Not only did the social conservatives retain control of the Harper Party, but in Andrew Scheer, the former PM (still thought to be a behind-the-scenes puppet-master by some) likely got the candidate he wanted. At the very least, he did not get an uppity progressive like Michael Chong — who defied him in the days of Harper’s flat-out authoritarianism — or the weak tea of an Erin O’Toole.
No, the only way Saturday’s result could have been less dangerous for the Liberals is if “Mad Max” Bernier had been elected instead. The fumbles made by the Beauce Beau Brummell were just too, too obvious.
For many years, Harper took very good care of Scheer. By putting him in the Speaker’s chair at a very young age (a six ballot victory back in 2011), he gave Scheer high public visibility with low political risk. The Speaker never takes part in divisive policy debates, and the daily platform allowed him time to polish his French to leadership-quality levels.
The new Conservative leader was careful to tip his hat to Harper in his acceptance speech. Decorum, yes. But not all decorum.
Given that O’Toole’s moderate supporters played a key role in getting Scheer the top job, it would be easy to overstate the obvious influence of social conservatives on the outcome. But there is no denying that they had a real impact on the final result. And they were quick to send Scheer the bill for the help provided by Brad Trost, Pierre Lemieux and thousands of their supporters. Here’s what the anti-abortion group We Need a Law put out in the wake of Scheer’s victory:
“During the leadership campaign, Scheer stated, ‘I believe 100 per cent that members of Parliament have the right to bring forward and debate any legislation of importance to them.’ We are encouraged by this promise of a friendlier and more welcoming environment in Parliament for individual members to introduce legislation protecting pre-born human rights.”
The message was hardly subliminal: congratulations … and a warning. Like a lot of other voices on the Religious Right, they were putting the new leader on notice that pro-life and pro-family values had better be recognized in policy by the new leader — or else. Half-measures won’t work.
These social conservatives worked their hearts out for Stephen Harper for ten years. In return, they got nothing but strategic tokenism. The passion they invest in their cause never gave Harper so much as a palpitation — but it did lead him to calculate that he could bamboozle them ’til the cows came home and cash in on their political usefulness.
This time, the so-cons were wised up. They sold thousands of memberships on behalf of Trost and Lemieux. That support ultimately went Scheer’s way. Now they will expect him to deliver.
As We Need a Law plainly stated in their press release, their goal is nothing less than the “regulation” of abortion in Canada, aimed at “protecting fetal interests at some stage of pregnancy.”
And that leads to a head-on collision somewhere down the road for the cheerful cherub who is now the Big Blue Boss.
On the one hand, Scheer has ramped up expectations that pro-life legislation can be introduced by MPs; on the other, the new leader is firmly on the record declaring that party policy pledges that a Conservative government will not introduce legislation to revive the abortion debate in Canada. Politicians may call that adroit communications. Normal people call it sucking and blowing.
It has not been forgotten by the hardcore social conservatives that Harper encouraged Conservative MPs to vote against a private member’s bill put forth by Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth back in 2012 intended to start a debate about when human life actually begins. (Some would argue that, in Harper’s case, that process never really began.) That bill, of course, was intended as a means of bringing the abortion debate through the back door. Harper saw the political danger and squashed the effort like a bug.
So Scheer will be given no free passes. It’s one thing for him to have vouchsafed his social conservative credentials by voting against gay marriage and the Liberal transgender rights bill in 2016. But the acid test for Scheer will be the abortion debate for this part of his constituency. Will he advance it, as the Religious Right hopes and expects — or smother it, as Harper did?
If he advances it, the CPC will be unelectable in almost every major political market in Canada, from Toronto and its Metro suburbs to the province of Quebec. If he smothers it, the hardcore social conservative base will either abandon the party for more agreeable niche choices, like the Christian Heritage Party, or simply take up kissing snakes full time.
In either case, there is another major loser with the election of Bland Man to the top Tory post. (Yes, bland and reassuring, as Harper was himself in the early days — much like the flannel-throated American neo-con Paul Wolfowitz.) And that loser is Peter MacKay.
MacKay is a man who walked away from the gunfight for the soul of the CPC. He took the short walk to Bay Street to cash in his political chips, as did his former colleague John Baird (though Baird exhibited an international sense of opportunism and did it first).
Given the stunning fact that Brad Trost, who is uncomfortable “with the whole gay thing”, finished ahead of a candidate like Michael Chong, it’s official: There is no party for MacKay to save now. He said during the convention that he wasn’t ruling out a return to politics. Now, politics has ruled out a return to the public arena by MacKay.
Stephen Harper has won the political infighting — game, set and match. Andrew Scheer is the living proof.
Author: Michael Harris