressive conservatives. We need them."

He was largely ignored by party militants. The contest was between Scheer, backed by the party's social conservatives, and Maxime Bernier, the libertarian who left the party and barged even further right, creating the People's Party and in the process becoming a much bigger loser than Scheer.

So consider this, because every thinking Conservative in the country must be: how would a progressive Conservative, a Rick Peterson or a Lisa Raitt or a Rona Ambrose, have done against a weakened, staggered Justin Trudeau last month? And who should go up against Trudeau, who is hardly a beloved figure, next time?

I spoke to Lisa Raitt. She didn't want to talk about how she'd have done in Scheer's place, nor, clearly, did she want to discuss Scheer's weaknesses.

The etiquette right now is to support the leader while he is the leader.

Lisa Raitt was defeated in the Ontario riding of Milton by Liberal candidate Adam van Koeverden, an Olympic gold-medal kayaker. (David Kawai/The Canadian Press)

Should the party bring the word "progressive" back into its name?

"I dunno about that," she said. "I don't know how you would go about that. Stephen Harper made the change, and it's done.

"But," added this woman who is happy to call herself a progressive Conservative, and who was a successful executive in the private sector before going into politics, "I will say this: It is urban versus rural. The urban centres in this country have moved ahead, and we must win those centres to achieve power. In order to move ahead, we have to get with the times. How's that?"

How's that? Pretty obvious, I'd say. And probably more of a plan than firing a couple of luckless patsies.

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


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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