Politics·Analysis

Andrew Scheer tries to hold on to power by redirecting blame

Andrew Scheer and the Conservative Party are proceeding through the stages of post-election grief. Scheer can only hope the process stops before it reaches him personally.

Party leaders often try to blow off failure by pointing the finger at staff. It doesn't always work.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer takes questions from reporters following a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Andrew Scheer and the Conservative Party are proceeding through the stages of post-election grief. Scheer can only hope the process stops before it reaches him personally.

The first scapegoat in any case of political failure is always "communications". A breakdown in communication was the culprit Scheer trotted out three weeks ago when he emerged from a long meeting with the Conservative caucus.

"We had a very frank discussion about the importance of making sure that our message gets out clearly," he said when reporters asked him about his social-conservative beliefs.

Conservative MPs apparently had a similar discussion about the party's climate plan. "What I heard today was that we needed to do a better job communicating that plan to Canadians," Scheer said.

Communications is the easiest explanation whenever something goes wrong. The problem was the pitch, not the product — the message, not the messenger. If only someone had said something different, or said the same things differently.

Everyone's a critic

In some circles, for instance, it was fashionable back in the spring to suggest that the SNC-Lavalin affair came down to a failure of communications — that the whole thing might not have amounted to much had Justin Trudeau and his government just said better things faster, or with more conviction.

It's no coincidence that communications is the one aspect of professional politics that outside observers (journalists, for example) feel qualified to comment upon. Every pundit can imagine exactly what an embattled politician should have said — after the fact, at least.

In cases like Scheer's, the explanation can also offer some solace. Blaming communications for the result in October would imply that the Conservative leader and his platform were not inherently flawed.

If blaming communications isn't sufficient, you can always blame the help. Scheer reached that stage on Saturday, when he fired his chief of staff and director of communications.

If Scheer needed to do something to demonstrate change in the wake of the election campaign, this was something.

During the 2019 federal election campaign, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer often faced questions about abortion and his personal beliefs on the subject 1:52

Taking one for the team

Just as coaches of professional sports teams are easier to replace than star players, the advisers around a leader are a lot easier to fire than the person in charge. In theory, things might go differently if the leader is surrounded by different people.

It's not an unreasonable assumption. The leader of a political party or government inevitably comes to rely on a team of advisers; in some cases, it becomes apparent that the operation needs to be managed differently.

But, as with the act of blaming the communications strategy, blaming the leader's staff assumes that the real problem is not the leader, or the platform he carries under his arm.

In fairness to both Scheer and the Conservative Party, the modern history of Canadian opposition leaders is mostly a story of ill-fated figures and parties groping about in the dark for the right answers.

Stephane Dion's short arc in the Liberal leadership shows that the Conservatives are not alone in struggling to come up with a straightforward remedy to losing elections. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)

In 2008, after the Liberals were reduced to 77 seats, it was quickly decided that Stéphane Dion and his carbon tax had to go. He was replaced by Michael Ignatieff. By the fall of 2009, Ignatieff was doing so poorly that he was persuaded to overhaul his office. Two years later, the Liberals won just 34 seats.

Tom Mulcair made changes to his staff in January 2015, nine months before his party fell from 95 seats to 44 seats. In response, the NDP changed its leader and its policies — and was subsequently knocked down to 24 seats.

Scheer's supporters might note that their party stuck with Stephen Harper after 2004 and was rewarded with a new Conservative government in 2006. Or they might recall that their predecessors in the Progressive Conservative party stuck with Robert Stanfield in 1972 and then suffered an even larger defeat in 1974.

Scheer's statements and actions since October 21 suggest he thinks that only a few tweaks are needed for him to repeat Harper's leap: hire a few new advisers, draft a new communications strategy and everything will go much better next time.

Luckily for him, Conservative arguments to the contrary are not yet plentiful.

Two Conservative strategists wrote last week that their party must change its attitude toward LGTBQ Canadians — an opinion that was endorsed on Twitter by Rona Ambrose and Michelle Rempel. That might compel Scheer to recalibrate.

Meanwhile, Erin O'Toole recently opined that it was time for a "more serious" discussion about climate change. But he seemed mostly interested in promoting nuclear energy and complaining about Catherine McKenna's use of emojis.

Unless there are much louder cries for change, Scheer could have at least until April — when the party is scheduled to conduct a leadership review — to demonstrate the wisdom of carrying on with only slight adjustments. It's an approach that necessarily relies on a belief that the fall of the Trudeau government is unfolding as we speak, and the Conservatives only need to hold steady and stay the course.

Trudeau himself might lend more credence to that narrative in the next few months. But either way, Conservatives have some questions to ask themselves. Are they willing to wager that it's just some communications and staffing issues standing between them and power? Or are they faced with more fundamental problems?

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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