In a shock result, Andrew Scheer was elected as the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC). It is the first time the CPC has chosen a leader since Stephen Harper was elected to lead the newly formed party in 2004.
While Maxime Bernier, the longstanding favourite to win, ran on a libertarian platform with enthusiastic millennial support, Scheer narrowly won with the support of social conservatives and centrists. Scheer pitched himself as a pragmatist who could unite the movement in the same vein as Harper. His election represents a narrow victory for continuity Harperism over radical change.
It is not surprising that Harper should still be seen as a model for success. During his leadership, Harper united libertarians and social conservatives with centrists in a successful coalition after years of Liberal dominance. This is remarkable given how from 1987 to 2003, this movement was split between the populist Reform Party of Canada (later rebranded as the Canadian Alliance) in the Western provinces and the moderate Progressive Conservative Party in the Eastern provinces, until the two parties merged in 2003 to become the CPC.
What makes this election result so interesting is how it contrasts with the development of conservatism in the United States and Britain. Anti-globalism, anti-politics, and populism have yet to go mainstream in Canada. Canadian politics still operates on the traditional Left-Right axis of big government versus small government.
Justin Trudeau embodies the same Third Way liberalism of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, and has found a fellow spirit in Emmanuel Macron, France’s new President. Scheer is emulating the conservatism inspired by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, which Harper used to transform the CPC into a serious electoral force. In his victory speech, Scheer defended the Harperite view of conservatism:
“Conservatives have and always will be the party of prosperity, not envy. The party that always represents taxpayers, not connected Ottawa insiders. And we are the party that believes that there is more to society than just government.”
For now, Scheer will follow the Harper playbook and focus on what Conservatives oppose in order to unite the party and win gains in the 2019 general election and return his party to power in 2023. But his leadership will be tested by divisions within the conservative movement over issues such as abortion, LGBT rights, and climate change, many of which were suppressed by Harper during his steely leadership.
It also remains to be seen if Canadians will start expressing the same discontent with globalisation which has been given voice by populists in other Western nations. If anti-globalist politics does come to Canada, then it could undo an already fractious conservative movement in the same way it has split the conservative movement in America.
Instead of complacently relying on Harpersim, it would be more advantageous for Canadian Conservatives to ask themselves tough questions about how to become a post-Harperite party and address the new challenges posed by globalisation. The alternative is a return to a fragmented centre-right in Canada. Scheer’s success as a leader could be defined by how willing he is to take on this task.