What Andrew Scheer's shadow cabinet announcement got wrong

Opinion: The Conservative Party of Canada stumbled off its messaging tightrope in the announcement of the team that will deliver that message

Andrew Scheer. (Chris Roussakis)

Andrew Scheer. (Chris Roussakis)

Andrew MacDougall is a London-based columnist and commentator. He was a director of communications to Stephen Harper.

The new shadow cabinet unveiled by Conservative leader Andrew Scheer was never going to fly.

Not in Ottawa. Not in the summer. Not with a gallery full of process-obsessed reporters.

And so instead of punching a clear message about substance, Wednesday’s announcement sank into the Ottawa swamp of “who’s in” and “who’s out”, with a side of “who’s up” and “who’s down.”

Is leadership runner-up Maxime Bernier mad about his innovation critic role? Will Kellie Leitch’s banishment upset the base? Does Brad Trost blame the gays for being outed from the shadow cabinet? Is (insert name of heretofore-unknown backbench MP) now a rising star?

All of it catnip to bored reporters, but meaningless to the average citizen, who is busy clinging like a whiny child to the last vestiges of summer. Meanwhile, more thoughtful journalistic analyses wondered what message the personnel chosen by Scheer sent about the Conservative Party’s plan for replacing Trudeau in 2019.

MORE: Scheer walks a tightrope as he builds his shadow cabinet

Fine: but what about the message itself? As in, how is the opposition is choosing to frame the Trudeau government? You know, the stuff that, in theory, people might pay attention to as the next election approaches.

There, your guess is as good as mine, because it wasn’t widely reported. And that’s Andrew Scheer’s fault.

The lapse into process coverage was as predictable as it was inevitable. But that doesn’t mean steps couldn’t have been taken to fight it. Reporters all knew the announcement of Scheer’s team was coming the day before, so why not brief out the substance of what the new team will be saying the night before to try to gin up some better coverage?

Not being in Ottawa myself, and not being a gallery journalist, perhaps the Opposition Leader’s Office did just that and I simply missed it. Either way, the net result—silence—is the same.

And Scheer isn’t helping himself by saying that “Trudeau’s naïve and reckless approach hurts those who want to build a more prosperous Canada.” The new team, he added in his Facebook post announcing the shadow cabinet, will be proposing “positive Conservative solutions to get Canada back on track.”

Hey, reader! Wake up!

Having uttered similar blandness many (many) times over, I know how this kind of mush comes to pass. You can smell the focus-grouping and group wordsmithing a kilometre away. I wouldn’t have put it on a front page either. It’s the kind of manufactured language that typically spurts out when it’s not clear you have something to say, or are having difficulty finding the right way to say it.

What the shadow cabinet announcement reveals is that the Tories seem to be struggling with the central problem of capturing people’s (embryonic) concern with the direction of Canada’s travel without being too rude to the person directing that travel, as in Justin Trudeau. Right now, tremendous positive sentiment around Trudeau is acting as a Teflon coating around a government that’s dropping a number of balls—hello, deficit!—and Scheer needs to craft a message that cleaves the sentiment around Trudeau the man away from his government’s objectively spotty record.

He’s not doing so by calling him naïve and reckless—which Trudeau might well be. But the Tories calling him that lands about as well a fart during an audience with the Queen for voters who might go Tory but for concerns about the sharpness of their elbows.

Nor is it apparent enough people think the country is “off-track.” The off-track assault works best when it is capturing existing sentiment, not when it’s tasked with manufacturing that vision, as Trudeau proved in the last election.

What the Tories need to do is make the voters do the work, not tell them what to think, and this means sidestepping Trudeau’s strengths. You say you like Trudeau? Fine. We do too. He’s a sunny bloke. But what does that affinity actually do to put food on your table? What does his niceness do to get your company’s exports out of the country? Trudeau’s a hell of a nice guy. So what?

I get told by Brits all the time that they love Trudeau. If I were to make a pointed comment in return about him being “naïve and reckless”, it would be like I punched a kitten. Instead, I ask them why they love Trudeau, and when they can’t tell me, other than to mouth a platitude about his youth, energy, or niceness, I count that as a victory.

Tory messaging should be seeding doubt about Trudeau’s record by making everything about Trudeau’s delivery—in other words, shift the conversation to competence and results, not “feeling”—all without being a dink about it.

That’s a tough message to carry, even for the best team of messengers. And that’s not the team we saw around one of the Conservatives’ biggest news moments so far.