The best days of Andrew Scheer's campaign - Macleans.ca

The best days of Andrew Scheer’s campaign

On a West coast swing, 10 days before Election Day, the electoral landscape suddenly changed. The Liberals were vulnerable, Scheer was finally smiling.

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Buoyed by the hope of a progressive vote split, Scheer had a playful moment with the press (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)

Andrew Scheer’s rally in Langley, B.C. was supposed to start at 6 pm, but still there is no telltale ripple of something happening.

A woman of about 70 approaches a man adjusting the sound equipment and demands, “Are you with Scheer?” Clearly just a contractor hired for the event, he hedges, unsure what she wants. She points at her watch and barks, “It’s a quarter after. I have no respect for anyone who’s late,” and then stares at the sound guy like she expects him to produce the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada from his back pocket now that he’s been told what’s what. He offers an apologetic “Lady, what do you want from me?” shrug and slinks off.

All around the disgruntled woman, Tory faithful are still streaming in. This is, by far, the biggest Conservative event of the campaign so far. The setting is Krause Berry Farms & Estate Winery, a bucolic spot where this time of year, you can pick your own pumpkin in the fields, or order a waffle or glass of wine on the huge beer garden patio. There will eventually be more than 1,500 Conservative supporters crammed in under the wooden beams and strings of Edison lights.

The atmosphere is distinctly family-friendly, with lots of strollers and toddlers installed on shoulders. A campaign staffer on a riser in the centre of the crowd flings baseball caps emblazoned with the Conservative logo into a forest of grasping hands.

Earlier in the campaign, in response to media inquiries about the noticeable lack of big crowds, the party said they weren’t keen on those events because they wanted to let their people on the ground focus on door-knocking. Certainly, big rallies gobble up local resources, but there was also a lingering sense that perhaps the large-scale excitement just wasn’t there.

That is not an issue tonight. This winery sits in Langley-Aldergrove, a true-blue, largely rural lower mainland riding that was redrawn for the 2015 election, but had been substantially represented by Mark Warawa since 2004. Warawa was elected for a fifth time in 2015 with a fat 46 per cent of the vote. He announced in January 2019 that he would not seek re-election, but then in April, he asked people to lend him their “prayers for a miracle” as he underwent testing to determine the severity of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Just two months later, he died at age 69.

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The Conservative candidate running to pick up Warawa’s torch is Tako Van Popta, a longtime Langley resident and lawyer with five grown children.

Finally, at 6:45 pm, Van Popta takes the stage. “Hey, folks, here’s some good news,” he hollers into a microphone. “It’s only nine days left until Canada gets a new prime minister!” The crowd explodes, but one of the reporters on the camera platform at the back mutters, “If you go out in nine days, you’re gonna be disappointed.”

Someone standing near Van Popta obviously clarifies the same point, because he tries again: “Ten days, nine days? It can’t come soon enough!” The crowd agrees.

Then he throws to the headliner who “identifies with you, he identifies with the middle class, because that is how he grew up.” Scheer mounts the stage to the aggressive strains of “Get Ahead,” the custom-written Conservative campaign song that is the auditory equivalent of a patriotic crotch thrust.

With Scheer are his wife, Jill, and their three middle children, Grace, 12, Maddie, 10 and Henry, 8. Scheer opens by introducing his family and paraphrasing a comedian’s description of having your fifth child: “If you want to know what that’s like, just picture yourself drowning,” Scheer says. “And then someone throws you a baby.” It’s a good line, delivered well, and the crowd indulges him.

But down to brass tacks.

We are so close to getting rid of Justin Trudeau’s blighted government and replacing it with one that will live within its means, Scheer tells his voters. With this crowd, a stump-speech line lifted straight from the advice your parents give you when you get your first job is like the opening licks of a band’s biggest hit.

“That is what this election is all about, that’s what it’s coming down to: Who do you trust to put more money in your pockets so you and your family can get ahead?” Scheer asks. “We know we can’t trust Justin Trudeau.” Oh, the crowd knows: “Nooo! BOO!”

“We don’t have enough time to go through all the reasons why we can’t trust Justin Trudeau,” Scheer continues. “DO IT!” someone in the back howls, drawing appreciative laughs. “We haven’t booked this facility long enough to go through all the reasons,” Scheer says. The moment has acquired that revival-tent alchemy political rallies sometimes do, when everyone in the room agrees about what is smart and good and what is terrible and misguided, and they’re all really enjoying plucking each other’s strings.

But outside of this group of believers, for Scheer and the Tories, Trudeau and his Liberals must have seemed for months like a maddening retinue of political Weebles.

Over and over—and without a helpful shove from anyone but their very own selves—the Liberals have teetered and looked certain to topple over, but then, like the egg-shaped toys with the weighted bottoms, they’ve bobbed back upright to an improbable state of political equilibrium.

There was the SNC-Lavalin scandal and the drawn-out implosion, in full public view, of internal party dynamics through last winter and spring. There was the ethics commissioner’s determination in the summer that Trudeau had violated the conflict of interest act, SNC being his second commission of that particular sin. And then, after the campaign began, there was the unimaginably hideous blackface revelations that detonated what might have been left of the uplifting and earnest brand that swept Trudeau and his party to a majority four years ago.

Each time, poll numbers revealing what the public thought of the governing party—and by extension, of their rivals—dipped for a time and then evened out.

Heading into the final two weeks of the federal election campaign, popular support for Trudeau’s Liberals and Scheer’s Conservatives sat almost exactly where it did when the campaign began on Sept. 11: in a dead heat.

If the Liberals couldn’t manage to sink themselves, the Tories seemed to have no buoyancy.

Doug Ford setting various provincial fires has been a drag on his federal cousins, despite the Ontario premier being locked in a garret at Queen’s Park leading up to the election. For his own part, Scheer had spent months being conspicuously disinclined to shoot down anti-immigrant and other ugly flirtations around the margins of his party, particularly attached to the United We Roll movement, or to tell the Yellow Vesters that he was not their man.

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More fundamentally, there seemed to be a mismatch between Scheer’s socially conservative personal beliefs and the average Canadian’s default setting. The Liberals have been only too pleased to spotlight this gap, of course, helpfully pointing out every Tory candidate who coughs up regressive views, and surfacing old footage of Scheer in the House of Commons comparing the marriage of same-sex couples to a dog’s tail. And as climate change has reached crisis level in the minds of many voters, Scheer’s no-pain-and-almost-certainly-no-gain climate plan looks cynical and out of step.

But eventually, with about 10 days to go in the campaign, things seemed to change. Jagmeet Singh’s NDP found some purchase in the polls at last, raising the spectre of a progressive vote split, while the resurrected corpse of the Bloc Québécois surged in Quebec, potentially depriving the Liberals of a fat wad of majority-making seats. And a small, mean election campaign seemed to have turned off a lot of voters; the Liberals had seized 184 seats in 2015 on the strength of a huge surge in turnout, so a disgusted electorate staying home would eliminate that advantage.

Just as all this ground was shifting rapidly, earlier on the day of that rally in Langley, the Conservatives had unveiled their full platform, waiting until voters had already begun heading to the advance polls.

***

A knot of photographers and reporters wait on a beach in Tsawwassen, B.C. for Scheer’s arrival at a podium and microphone perfectly angled in the sand so the cameras will catch the massive hunk of driftwood and blue-grey smudges of mountain in the background. A Canadian flag flutters from a wooden sign warning about bonfires; it looks like it might have been spontaneously installed by some Canada-loving summer beach-goers, but it will be gone when the event tear-down is complete.

A 60ish man hovering nearby tells a waiting journalist, apropos of nothing, that his son custom-made a ballcap for him. “It’s like a red MAGA hat, and it says ‘Make Trudeau a drama teacher again,’” he says, enormously pleased with this rhetorical flourish. “I’m sure it fits you quite well!” the journalist replies.

Eventually, Scheer, his wife and three of their kids appear and stride up the boardwalk leading to the beach. Halfway there, with the camera shutters chattering madly, the family exchanges the most awkward hugs imaginable, because can you blame them, and the kids scamper off to spend the rest of the press conference in a playground out of camera range.

Jill Scheer stands with two dozen lower mainland candidates arranged in two choir formations on either side of her husband, while he talks through his party’s plan. The platform is a roadmap to balancing the budget in five years, and it’s going to mow down a lot of things in its path.

Tens of billions of dollars in cuts would come from deferred infrastructure spending amounting to $18 billion cut over five years, slashing operating expenses in the federal government by $14 billion—there are no specifics given, but the party suggests shrinking employee workspaces or tightening travel budgets are likely targets—and Scheer’s high-profile promise to cut 25 per cent of foreign aid. These measures and revenue generators such as cracking down on tax evasion would help pay for the Tories’ signature “universal tax cut” and a raft of Harper-redux boutique tax credits.

Trudeau keeps telling people how great everything is, Scheer says into the cameras, for the people beyond those screens who obviously don’t feel that way. “And perhaps in his world, it is,” he adds. “But I’m here for the people who just need a break, the people who are doing everything right—going to university, getting a good job, working hard, paying their bills on time—but who still can’t seem to get ahead in life.”

Later, a reporter asks why, if he is the only federal leader openly acknowledging the possibility of a recession on the horizon, is Scheer handcuffing himself with this fixation on balancing the budget. It’s precisely because there could be headwinds coming that we need to give ourselves the flexibility to cope, Scheer says. “The Liberals have to explain to Canadians, if they spend money quickly when times are tough and they spend money quickly when times are good, when do they ever get back to balanced budgets?” he asks, and the candidates behind him nod and smile.

In the technical briefing—a sort of embargoed tutorial that walks reporters through a complex document before it goes public—just before the announcement on the beach, party officials noted multiple times that there was not much new in the full platform that hadn’t already been announced with fanfare: it was just now all in one place. This emphasis seemed designed to forestall precisely the way the platform was received and framed in the hours and days after Scheer’s beach presser: as tens of billions of dollars in cuts, a twist ending.

The sore spot this could represent with a Canadian electorate is made clear by Scheer’s tendency to respond to any broad question about spending or priorities by repeating, like a doll with a pull-string on his back, that his government would increase health and social transfers to the provinces by three per cent a year, full stop.

But among friends at the rally in Langley later that night, with the national electoral sands finally shifting in a way that seems to offer new possibility to the Conservatives, Scheer has no need for a defensive crouch.

This stump speech is heavy on big, soaring rhetoric about Canada as a country of yes, where nation-building projects should be possible (it’s unclear which ones, since the platform contains none), hard work gets you ahead and life isn’t so hard for people “who are productive and responsible and law-abiding.” Still, the biggest roars of approval Scheer earns are for distinctly prosaic measures: the universal tax cut, killing the carbon tax and cutting foreign aid.

“Liberals put their faith in government,” he says. “Conservatives put our faith in the people of this great country.”

In that crowd is Holly McCallum, an office manager who lives in Singh’s Burnaby South riding, where she’s gotten used to her votes for the blue team being swallowed by NDP support. She’s an invested voter; she first met Scheer at an event when he was running for the leadership of the party, and she was instantly won over. “He stood out right away and I thought, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the guy,'” she says.

Social conservatism isn’t her bag, but she likes the fact that in terms of what he says he’ll act on, Scheer is a moderate who won’t change the country too much, other than in economic terms.

McCallum’s basic belief in Scheer is rooted in his biography. “In contrast to the prime minister we have now, who grew up in a different environment, I think we have a candidate in Andrew Scheer that is really down to earth,” she says. “His background, how he grew up and how he lived, mirrors the majority of Canadian families. This in turn I think allows him to be in an honest position to understand what policies will actually help the average person’s bank account.”

She brought with her to the rally a friend who is so politically disengaged, she had no real sense of who Scheer was. By the end of the night, McCallum’s friend was clapping along, swept up in the moment. “Yes, there was probably preaching to the choir when you’ve got everybody coming out to see Andrew Scheer, but you don’t know if there’s people in that crowd that are still undecided,” McCallum says. “I know he at least reached out to one person, and when I dropped her off, I said, ‘Okay, make sure you get out and pick your Conservative candidate.'”

Up on the stage, Scheer is closing in on his crescendo.

“I am an optimist. And one of the things I hear from a lot of people a lot of times is that I smile too much,” he says. In fact, over the course of the campaign, Scheer has smiled noticeably less than his dimpled default, to the point that it seemed like some political consultant told him to lay off because voters didn’t like it. But this audience does, and they chortle affectionately for him.

“But it’s true, I do smile, I smile a lot,” Scheer continues from the riser in the centre of the crowd. “But it’s hard not to smile, because I continue to believe that Canada’s best days lie ahead.”

The next day, by the time Scheer’s campaign arrives at the Vancouver airport to end the pre-Thanksgiving jaunt to B.C., the mood around the party’s road crew feels noticeably buoyant, a couple of notches different even from earlier in the week.

As the bus pulls onto the tarmac near the campaign plane, Scheer grabs the camera from his videographer and circles the bus hammily, in a crouch and brandishing the camera like a wildlife photographer who works for a tabloid. The news photographers instantly see an irresistible image and pile off the bus with their cameras to chase the leader around the bus, battling lens-to-lens.

Scheer is, of course, smiling.

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