Politics, with apologies to Forrest Gump, is a like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.
Maxime Bernier was pretty confident he was going to get the leadership of the federal Conservative Part on the weekend. So confident, in fact, that didn’t really deliver a campaign speech on Friday night. It was a strategic move to play it safe and, as history shows us time and again, playing it safe can be the most dangerous strategy of all.
So, today underdog Andrew Scheer is in the spotlight, a nice conservative Saskatchewan boy who aspires to unseat the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau.
It was a political surprise that took me back to Dec. 2, 2006. It is a day that will go down in Canadian history books as the surprise-maker in chief. In Alberta, former cabinet minister Jim Dinning was heavily favoured to walk away with the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party, recently vacated by an unpopular (and we found out later, ailing) Ralph Klein. But, under the anomalies of the preferential ballot system, when Dinning got deadlocked with the other top contender, Ted Morton, the third place candidate snuck up the middle as everybody’s second choice. Almost no one could believe Ed Stelmach could become leader and premier, and yet he did.
Federally, a similar surprise unfolded within hours of the Alberta outcome. The bookish Stephane Dion defeated frontrunners Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff to grasp the mantle as leader of the federal Liberals.
I remember discovering the outcome of these two contests as my wife and I flew back to Canada from a vacation. We had been out of media contact for several hours but as our aircraft approached our country, the news of the two unexpected leadership wins reached us. Briefly, I wondered whether the Bermuda Triangle had shifted us into some sort of alternate universe.
As we now know, both of these surprise upsets turned out to be disasters for the parties involved. Stelmach, authentically a nice guy, quickly got the oil patch up in arms over a hasty royalty review. He also performed poorly as a speaker, often struggling to convey his ideas coherently. His time in power is seen by many as the first in a series of political missteps that led to the end of the PC Party’s 44-year reign in Alberta. Dion, meanwhile, demonstrated a profound social clumsiness and policy naivety that assured the Grits would spend a few more years in the political wilderness.
What of Scheer? As the come-from-behind winner, can he claim to have the full confidence of his party membership? Will the grassroots stay with him when the going gets tough?
Fortunately, the circumstances around his choice don’t really parallel the events of a decade ago. The putative front-runner Maxime Bernier, for example, was advocating a fairly radical brand of economic conservatism that included disbanding the marketing boards that are so dear to the hearts of Quebec farmers. At the same time, he offered little to appeal to the socially conservative set in the party. It is not surprising that some delegates just couldn’t come to grips with the idea of him at the helm.
Scheer, on the other hand, has the same balanced conservatism that worked so well for Stephen Harper in the early going. He is a fiscal conservative, but not a radical one, and he made a point of reaching out to social conservatives, saying they have – and deserve – a voice in the party. It was a clear invitation for all of the many factions of conservatism to climb back under the big tent.
Of course, getting chosen as leader merely means you are allowed to take on the real challenge – winning back hearts that have been given to the handsome and smooth Justin Trudeau. It is not yet clear how Scheer will perform in that daunting contest.
We do, however, know this: Just when you think you have Canadian politics figured out, you bite into a chocolate that has a filling completely unlike what you expected to find. Let’s hope it’s neither too hard nor too soft.
Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is President of Troy Media Digital Solutions and Publisher of Troy Media.
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