(Warning: this is a long-ish article, but shorter than what you normally get from Martyn Brown!)
Many observers were flabbergasted when Andrew Scheer won the 2017 Conservative leadership race,
The polls initially had broadcaster and money manager Kevin O'Leary way out in the lead. After he dropped out, there was a consensus that Maxime Bernier was the frontrunner.
But Scheer managed to squeak out a victory on the 13th ballot, thanks to the support of social conservatives, the Quebec agriculture industry, and a bunch of mostly no-name current and former Conservative MPs.
He became the default choice of those who were turned off by Bernier's hardcore, big-business-oriented libertarianism.
In that contest, Scheer mostly managed to avoid being tagged by the media as an extremist, thanks in part to the candidacy of fellow Saskatchewan MP Brad Trost.
Trost is a hardcore Bible thumper opposed to transgender washrooms, physician-assisted suicide, abortion, and same-sex marriage. Secular Conservatives could look at Scheer and say, "Well, he's not as bad as Trost."
The Liberals have still tried to portray Scheer as an anti-abortion throwback to the 1950s Father Knows Best era. But for the most part, this hasn't put a dent in the Conservatives' standing in the polls.
Scheer's victory came in part because higher-profile candidates—such as former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall, former New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord, then Toronto city councillor Doug Ford, and then Conservative MPs Peter MacKay, James Moore, and Jason Kenney—all refused to run.
No doubt, many of them thought that Justin Trudeau's Liberals were in a good position to win a second term.
Little did they know that an old Liberal problem—corruption in Quebec and the party's response to it—would seriously dent Trudeau's image as a trustworthy politician before he completed his first term as prime minister.
Scheer carefully crafted shadow cabinet
Since becoming leader, Scheer has gone out of his way to make the Conservatives appear as benign as possible.
That's designed to make his party an alternative for centrist voters should the Liberals stumble.
Bernier did him a favour by storming out of the caucus to form a more extremist party. For Scheer, Bernier is playing the same role that Trost filled during the leadership race.
Voters can say: "Scheer's not as awful as Bernier."
To reinforce a more moderate sheen, Scheer named the articulate and quite likable Lisa Raitt as his deputy leader and justice critic. She comes across as more reasonable and sophisticated than many of the rural MPs in the Conservative caucus.
Another major position, House leader, went to Manitoba MP Candice Bergen, who has eviscerated Trudeau as a "fake feminist". She's Queen of the TV clip—nobody in Parliament can craft a nine-second putdown like her.
The high-profile critic position for immigration, refugees and citizenship went to an experienced MP, Michelle Rempel. She has tempered the xenophobia that her party has been associated with in the past.
The elevation of these three female politicians has helped Scheer counter Liberal framing of him as a patriarchal reactionary.
These appointments have also created some distance between Scheer and former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who centralized power and ran an authoritarian ship.
Quebec lieutenant a surprise
Always sitting near Scheer in Parliament is his chief opposition whip, Mark Strahl, son of a well-regarded former Conservative MP, Chuck Strahl. The Strahls are not seen as extremists by the Ottawa establishment or the media.
Scheer also named former Victoriaville mayor and first-term MP Alain Rayes as his Quebec lieutenant, rather than Bernier or another leadership rival, five-term MP Steven Blaney.
That may have been Scheer's smartest decision as leader.
Blaney, a former public safety minister in the Stephen Harper government, introduced the controversial Bill C-51 (the Anti-Terrorism Act) in 2015, which was widely viewed as an unnecessary attack on civil liberties.
In the Conservative leadership race, Blaney said he would invoke the constitution's notwithstanding clause to reimpose a ban on niqabs in citizenship ceremonies. This guy is a Harperite through and through.
Rayes, on the other hand, traces his family roots back to Egypt and was once a teacher—hardly the face of extremism.
Then to fill the role of public safety critic, Scheer named business magazine publisher, ex-wine-company executive, and former regiment commander Pierre Paul-Hus. There's nothing like a wine-loving military officer to bring an image of sophistication and élan to the Conservative ranks. He's no Vic Toews.
Meanwhile, Blaney was shuffled off to become the critic for Canadian heritage, where he's less likely to inflict damage on the Conservative brand.
But even more importantly, Scheer did not give a shadow cabinet position to another leadership rival, Dr. Kellie Leitch, who was the most Trumpian of all the candidates.
Leitch has since decided not to run for reelection, likely seeing no influence in a Scheer-led government. And the candidates she backed to win the nomination in her riding were defeated by a man whom she's claimed is not a "real conservative".
Another extremist problem solved.
Scheer has several vulnerabilities
There's still a long road ahead before Scheer can become prime minister.
The Conservative leader hasn't come forward with a climate policy—let alone a climate policy with any shred of credibility. And that's going to become a bigger problem when we see another round of climate-related flooding, forest fires, and hurricanes this year.
Shortly before the 2012 U.S. presidential election, Superstorm Sandy walloped New York and New Jersey, exposing Republican Mitt Romney's weakness in responding to the biggest challenge facing humanity. It helped Barack Obama win a second term.
Romney, like Scheer, tried to play the "moderate" card, but in the end, he was exposed as another knuckle dragger when it came to environmental issues.
Scheer also won't be helped if Jason Kenney, another climate loser, becomes Alberta's premier.
That infamous Maclean's magazine cover—with the swaggering, blue-suited, patriarchal provincial right wingers with Scheer—was a major blunder. This image cements in educated voters' minds that this guy isn't going to protect their kids and grandkids from Climate Armageddon.
Another Achilles' heel for Scheer is his long association with Hamish Marshall, a former director of the notorious Rebel Media. Marshall is going to run the Conservative campaign—and no doubt the Liberals and NDP will be highlighting that this alt-right guru is one of Scheer's most trusted advisers.
I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest to see Marshall compared to Trump's former alt-right guru, Steve Bannon, in attack ads by the Conservatives' opponents in the campaign. In fact, it's already happened. And we all know that when the media uses the term "alt-right", it's seen by many readers as synonymous with "racist"—precisely the image Scheer is so eager to run away from.
Nevertheless, Scheer's done a good job of reinventing the Conservatives in Parliament—and he's been helped by his finance critic Pierre Poilievre.
In this regard, the Conservative leader reminds me of a former B.C. premier, Mike Harcourt, who let his critics shine when he was leader of the Opposition.
The governing Socreds repeatedly tried to paint Harcourt as a left-wing extremist, but it never took hold with the public.
Harcourt was easygoing, approachable, moderate, and friendly. The messaging from his opponents didn't match the reality.
He also had a "new generation of New Democrats"—a caucus filled with young bright lights—who were going to do a better job than many of the dim bulbs then in the cabinet.
Scheer's willingness to share the spotlight with his shadow cabinet has reinforced a message to many Canadians that the Conservatives could be a government-in-waiting. It makes him seem less tyrannical than Harper.
That will no doubt disgust climate voters. It will horrify civil libertarians who remember the Harper government's pandering to those who favour rough justice. And it will enrage those who see Marshall as a Canadian version of Bannon.
But in the minds of a sizeable number of Canadians, Poilievre could be a finance minister. Raitt could be a justice minister. Paul-Hus could be a minister of public safety. And yes, Rempel could be a minister of immigration.
And like Harcourt, Scheer has crafted an image of being approachable and not a man to be feared.
Yesterday, Scheer spoke to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, where he once again tried to downplay perceptions that his party is a home for extremists.
Today, I expect to see Scheer walking in the Vancouver Vaisakhi parade, where he'll be surrounded by a bunch of supporters in the Sikh community.
He's trying to be a man of the people—Average Andy—in contrast to Elitist Justin.
Leaders of the Opposition are often underestimated before elections. It happened with Jean Chrétien and it happened with Harper.
In a similar vein, Scheer is being underestimated. People don't see him as a prime minister. So far, that's working to his advantage
As predicted above, Andrew Scheer visited the Ross Street Temple for the annual Vancouver Vaisakhi celebration.
The event commemorates the spring harvest in India, as well as the founding of a military order known as the Khalsa in 1699 by Guru Gobind Singh.
I ran into Scheer at the event and asked if it was his intention to put a more moderate face on the Conservatives after he became leader.
"We're a big-tent party," Scheer replied. "We have all different kinds of voices, and we are a very centrist—uh—we have a very pragmatic approach to politics.
"We understand that Canadians are looking for issues to be addressed around the economy, increasing prosperity, and safer communities," he continued. "So we have a talented team of people from all walks of life, from all over the country, all different backgrounds. And we're going to be offering a vision for Canadians that everyone can buy into."
Then I followed up by asking for his response to criticism about naming Hamish Marshall—a former director of Rebel Media—as campaign manager.
"There have been a lot of people that had some associations with that outlet in the past that have made a decision not to work with them because of the direction that they took," Scheer said. "You know, there are many people—good people—who were not involved in any of that kind of editorial direction. And they continue to be good people who do good work.
"There are many members of the media that are now writing for other outlets that worked for that outlet before," Scheer added. "They made a conscious decision to make that break, as Hamish did, as I did. And again, we're focused on building that type of party that every Canadian can see themselves reflected in."