Conservative leader Andrew Scheer deserves a second chance.

He did not fail to score on a “breakaway on an open net” in the recent campaign. Majority wins by a first-time leader — the kind Justin Trudeau pulled off in 2015 — are few and far between. And the defeat of a prime minister elected with a majority, after only one term, is even more rare.

It’s happened only once in Canada’s 43 national elections, in 1935, when R. B. Bennett’s Conservative government was overwhelmed by the Great Depression and replaced by the Liberal’s William Lyon Mackenzie King. So, the odds against Scheer and the Conservatives defeating the Trudeau Liberals were long.

In our increasingly leader-centric politics, it’s too easy to blame the leader when things go wrong. Turfing Scheer now might bring a smile to the faces of would-be successors waiting in the wings, but it also carries risks.

First-time leaders and their teams invariably make first-time mistakes. If they’re smart and adaptable, those first-timers learn their lessons and come back much stronger the next time. Removing Scheer would give the Conservative Party…wait for it…another first-time leader just itching to repeat the same learning process Scheer and his team have just gone through.

There is additional risk in choosing a new leader that should not be underestimated — choosing the wrong leader. Think Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. In choosing Scheer in 2017, the party dodged a huge problem, the election of Maxime Bernier as leader. Party members angry at Scheer’s recent performance might consider where they would be today had Bernier led the party in the recent election.

The party’s near miss with Bernier also shows how dangerously fragile the party’s leadership- selection process is. It shows how susceptible it is to unrestrained and dodgy membership-selling — not to build the party but to hijack it as a vanity project, to pursue a particular ideological niche, or to impose a particular set of moral views on society.

Learning from the mistakes of 2019 and creating a better strategy for the next election starts with analyzing the results of October 21. Scheer did reduce the Trudeau majority to a minority, gained 19 new seats and polled an additional 540,000 votes over the 2015 election results. Forcing the majority Trudeau government into a minority is no small feat, but a closer look at the numbers reveals the extent to which Scheer and the Conservative Party’s platform did not inspire Canadians.

While no vote should ever be characterized as wasted, the additional support the Conservatives earned on the Prairies masks their epic fail in Quebec, Ontario and the cities. Quebec and Ontario yielded only one more seat than the party won in 2015, and they were virtually shut out in urban areas. In 47 of the 55 ridings in the Greater Toronto Area, they polled fewer votes in 2019 than in 2015.

Scheer has promised a personal listening tour to obtain the views of party members, and to conduct a thorough post-mortem on the campaign conducted by former Stephen Harper minister John Baird. These are essential first steps toward learning from the mistakes of 2019 and preparing for the future. The campaign review is what Harper did after the 2005 election when he reduced the Paul Martin government to a minority. As Harper’s was, this exercise must be comprehensive; it must address all aspects of the campaign: strategy (national and regional), platform, advertising, polling, leader’s tour, debates, voter identification, and the effectiveness of the party’s get-out-the-vote process.

The leader’s performance must be part of this evaluation, but Scheer’s critics must not be allowed to make it only about him. The recent campaign offers many reasons why the party and its members must also look unflinchingly in the mirror and do some serious soul-searching.

The first question party members should address in the post-mortem is whether they want to win the next election or whether they will be satisfied with another “moral victory.” Winning next time will require a completely new strategy and platform. In meeting those challenges, two issues need urgent attention — messaging on “hot button” social issues, and the creation of a much more modern and appealing platform.

In his tentative and unconvincing responses on abortion and same-sex marriage, issues that were settled years ago by Parliament and in public opinion, Scheer appeared to many Canadians to be out of step with mainstream values. In doing that, he walked right into predictable Liberal scare tactics on these issues. His obvious personal discomfort in discussing them made this critical disconnect even worse. For voters, a leader comfortable in his own skin is trustworthy. On these issues Scheer wasn’t, and it hurt him.

He is not the first person of deeply held personal faith to lead a national party, and he will not be the last. Harper successfully negotiated the shoals surrounding these issues and silenced Liberal allegations of a hidden agenda. Given the recent campaign, it’s most important for Scheer to put fears about these issues to rest in a confident and forthright fashion. He also must offer some insights into his faith and the evolution of his thinking, particularly in reference to his previous statements on these subjects. Participating in gay pride parades would help.

With 77 percent of Canadians in favour of the protection of abortion rights and 74 percent supporting same-sex marriage, the presence of social conservatives in the party is an issue that must be addressed. If the party allows its MPs to raise these issues in the House of Commons, as social conservatives demand, this will drive a majority of Canadians away from the party and stoke the Liberal and NDP fear machines.

This is not an overblown prediction; it’s essentially what happened in October 21. It’s time for the party to plainly state that it will not be held ransom to the expectations of social conservatives. If doing this costs the party votes, it will be a small price to pay for not forgoing access to the much larger pool of support necessary to be a competitive national party once again.

On policy, the Conservative strategy was limited, unimaginative, and pitched to appeal primarily to the party’s existing base of support. It ignored potential voters in regions where the party was weak — people the party needed to attract in order to win.

Their policy platform could have presented an alternative vision for how to address the challenges facing Canada. Instead, the “Plan for You to Get Ahead” signed on to the consensus ballot question — the rising cost of living and affordability. In so doing the plan committed the party to matching step-for-step the Liberal offers of middle-class tax cuts and boutique tax credits. As a result, Scheer and his team abandoned a touchstone policy dear to the hearts of Conservatives — concern over deficits and balanced budgets. They also limited themselves to the symptoms of voter angst (lack of affordability) but not the underlying reasons for it (wider income disparities, growth of the “gig economy,” and job losses in resource-based sectors). Thus they missed a huge opportunity to differentiate themselves from the Liberals and the NDP.

Chief among the issues the Conservatives must face urgently is the party’s response to climate change. The policy question of this generation is how best to control greenhouse gases and how to manage the transition away from dependence on fossil fuels and toward greener energy. Against this backdrop the party has become the default spokesperson for the energy-producing provinces, when the electorate wants balance between energy interests and climate change action. A strong majority of voters in the federal election backed parties that support carbon pricing. The party has been struggling toward a comprehensive and saleable environmental policy, but it is not yet there.

Would abandoning opposition to a carbon tax be a bridge too far for the Conservatives? Perhaps not. Stephen Harper’s environment plan circa 2008 was a cap-and-trade plan anchored by carbon pricing, and Alberta and Saskatchewan did not run away in fear. Recently, in Alberta, Jason Kenney’s government announced its plan to restrain emissions in the industrial sector. The centrepiece is a carbon tax of $30 a tonne, which meets the federal government standard. And Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe recently indicated he is going to talk with Ottawa about bringing his province on side with federal climate change policies.

There are many other issues the party could profitably address, including the following:

  • As the world of work continues to transform and jobs decouple from where people work, how should federal programs change to support the changing labour force and help workers cope with the loss of pension and other employee benefits previously arranged through employers?
  • Canada’s economy is evolving from its traditional dependence on resource-based industries to knowledge work. How should innovation be harnessed to lead this transition and improve Canada’s weak labour productivity growth, which continues to lag behind those of our major trading partners?
  • Conservative thinker Sean Speer has been eloquent recently on the need for Conservatives to address the challenges faced by the working poor, many of whom “are vulnerable to the effects of what economists call ‘skills-biased technological change.’” He argues that the growing concentration of wealth and opportunity among fewer people and places “is the most important political challenge facing our society.”
  • What are the principal challenges in protecting Canada’s private sector, government and infrastructure cybersecurity, and how should they be addressed?
  • The Donald Trump phenomenon is destabilizing traditional trading relationships, challenging multilateralism and denigrating international institutions. Canada’s relations with China are at an all-time low since the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. What would a re-set button for Canada’s foreign policy look like?
  • Canadians pay almost twice as much for airfares as Europeans do, and the Liberals’ recent air-passenger-protection regulations actually clawed back more generous provisions. Is it not time to consider opening Canadian airspace to competition and lower prices, and really protecting consumers?

These suggestions are a starting point for the hard work to come in redefining what Conservatives will stand for in the future. The quicker the party focuses on the task ahead instead of the leadership challenges of the last election, the quicker it will have a more engaging set of policy products to present to Canadians.

Photo: Conservative leader Andrew Scheer speaks to reporters after a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, November 6, 2019. The Canadian Press, by Justin Tang.

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Geoff Norquay
Geoff Norquay is a principal with Earnscliffe Strategies in Ottawa. He was a senior social policy adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office from 1984 to 1988 and director of communications to Stephen Harper when he was leader of the official Opposition.

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