Andrew Scheer learns his job’s no fun

Paul Wells: Hassle and woe are the hallmarks of the opposition leader role. And the Tory leader seems to be finding that out the hard way.

Leader of the Official Opposition and Leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, Andrew Scheer, makes an announcement and holds a media availability at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Thursday, July 20, 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Leader of the Official Opposition Andrew Scheer makes an announcement and holds a media availability at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Thursday, July 20, 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

There comes a time in every new opposition leader’s career when he discovers it’s a horrible job. This usually happens early.

The reasons why it seems like it shouldn’t be a horrible job are: (a) all you have to do is make fun of the government; (b) being an opposition leader, and therefore hating the government to your bones already, for reasons of ideology or team allegiance or both, it seems to you that everyone in the country will want to join you in making fun of the government; (c) it’s a nice job in general, with a suite of offices and an excellent seat in the House of Commons.

The reasons why it turns out to be a bad job anyway are: (a) you’re probably in opposition because your party has lost an election, and many Canadians haven’t yet forgotten why they wanted that to happen; (b) the rotten press corps will insist on poking and prodding the opposition’s behaviour, rather than focussing its wrath entirely on the government; (c) the job carries all of the perils of government—gaffes, caucus management, infighting—with none of the institutional clout.

And so hello to Andrew Scheer, who’s having a bit of a week.

READ MORE: A beer with Andrew Scheer: Tories’ leader, popcorn addict… feminist?

His headaches include Sen. Lynn Beyak, who wishes we would tell more good stories about residential schools, and whom Scheer stripped of her caucus responsibilities and committee appointments while keeping her in his caucus. The stance manages to fall halfway between defending Beyak and exercising effective damage control. Then there’s Gerry Ritz, who used his last days as an MP to call Environment Minister Catherine McKenna a “climate Barbie,” an outburst that earned him a conspicuously time-delayed rebuke from Scheer.

This comes after Scheer said nothing about the Rebel Media meltdown until he announced a position that will upset the Rebel’s many admirers in the Conservative activist base. And after he had difficulty explaining how the central plank of his Conservative leadership campaign, linking free speech on university campuses to federal research funding, would work in practice.

WATCH MORE: 10 things to know about Conservative leader Andrew Scheer

A few things about all that. First, it must be maddening to Scheer that he even has to talk about any of this, given that Justin Trudeau has launched a war on the middle class from within the tax-sheltered Trudeau-Morneau family timeshare, and Omar Khadr has been extravagantly compensated on the public dime, and there’s a deficit and all the rest.

Second, even on the specifics of the cases that are tormenting Scheer this week, there’s room to wonder whether some of the outrage on the evening political chat shows is a bit selective. True, Gerry Ritz called Catherine McKenna a Barbie. And she’s really not a Barbie. She’s a formidable lawyer whose entry into politics at the highest level has gone well. But meanwhile, four Liberal MPs have been ejected from the Liberal caucus over two years amid allegations of serious mistreatment of female colleagues or staffers. It takes chutzpah to suggest only Scheer has a problem with caucus knuckle-draggers.

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But if Scheer has anyone he trusts in his inner circle, they need to take him aside right about now and say, “Suck it up. Nobody said opposition was fair. Nobody even said it was pleasant. It is what it is. Learn how to work a job.”

Scheer might want to ask Tom Mulcair how rewarding the job of opposition leader can be. Mulcair was, by popular consent, the best at the job in many years. His party fired him for his troubles. Before Mulcair there were a couple of Liberal stumblebums, Michael Ignatieff and Stéphane Dion. Before them was Stephen Harper, who had no stomach for Question Period and was second-guessed constantly as either too conservative or not enough. Before Harper were all the opposition leaders Jean Chrétien cheerfully dispatched: Stockwell Day, Preston Manning, Lucien Bouchard blowing out of Ottawa because Chrétien turned out to be harder to fight than he looked. And before them all, there was Chrétien himself, a notoriously lousy opposition leader, forever quelling open revolt from Liberal caucus naysayers by threatening or mocking them.

It was before my time, but it seems to me the last opposition leader to enjoy the job as a romp straight to office was Brian Mulroney in 1984. That’s a long time ago. Hassle and woe are the more common hallmarks of the job.

But Scheer’s difficulties are more than just everyday job stress. The Ritz-Beyak-Rebel troubles are not merely evidence of a vindictive Liberal press corps. They suggest emerging flaws in Scheer’s own leadership style that he’ll need to address.

In all three cases, his first instinct was to hope the storm blew over. I don’t think it’s because Scheer underestimated the coming storm; it’s because at first he thought he could wear the storm as a badge of honour. Scheer fancies himself a happy warrior for free speech. He pitches his campus free speech policy as a defence of people’s right to say even upsetting things. The impression he gives is of a guy whose first instinct, when Ezra Levant or Lynn Beyak or Gerry Ritz gets into trouble, is to say, “Oh, come on; this isn’t that big a deal.” Then when it becomes a bigger deal he backtracks. This shows both a glass jaw and a limited ability to estimate the size of a deal.

I don’t think Scheer’s performance on these files is determined solely by his temperament, either. It’s also structural. He sold himself to his party as a specific kind of cure to Harperism. It’s not clear he has the luxury to be that kind of cure.

By the time Scheer became Conservative leader, many Conservatives, probably most, were heartily sick of the Harper party’s oppressive message-control mechanisms. The forms you had to fill out, the layers of approval. Opinions diverged on whether the party needed to change its policy direction, but in its day-to-day communications and caucus management, the overwhelming consensus was that it needed a lighter touch.

Scheer’s selling proposition to Conservatives was that he could appeal to moderates by being a nicer guy than Harper, but that he could mollify the activist base by letting it act up a bit, without fear of reprisal. Blow off some steam. Have a few debates. The driving assumption seems to be that Harper brought the hammer down on his own people because Harper is the kind of guy who enjoys bringing the hammer down. And there’s some truth to that!

But there’s also the absolutely brutal purgatory the Canadian Alliance went through for two years before Harper became that party’s leader. Plummeting in the polls. Constant MP defections from caucus. Mockery in the news coverage. To some extent, this continued through the 2004 election, which Harper believed he lost because he could not trust his own candidates not to sound crazy. That’s why he clamped down.

Scheer will soon have to decide whether he can afford to let his caucus members say what they want. Until he does, the emerging pattern of his management style—laissez faire, followed by hasty backtracking—will come to define him.

The backdrop for all of this, it’s worth remembering, is the formidable task the fates have assigned Scheer. He’s trying to defeat a new majority government after a single term. How easy is that?

The historical record suggests it… may be impossible. Since Confederation there have only been two governments that were swept into power with a majority of seats in the Commons, only to be swept right out of power at the next election. Those were the governments of Alexander Mackenzie in 1878 and R.B. Bennett in 1930. Realizing the peril they faced, each dragged out his time in office to the full five years. Each lost the next time—to the man he had beaten in the previous election. Mackenzie ran Sir John A. Macdonald out of office, only to be run out by Sir John five years later. Bennett beat Mackenzie King, only to lose to King at their next confrontation. It’s a bit like Joe Clark defeating Pierre Trudeau, only to lose to Trudeau, though Clark never had a majority. (This is why one of Harper’s worst fears during his first precarious year in power, 2006, was that Paul Martin would cancel his retirement to lead the Liberals at the next election. Or that Jean Chrétien would.)

What’s never happened is that a government elected with a majority loses power to a rookie leader at the very next election. There’s too much momentum in power, too much willingness among voters to stick with a new-ish government and give it time. That’s the trend Andrew Scheer is trying to buck. It can be done—precedent in politics isn’t the same as laws of physics—but it will be hard enough even if he does a flawless job.


Andrew Scheer learns his job’s no fun

  1. LOL Howdy Doody’s evil twin brother.

  2. To start with, the guy needs some serious media training, he always purses his lips whenever gets upset, thin skin, and does a meltdown after 5 questions, reminds me of someone else very close to him, who used to be PM. I think he sweats a lot too. Mr.Wells is being a little overly generous with this guy, he is way to young to hold power in this country, and he dithers to much. He is not an affable guy, not someone even a guy you would want to have a beer with, i don’t even think he could cuddle a panda.. Shortcomings up the ‘Yin Yang’.

    • I will bet you Mr. Wells, Mr. Scheer will not see his numbers rise above 32% in the polling from this point on till the next election. He is not ready, and probably will never be ready. If he is going underground for cash for access after going after Trudeau, how many more skeletons are sitting in the closet.

      • Based on the Liberal tax cuts, growth in the economy, oil starting to pick up again, and the economy growing, I don’t think Scheer can really combat that. Scheer’s numbers may start to pick up based on the small business issue, but there is not too much growth potential. I say this because the Conservatives may have much of the small business sector on their side, but at most they could gain 200,000 new voters, and those that left the Conservatives last election. The Conservatives also won’t gain very much because the Liberals added 1.8 to 2 million new voters and added 7% to 8% of the eligible voters coming out last time from 60% to 68%. Unless the Conservatives become more positive, which by their first week back from the summer is any indication, I would have to say their numbers will largely remain the same and they will lose, and the Liberals are likely to keep what they have and the Conservatives may gain 5 to 10 seats.

        Another important aspect to mention is that Scheer seems to get angry quite easily and is not comfortable answering questions from the media. He wants control and stick with talking points only and cannot think on his feet.

        So, yes, Scheer is likely to remain at 31 to 33% between now and the election. Scheer also does not seem genuine. He wants a wedge issue so badly. The Conservatives have a history of supporting big business over small business, and not caring at all about youth and youth issues. Their party was largely indifferent to youth and why they went over to the Liberals.

  3. The boss doesn’t need people to like him but rather, respect him. I fear the Conservatives made a mistake in electing such a likable guy.

  4. If climate barbie was such a formidable lawyer, she would still be doing it, not joining politics. Only people who get involved in politics are sociopaths or ambitious people without any discernible talents. McKenna is a pagan who afraid of weather and has decided to extract more money from ordinary Canadians who don’t share her neurosis, she deserve all mockery she receives.

    Muclair might have been seemed to be doing a good job by popular consent of media but obviously not the members of his party. Muclair losing was a terrific example of how out of touch media are from people not involved in ottawa politics.

    • Your statement could not be more inane if you tried. You are obviously an uninformed sad individual. Based on your comments I would guess you are a Reformer. I know many MP’s who gave up lucrative private sector jobs because they actually care about Canada. It is ignorant people like you and attitudes like yours that stops really talented and intelligent people from entering politics.

      • Tom, you are right on about JWL comments on this article and many others, that he commented on.
        It seems to me, he is a person that in the morning he hates a few people and in the afternoon he hates the rest of the world!!

  5. The art of it seems to be the ability to take umbrage with every move the party in power makes while avoiding any firm statement of your own party’s policy. Luck of the draw is to have to take the stage following after Rona’s aggressive tap dancing and Tom’s pugilistic bombast. Scheer’s grasp of CPC objectives also seems problematic especially as he admittedly disagrees with party policy on perennial problem issues such as abortion, gay marriage, female/gay soldiers, etc.; it may not be so surprising that he doesn’t react instinctively against other CPC members with minority views aligned with his own. The two ways to go are 1) elect a strong leader ready to dictate party policy 2) elect a party leader who can best represent party policy; the CPC somehow managed to do a third thing. It’s telling that with many real issues available, ‘Barbie’ cheap shots are more news worthy than any Andrew Scheer talking point. It could get worse since at least 3 of the possible NDP candidates seem quite capable of talking policy forcefully and with apparent conviction.

  6. He seems to be unable to control his caucus, unless he actually wanted Rempel and Kent to take to right-wing U.S. media over Khadr. Even people who opposed the settlement took umbrage at airing that laundry south of the border, especially on the eve of the NAFTA renegotiations.
    I also have to wonder why he would appoint a rabid anti-abortionist as status of women critic. Reminds me of Trump appointing a woman who doesn’t believe in public education as secretary of education.
    Plus, those who worked tirelessly to oust Harper have not developed collective amnesia. Being cast as Harper-lite seems like a no-win situation for Scheer – too much like Harper policy-wise, but without the ability to control the message, his fellow MPs, and the media.