Why Scheer's defenders are pointing to the 2004 election now — and why the argument doesn't hold up

In Conservative circles these days, people are searching for lessons about the party's future through a close examination of its past.

Yes, there are similarities between Harper then and Scheer now. There are also important differences.

Andrew Scheer with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and NDP Leader Jack Layton in the House of Commons on June 2, 2011. Scheer's allies have been comparing his 2019 election performance to Harper's in 2004, suggesting the Conservative leader deserves the same chance to recover from defeat. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

In Conservative circles these days, people are searching for lessons about the party's future through a close examination of its past.

Which makes sense. Circumstances change, but there's always something to be learned from the last time things went badly. Under heavy pressure within the party to rationalize the failure to make Justin Trudeau a one-term prime minister, Andrew Scheer and his supporters have been pointing to another time a Conservative leader held a Liberal government to a minority and then faced questions about his leadership.

Sen. Denise Batters, a friend and long-time supporter of Scheer, recently posted a video to Twitter comparing Scheer's performance to Stephen Harper's failure to defeat the Liberals under Paul Martin in 2004.

"I remember all of the critics and naysayers, some of them even called on Mr. Harper to resign," she says in the video. "Instead, he assessed the situation, made some big changes and refocused the party.

"We are going through the exact same thing today."

It's the same basic message Scheer offered disappointed Conservatives on election night: an emphasis on seat gains and maintaining party unity, a focus on getting it right next time.

But what happened to the Conservative Party under Stephen Harper in the 2004 election and immediately afterward isn't what happened to the party under Scheer in 2019. And making the comparison might not help Scheer's case now.

Consider the situation facing Harper at the outset of the 2004 campaign. Like Scheer, Harper was a party leader about to be tested for the first time in a general election. And like Scheer, Harper held the Liberals to a minority and boosted his seat count.

The circumstances in 2004 when Harper took on Paul Martin seemed ripe for change, as they did in this election, and Harper worked hard to take advantage of that but failed to go the distance. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

But that's really where the similarities end. The Conservative Party in 2004 was just coming out of the long and bruising process of merging the Canadian Alliance with the Progressive Conservatives. Stephen Harper was elected the new party's first leader in March of 2004; Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson dissolved Parliament in May of that year to launch the 36-day election campaign.

In other words, after the merger and the leadership campaign, the Conservative Party was worn out. In spite of that, Conservatives managed to cobble together a decent election campaign. At one point, it even seemed as though they might win.

As with the Liberals in 2019, the Liberals under Martin in 2004 had problems. The party had been in power for a decade already — three mandates under Jean Chrétien. The infighting between the Chretien and Martin camps had been brutal, to say nothing of the sponsorship scandal, which was initially uncovered in 2002 and then exposed entirely by the Gomery Commission in the lead-up to the 2006 election (which ended with Harper winning his first minority mandate).

So the circumstances in 2004 seemed ripe for change, as they did this year. Like Scheer, Harper worked hard to take advantage of those circumstances and failed to go the distance.

But some defeats are better than others. Harper's Conservatives lost in 2004, but they improved their performance in ways that would set them up for future wins. They picked up 22 seats in Ontario, bringing their Ontario caucus up to 24 — a beachhead that would help them form a majority government in 2011.

Scheer, meanwhile, increased his Ontario seat count by only three and picked up no additional seats in Quebec. One of Scheer's most prominent Conservative critics is Jenni Byrne, Harper's former campaign manager; she took to Twitter recently to point out the key differences between the Conservative electoral experiences in 2004 and 2019.

Like Scheer, Harper's speech on election night in 2004 tried to accentuate the positive. "We have increased our seats and broadened our base across this nation," Harper pointed out.

He was right, of course. But Harper also promised to do more in Quebec, where the party had picked up no seats. In 2006, the Conservative Party won 10 seats there.

Harper showed humility in those early days after his defeat. He did not take it for granted that he would remain leader. When his caucus greeted him with applause upon his return to Ottawa, Harper's reaction was muted (it's his nature).

He was asked by reporters if he planned to stay on. "That's what I am inclined to do," he said. "People should take time to reflect before they plunge ahead."

Harper did many party events over that summer, but most of them went largely unreported. It seemed as if he'd gone entirely quiet in order to take time to reflect — time he needed, with another election just a year and a half away.

So, yes, history can offer some useful lessons when parties and their leaders try to avoid past mistakes and plan for the future.

But no one should suggest that the current post-election moment is just like the one 15 years ago. Doing so only invites comparisons with how another leader handled things back then — and invites speculation about how a different leader might handle things now.


Rosemary Barton is CBC's Chief Political Correspondent, based in Ottawa.

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