Conservative leader Scheer still finding his political feet

Dan Toulgoet photo

For the time being at least, the man of the moment in national politics is Andrew Scheer, the soft-spoken Saskatchewan MP who leads the Conservative Party of Canada. With the Liberals entangled in the SNC-Lavalin scandal, can he capitalize on his chance?

Clues emerge through conversation about his vision – these are early days in the pre-election period – but a sensible question prevails of why he and his party are not fully subsuming a Justin Trudeau government in its third month of fumbling its greatest challenge.

The dismal Liberal period has afforded the Conservatives the lead in the polls, but rather tenuously and marginally. If this is the worst it will get for the Liberals, there are tangible prospects of a rebound. How does Scheer ensure they do not get back on solid footing?

His appearance Friday morning at the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade offered another iteration of a leader-in-grooming who would be our prime minister. Each time he appears in the city, he is lighter on his feet and more relatable. He is naturally self-deprecating and, yes, he has a sense of humour. He is young as a leader but rather old for his age at 39; he jokes about Lucy moving the football from Charlie Brown and his children asking “why do you say, ‘Hang up the phone?’”

But where some leaders run into trouble when they move into the robotic world of a message track, Scheer’s effectiveness actually diminishes when he improvises on the serious stuff. His tendency is to bring us into the weeds instead of paddling us through the currents.

He began by departing from a written speech, most likely for most leaders a sound strategy, but in his case well-briefed does not easily translate into well-spoken. He brings the audience into detailed territory without a discernable beginning, middle and end to the point he wishes to make; it is often an explanation more than an incantation, and it can leave you recognizing he knows his material inside-out but cannot plainly and simply provide his position.

Obviously it is not time in April to roll out the campaign slogans he must muster in September and October, so the event is predictably rather content-free. The greatest applause he gets is for criticizing foreign-funded advocacy on the pipeline debate and – no kidding here – on how he would stop municipalities from dumping raw sewage into our waterways.

Which is not at all to say he brings weak or few messages on the economy, on the environment, on the need to review our tax burden without harming social services, or on how our country’s prime minister needs to be selling our energy abroad and not apologizing for it. It’s just that he hasn’t found a snappy, memorable way to deliver these goods, and that he has to avoid running too fast this early in the marathon.

He is, like most public figures, more affable in person than in the limelight. Last time I encountered his predecessor, Stephen Harper, he wanted to talk hockey and the mess of the Edmonton Oilers; the second the microphone was on, though, he was on message and deliberately stern. Scheer doesn’t have quite that switch of hot and cold, so he can toggle with a little more personal ease – albeit with a fair amount of meander.

A few weeks ago, the business crowd for Finance Minister Bill Morneau left shaking its head about his disconnectedness with its issues. That wouldn’t have been the case Friday with Scheer; he was well-liked by the business crowd, it’s just that there is still work to do to connect. •

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.