Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer admits he is at a significant disadvantage to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when it comes to being recognized by Canadians, but says he’s confident in making up ground ahead of the 2019 federal election.
“I knew that this challenge was going to be monumental when I ran for the leadership,” Scheer told Global News when asked what he needs to do make sure more Canadians know his name.
Getting attention can be tough for any opposition leader. But Scheer’s challenge is compounded by being up against Trudeau, who enjoys name recognition around the globe.
“We have a celebrity prime minister that is the toast of the international elite and makes it on front pages of magazines because of the clothes he’s wearing and things like that,” Scheer said. “The government gets default attention from the media. When they make announcements, it’s news because it’s government policy. We have to work a little bit harder.”
Even during a week where he was in the spotlight for several days at the Conservative party’s national convention in Halifax, many Canadians still have no idea who he is.
Anecdotally, Global News showed his picture to more than a dozen people this weekend. Only one person correctly identified him as Conservative party leader Andrew Scheer.
Other answers ranged from “I don’t know who this guy is” to “Looks familiar” to “Is he running for something?”
Just the top job in the country.
Scheer says he plans to tackle the recognition issue with a “very ambitious travel schedule” over the next year, leading up to the 2019 election.
“We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing. I believe it’s paying off,” Scheer said. “I think the proof is in a united and dynamic caucus that’s fighting for the things that Canadians care about, and we’re making real progress.”
Senior Conservative MP Tony Clement also struck an optimistic tone.
“I think we’ve got some work to do between now and then, I grant you that, but it is coming along and it is according to a plan,” said Clement. “Our research is pretty clear on this. The more people get to know Andrew Scheer, the more they like him, which is a good sign.
“And I will make this guarantee to you — on election day, everyone who will be voting in that election will know that Andrew Scheer is running to be prime minister and that his candidates are on the ballot,” the former cabinet minister said.
Barry McLoughlin, senior partner with leadership consultancy TransformLeaders.ca, said opposition parties commonly face the challenge of being less well-known than the leader of the day.
“Rarely does the public vote because they’ve suddenly taken hold of your personality and just love you more than the existing prime minister. It’s often we vote to vote a party out, rather than vote a party in,” McLoughlin told Global News.
“I think Andrew Scheer will be somebody that understands the wave that often takes place. And he’s been able to, somehow, come about even with Justin Trudeau and the Liberals in spite of the fact that his own personal brand isn’t really well known.”
McLoughlin, who has worked as a leadership communications consultant with politicians in all levels of government, said Scheer needs to continue raising his profile ahead of the 2019 election.
He said Scheer needs to leverage all kinds of media – earned, social and paid – and focus on making news that shows people why he’d be an upgrade over Trudeau.
“He’s got to come across as strong without being mean or scary. He’s got to speak to the higher values of the Canadian public. And I believe that’s why his fight with Maxime Bernier was so important,” said McLoughlin.
He added that Scheer also has to focus on defining himself, and do so before Trudeau starts defining him.
“That’s the real danger zone – you can see Justin Trudeau and his team already making efforts to define Andrew Scheer in very negative terms.”
Global News asked Scheer how he plans to build his own unique brand above and beyond just not being Trudeau.
He pointed to the keynote speech he gave at the Conservative convention Friday night, when he spoke about growing up in a small Ottawa townhouse.
“[It] was full of those types of markers that I’m putting down of what I believe in, what are the things I stand for, what my background is like,” Scheer said.
“The fact that I come from the type of family I think most Canadians can see themselves in, not inheriting a trust fund but having to go out and work in a small business to pay for my tuition.”
Without explicitly saying it, by sharing his upbringing Scheer is looking to set himself apart from Trudeau, whose privileged childhood began at 24 Sussex Drive, as son of then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
McLoughlin said Scheer’s speech really defined his roots and values.
“That was very important to do that, I think it was strategic,” said McLoughlin.
“You can’t define yourself without us understanding where you come from, and so you can see the contrasting self-definition.”