Andrew Scheer: Conservative everyman still an enigma

Jacques LEMIEUX
Canada's Conservative Party chief Andrew Scheer pushes to get his message across (AFP Photo/Sebastien ST-JEAN)

Montreal (AFP) - Reserved, fiscally-prudent, and a devout Catholic whose opposition to abortion and gay marriage goes against the Canadian grain, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer is the main rival to Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in October 21 elections.

Two years after winning the leadership of the Conservative Party, Scheer, 40, remains an enigma, despite representing a district in Canada's big sky prairies in parliament since 2004.

"It's obvious that he isn't charismatic like Trudeau. To a certain extent, he's the antithesis of the current prime minister: he's not comfortable in front of a crowd nor glad-handing voters," Frederic Boily, a political scientist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, told AFP.

Scheer paints himself as an everyman: a father of five who enjoys a beer, watching football (his wife's younger brother plays in the Canadian Football League) and "The Simpsons" television series.

But behind the chubby face atop a tall frame is also a shrewd strategist who was picked over 12 other candidates in 13 rounds of voting at a leadership convention as the consensus candidate of his party, with the backing of both fiscal and social conservatives.

His dimpled smile -- which comes out when he is both cheery and uneasy, much to his frustration, he concedes -- has earned him the moniker in a nod to his predecessor, "Stephen Harper with a smile."

Harper united a fractious right to form the Conservative Party in 2003 and governed Canada from 2006 to 2015, before being ousted by Trudeau in the last election.

"Whenever (Scheer) is frustrated or exasperated, his expression becomes one of extreme happiness. His smile widens. His dimples pop. If you turned off the soundtrack, you'd think he was telling you he'd just won a car in a raffle," noted the daily Globe and Mail.

Like his predecessor, Scheer has spent most of his adult life in politics, as a party staffer at age 20, then elected to parliament at 25, and named the youngest speaker of the House of Commons at 32.

He has adopted many of Harper's policies, as well as his view that the conservative movement must be built brick by brick, rolling out policies incrementally to sway Canadians ruled by liberals for most of the last century.

But, said Daniel Beland, a politics professor at McGill University in Montreal, "He is ideologically more conservative than Stephen Harper on family and moral issues."

- 'Society has changed' -

Born in Ottawa, the aspiring Canadian leader is driven by deep personal convictions inherited from his parents.

His mother Mary, a nurse involved in the pro-life movement, taught him that most battles are won by just showing up; while his father Jim is now a deacon at the capital's St. Patrick's Basilica.

Scheer's detractors suspect him of having a hidden agenda, citing a 2005 speech he gave against gay marriage and his party fielding a handful of fiercely pro-life candidates.

But he insists he will not reopen these "divisive debates" if elected prime minister. "Society has changed. We've accepted that. I've moved on. Our party's moved on," he said.

When it was revealed late in the campaign, Scheer also found himself on the back foot as questions about his dual nationality obtained from his American-born father overshadowed his policy announcements -- including balancing the federal budget.

But he has faced the strongest criticisms over his arguably lackluster climate plan, and his promised rollback of the Liberals' carbon tax and other environmental policies.

"He has a green plan, but it's pretty thin," Beland told AFP.

The plan largely relies on other nations to curb their emissions while Canada, which emits about two percent of the world's CO2 but ranks in the top 10 of per capita pollution emissions, looks only to develop clean technologies.

Boily said the environment is Scheer's "Achilles heel, more so than his social conservatives."

He said Scheer's pro-pipeline stance, for example, has prevented him from broadening his appeal, which is based in the oil-rich western provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.