Andrew MacDougall is a London (UK) based columnist, commentator and consultant. He was formerly Director of Communications to Stephen Harper.
Imagine you’re a politician.
Even better, you’re the leader of a political party. The leader of the main opposition party, even. And yet, most Canadians wouldn’t know you if they tripped over you in the tool aisle of the local Canadian Tire.
What to do?
Especially when the Prime Minister—your target—is blessed with a famous name and the considerable advantages of incumbency. How do you shift his spotlight your way?
Short of lighting yourself on fire or dancing nude in the streets—or doing both together, I suppose—there isn’t much any opposition leader can do to up their profile in between election cycles. No, the life of an opposition leader is an endless cycle of low-impact rubber chicken dinners, bingo hall grip and grins, and sessions spent asking the Prime Minister questions he never ever answers.
So Andrew Scheer should count himself blessed that Justin Trudeau has lit himself on fire—an exquisitely engineered fire—over SNC-Lavalin. After all, it’s not every day a sitting Prime Minister cripples himself to the point where even Jagmeet Singh risks becoming competitive.
With Canadians now tuning into politics en masse, SNC is the chance for Scheer to demonstrate he has the royal jelly. When Mike Duffy started giving Stephen Harper nightmares, it was Thomas Mulcair who checked into the public’s imagination, keeping the issue alive with his prosecutorial performances in the House of Commons. And while Mulcair didn’t end up taking the big prize, he did put an afterthought party into pole position by the start of the election.
READ MORE: Does Justin Trudeau know what he’s doing?
That is the size of the opportunity now before Scheer.
But if Canadians are impressed by what they’ve seen from Scheer personally in response to SNC, they’re doing a pretty good job of hiding it. While Conservative support has now surpassed that of Trudeau’s Liberals, Scheer’s personal numbers remain below Trudeau’s.
The differential in polling outcomes likely exists because people identify Trudeau much more strongly with his party than Scheer with his, and because the SNC debacle has, to date, been driven more by Trudeau’s missteps than Scheer’s interventions.
To wit, Scheer called for Trudeau’s resignation (checks calendar) 12 days ago and Trudeau is (checks pm.gc.ca) still Prime Minister. Canadians will have noticed the misfire.
To be fair, several pundits matched Scheer’s premature call for Trudeau’s ouster, including some not overtly hostile to the Prime Minister, such was the shock of Jody Wilson-Raybould’s testimony at the justice committee. But it’s one thing to get excited to sell papers; it’s another to lose your head in the rush for the head of the country’s government to lose theirs.
The call for Trudeau to go, absent all sides of the story being aired, will have smacked many as opportunism, something for the benefit of Scheer’s party, not his country. Yes, what Wilson-Raybould disclosed was deadly serious, but it wasn’t close to the full story. That Trudeau was—and remains—unwilling to offer a serious response to Wilson-Raybould, or let her speak about the circumstances surrounding her resignation, is the story. Trudeau is hiding something about his intrusion into the justice system.
Looked at through a more practical lens: when Trudeau goes is not even Scheer’s call to make in a majority Parliament. Absent a revolt from the Liberal caucus, or perhaps some criminal charges, Trudeau will be Prime Minister come this fall’s federal election. And while Trudeau’s head would be a helluva trophy, it might be better for a severely tainted Trudeau to lead his troops into that fight. Scheer should focus on inflicting a thousand cuts, not trying to land the killer blow.
What the SNC situation now calls for is a calm and systematic destruction of Trudeau’s arguments, such as he’s made them. The people who don’t follow politics need to see a robust defence of Canada’s institutions and constitutional conventions, along with clear reminders of what will be lost should Trudeau be allowed to skate away from the mess he’s made. Thankfully, the federal court and the OECD are already helping on these fronts; there is no need for Conservatives to over-egg the pudding.
And to Scheer’s credit, he’s showing signs of a recalibration. The Tories now appear ready to savour Trudeau’s pain like a fine wine, not like a beer in a frat house.
A sober and serious opinion piece under Scheer’s name has now appeared in the Toronto Sun, outlining how Trudeau’s deeds belie his words on SNC. The Conservative HQ Twitter feed is also smartly ramping up calls for Trudeau to allow Wilson-Raybould to testify to her resignation from Cabinet (something Wilson-Raybould herself has called for), pushing on an open door for women who now have serious questions about Trudeau’s feminist bonafides. The trick will be to keep up the tone.
With the Liberals now desperate to push the conversation to “pizzagate” and other elements of Michael Wernick’s vaunted social media “vomitorium,” the entire Conservative caucus needs to act like a government in waiting. No matter how good or clever that gut punch on Twitter might feel, the Tories should now heed to their better angels. Let Maxime Bernier’s crowd bray for blood; the SNC earthquake has opened up a deep seam of middle-of-the-road voters. Now it’s time to mine.
With the Prime Minister’s jobs claims now in dispute, the legal arguments for offering a DPA in tatters, and his strategy now to stay quiet and suppress all further testimony from either Wilson-Raybould or his staff, Trudeau has painted himself into an ugly corner. Scheer must satisfy himself with keeping Trudeau in that corner and hemming him in even further, not pushing for an outcome he can’t deliver.
In short, Canadians need to look at Scheer and see a Prime Minister in waiting. Someone with their interests at heart, and not his own, even if the two intersect.