Opinion

Andrew Scheer needs to up his flaccid performance: Robyn Urback

Stephen Harper’s challenge was that he came off as too authoritarian, too controlling. Scheer’s is the opposite: he’s mild, flaccid. He’ll demand the prime minister resign — and then demand again.

Or else the Liberals will make the fall election out to be between Justin Trudeau and Doug Ford

Stephen Harper’s challenge was that he came off as too authoritarian, too controlling. Scheer’s is the opposite: he’s mild, soft. He’ll demand the prime minister resign — and then he'll demand it again. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Behind the scenes, Conservative operatives were buzzing after Jody Wilson-Raybould, then still a member of the Liberal caucus, testified before the House of Commons justice committee back in February. 

Keep watching. Something BIG is coming.

Wilson-Raybould's allegations were explosive: the prime minister himself had pressured her to interfere in the criminal case of engineering firm SNC-Lavalin. The atmosphere as she exited the room was electric.

It gets better. Wait for it. 

That afternoon, Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer appeared before reporters and made a statement to the nation:

"Justin Trudeau simply cannot continue to govern this country now that Canadians know what he has done," Scheer began.

"That is why I am calling on Mr. Trudeau to do the right thing, and to resign."

BOOM!

BOOM?

PLOP? 

Then he politely demanded it again a few weeks later.

Scheer demanded Trudeau resign. Trudeau did not. (Chris Wattie/Reuters, Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The prime minister, of course, did not resign, which relegated Scheer's request to a mere footnote in the day's coverage. 

It was a poorly conceived plan, the only effect of which was to make Scheer look silly. The Conservatives ought to have known that you only go for the nuclear option if you can be reasonably certain of an explosion, or else you end up looking like Wile E. Coyote standing by an impotent pile of dynamite, holding a limp string. 

Scheer has struggled to convey an image of, well, anything in the two years since he became leader of the Official Opposition. He is quite capable and confident in casual forums and in-depth policy discussions, but most Canadians don't spend their time tuning into CPAC specials to learn about the guy who was once Speaker of the House and … I don't know … has a lot of children? 

As of writing, the Conservative Party leads by about five points in the polls, and while the SNC-Lavalin affair moved the dial on Trudeau's personal approval rating, it didn't do much for Scheer's. In fact, about a third of respondents to the latest Nanos poll are still unsure what to make of him (compared to around 12 per cent for Trudeau in 2015 at the same time of year, as surveyed by the same pollster), which is roughly in line with other polling over the last couple of months.

What that leaves is a relatively blank canvas on which opponents can craft their own narrative. Back in April, the Liberals tried to paint Scheer as an apologist for white supremacists, but that didn't really catch. Then they latched onto anti-abortion anxieties seeping into Canada from the U.S., and made Scheer out to be some sort of an anti-abortion zealot. That didn't really work either. The connection was too remote. 

But now Conservative opponents seem to have found a winner: Scheer as Ontario Premier Doug Ford's lapdog. It's simple, digestible and might already be having an effect on voter intentions.

The Ford effect

Ontario — in particular the 905, the suburban belt around Toronto — will be critical in the upcoming federal election, and the province is not exactly fond of Ford after his first year as premier. He managed to slid into Queen's Park without actually saying how and where he would find his promised "efficiencies" and — lo and behold — once in office, he simply downloaded that task to various agencies by slashing their budgets, thus demanding they find efficiencies. 

The effect has been felt everywhere: education, environment, legal aid, autism services, to name a few, with frustrations over cutbacks inflamed by the government's bizarre fixation with the comparatively trivial issue of liberalized beer sales. 

The result is that Ford's net favourability rating has plummeted lower than former premier Kathleen Wynne's in just one year (how's that for efficient?), rendering his name toxic in certain parts of Ontario.

That's why Engage Canada — which calls itself a "non-partisan" advocacy group, though it has ties to the left and to unions — bought ad time during the NBA Finals between the Raptors and Golden State to warn Canadians that "Scheer will never stand up to Ford," and that he will follow Ford's path of cuts to health care and education (though they are primarily of provincial jurisdiction, but never mind). Liberal ministers are trumpeting the same lines.

Uncoincidentally, Ontario's unpopular Conservative government has decided to adjourn the legislature for five months until — wouldn't you know — just after the federal election, and Scheer is now actively trying to distance himself from Ford. 

Scheer has backtracked on his promise to balance the budget in two years, and he told the Toronto Star in a recent interview that he is his "own person." But, well, to borrow a line from Game of Thrones: Any man who must say "I am king" is no true king at all.

Stephen Harper's challenge was that he came off as too authoritarian, too controlling. Scheer's is the opposite: he's mild, flaccid. He'll demand the prime minister resign — and then demand again. And wait — is that a smile? 

Conservatives do not want an election between Justin Trudeau and Doug Ford. But unless Scheer can actually emerge as his own person, that's exactly what they will get. 


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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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