In choosing Andrew Scheer, Conservatives buck global populist trend

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Conservatives around the world have sought to shake up the political status quo in the last year, voting for Britain to leave the European Union, electing a complete political neophyte as president of the United States.

For a time, it looked like Canadian conservatives were headed down a similar path.

For the first 12 rounds of counting Saturday night, the leader they were poised to elect was Maxime Bernier, a Quebec MP with a libertarian bent whose policy proposals included slaying sacred cows like supply management in agriculture and federal health care funding.

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But in the end, the Tories couldn’t bring themselves to do it, instead handing Andrew Scheer the keys to the Opposition leader’s residence, giving him 50.95 per cent of the available points over Bernier’s 49.05.

Scheer’s campaign slogan was “Scheer excitement,” and there was no doubt in the aftermath of his win supporters were vibrating with just that.

“He just hit the right balance of values and experience and he was a very genuine person,” supporter Leslie Whicher said.

“He’s the kind of person the whole team can rally around. He’s not too far on one direction or another.”

In his platform with boutique tax cuts, tough talk on extremism, even his release of his “five key priorities,” Scheer was also the candidate many saw as any echo of Stephen Harper, the party’s first and only leader.

So what came to mind for some observers was a button available on the leadership event floor reading “Scheer Bored.”

Scheer is the “Goldilocks” candidate, not too hot, not too cold, said Gerry Nicholls, the former vice-president of the National Citizens Coalition, a conservative lobby group.

“I guess they call them conservatives for a reason,” he said.

“They didn’t want to take that radical, sort of populist step, or even maybe that libertarian step. They’d rather just sort of be safe.”

The thing is, pollster Frank Graves said, it seemed like the Conservatives were in fact ready to not just take the step, but jump.

The majority of Canadian Conservative supporters he’s polled have backed not just Trump, but the right-wing candidate Marine LePen who mounted a strong campaign in the recent elections in France.

While yes, social conservatives did help Trump win and are understood to have helped Scheer too, those views are out of lockstep with the majority of Canadians, and there’s little political traction to be gained from seizing on them nationally, Graves said.

And while Scheer promises to put an optimistic, positive tone on Conservative politics, Canadian conservatives have a dark view of the economy, and like conservatives in the U.S. and U.K., have deep concerns about free trade and immigration, Graves said.

“I have no idea how Mr. Scheer will be able to capitalize on that kind of populist wind,” Graves said.

Kellie Leitch had hoped she could, running a campaign seizing on populist themes of anti-elitism and a Canadian values test for newcomers.

She captured 7 per cent of the vote on the first ballot and never gained more than 8, dropping off at the 10th round of counting.

This despite having what everyone said was one of the best organized campaigns among the 13 candidates in the race, and the fact that she raised over $1.3 million.

Another contender with a populist appeal — celebrity businessman Kevin O’Leary — had dropped out of the race just three months after launching his own campaign this year, though his name remained on the ballot until the fifth round.

“We had a very successful ten-year run, it’s only been two years since we were in power,” said Mike Coates, who for a time was running O’Leary’s campaign, of the party’s choice to reject a populist agenda.

“And I think a lot of members just didn’t want to break up what they thought was a winning formula.”

Another candidate advocating for a 180 degree policy turn, Michael Chong, did hang on until the 11th round of counting.

His policy for a price on carbon is heresy in the party, but that he could finish as high as he did sends a sign, said Peter Kent, a Toronto-area MP who was backing Chong.

“Michael and Maxime were the two candidates who stepped outside of the conservative policy envelope,” Kent said.

“I think it was good because both of them realized they would have to defend those policies and argue those policies before the party and the caucus and I think both of them . . . will have important contributions to make to the forthcoming policy discussions.”

Those policy discussions — the party will convene in Halifax in August 2018 for its next convention — will be of utmost importance, said Chris Alexander, who sought the leadership as well but dropped off after the fifth ballot.

“Winning in a democracy is finding that fine balance between blowing things up and too much inertia,” he said.

“You have to find the sweet spot, turn the page of the past without giving up the principles. That’s what we’ll be searching for in the weeks and months to come.”