Wed | Nov 20, 2019

Canada's Conservatives offer bland option to Trudeau's flash

Published:Sunday | October 20, 2019 | 10:41 AM
In this Oct. 10, 2019, file photo, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer take part in the Federal leaders French language debate in Gatineau, Quebec.

TORONTO (AP) — Even members of his own party say Canada's Conservative leader is bland.

They tout it as a virtue, the antidote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's flash and star power, and they're counting on this very quality to help Andrew Scheer defeat Trudeau's Liberal Party in national elections tomorrow.

"Andrew is what I call a severely normal Canadian," said Jason Kenney, Alberta's conservative premier and the godfather of one of Scheer's five kids. "His personality is the opposite of Justin's. Andrew is not at home naturally preening for the cameras."

In the words of Canada's former Conservative foreign minister, John Baird: "He's not the sizzle, he's the steak."

Polls show Scheer has a chance to defeat the Liberals after a combination of scandals and high expectations damaged Trudeau's prospects.

"His entire career he's been underestimated, and I would never underestimate Andrew Scheer," Baird said.

Trudeau faces an uphill electoral battle after old photos of him in blackface and brownface surfaced last month, casting doubt on his judgment. The handsome son of liberal icon and late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau also was hurt by a scandal that erupted earlier this year, when his former attorney general said he pressured her to halt the prosecution of a Quebec company. Trudeau has said he was standing up for jobs, but enough damage was done to give the Conservatives an opening.

Scheer also has had a bumpy ride. He has been criticised for embellishing his resume by saying he had worked as an insurance broker when, in fact, he was never licensed. He also has taken heat for holding dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship — something he and his party had blasted other Canadian political figures for and never mentioned until the Globe and Mail newspaper revealed it earlier this month.

Scheer said he began the process of renouncing his American citizenship in August, just before the election campaign started, but it could take 10 months.

Still, the young Conservative leader is well positioned to become prime minister. No party is likely to get a majority of Parliament's 338 seats, so a shaky alliance may be needed to pass legislation. If Conservatives win the most seats — but not a majority — they will probably try to form a government with the separatist Bloc Quebecois party. Trudeau's Liberals would likely rely on the leftist New Democrats to stay in power.

Trudeau reasserted the country's liberal identity in 2015 after almost 10 years of Conservative rule. Scheer ran for the leadership of the Conservative party two years ago after more obvious candidates figured Trudeau could not be beaten in this election — that a second mandate was all but a forgone conclusion for the charismatic young prime minister.

Now that his prospects have changed, the 40-year-old Scheer could become the second youngest prime minister in Canada's history. The first, Conservative Joe Clark, was sworn in the day before his 40th birthday after he beat Justin's father Pierre. However, Clark's minority government lasted only six months and was defeated by Pierre Trudeau.

Scheer is hoping to convince voters to side with him by promising to scrap Trudeau's national carbon tax and cut government spending, including foreign aid, by 25 percent.

"The country will be in perfectly safe, if bland, hands. That might not be a bad thing in a world gone insane," said Andrew MacDougall, a former spokesman under Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Born in Ottawa, Scheer is a social conservative and son of a Catholic deacon and former newspaper librarian who moved to Canada from the U.S. and married Scheer's late mother, who was a nurse and an anti-abortion activist. Andrew's two sisters live in the U.S. and are registered Republicans.

During their first debate, Trudeau grilled Scheer about his stance on abortion and the Conservative was widely panned after he refused to answer. The next day he acknowledged he was personally against abortion but said his party would not reopen the debate.

In 2005, he gave a speech in Parliament attacking same-sex marriage. He now says he'll protect the rights of the LGBT community if elected.

Scheer has spent most of his adult life in politics. At age 32 he became the youngest speaker of the House of Commons, a non-partisan role overseeing debate in Parliament. He won his first election at 25, representing a district in Regina, Saskatchewan.

Scheer had moved from Ottawa to Saskatchewan be with his wife, Jill, a native of that province, and has assumed his wife's family love for football. Her brother is Jon Ryan, a former punter for the NFL's Seattle Seahawks.

While his campaign portrays him as the common man, Scheer has spent almost all his adult life as a member of Parliament with the perks that come with it, including free housing, a car and a driver when he was House speaker and opposition leader.

"Yes, he's been in Parliament since 25, but his parents are very middle class people. His family didn't own a car," Baird said. "He's very grounded. And frankly that's the Conservative party. We're not a party of downtown elites."

Scheer didn't win his own party's leadership until the 13th ballot. He was most people's second choice.

"He's a guy who has always been underestimated," Kenney said. "He's smiling all the time. He's got terrific dimples and sometimes people infer from that he's not serious, which is not true."

Ian Brodie, a former chief of staff to Canada's previous Conservative prime minister, said Scheer won't have to face the same expectations as Trudeau, who was viewed as the heir to Obama's progressive mantle.

"Nobody is expecting him to be the international leader of progressive forces, or anything else for that matter," Brodie said.

The relationship between the U.S. and Canada would not be expected to change much as Scheer won't risk renegotiating the new free trade agreement with U.S. President Donald Trump.

MacDougall said Scheer knows he has to make the U.S. relationship work as Trudeau did. Canada relies on the U.S. for 75 percent of its exports.

He added: "If Canada goes back to being a more modest presence on the stage, that kinds of fits of who we are as a country, but doesn't mean we can't be effective."