The past several days have been witness to the excesses of a certain type of atavistic conservatism: suspicious of diversity, frustrated with difference, primed to lash out, angry, petty, mean. A Conservative senator, Denise Batters, took to Twitter to express her frustration with Liberal member of Parliament Omar Alghabra’s performance on CBC’s “Power and Politics” daily current affairs TV show. She was criticizing the government during the ongoing row with Saudi Arabia and in a since-deleted and apologized-for tweet, Batters wrote of the Saudi-born Alghabra: “With this MP on #pnpcbc, may have been interesting to ask him whether his birthplace being #SaudiArabia impacts this file for him.”
Around the same time, Conservative MP Blaine Calkins tweeted a screenshot from a 2005 blog post that called Alghabra an “overt Islamist.” He has since removed the tweet and apologized. There’s a lot of sorry going around but no change in behavior. No lessons learned. No discipline.
Batters and Calkins weren’t the only two members of the right saying, as some like to put it, the quiet parts loud. The shadow minister for natural resources, Shannon Stubbs, lashed out at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his justice minister’s appointment of John Norris, former lawyer for Omar Khadr, to the federal bench. Khadr, who was held in Guantanamo Bay, was awarded CAD $10.5 million in 2017 after Canada was found complicit in his torture, violating “the most basic Canadian standards.” Stubbs seemed frustrated that an attorney had done his job well and within the boundaries of the fundamental principles of the justice system.
Last Sunday night, former Conservative cabinet minister and close-second-place leadership contender Maxime Bernier tweeted a jeremiad against “more diversity,” expressing his frustration with the Liberal government’s “extreme multiculturalism and cult of diversity” agenda. He fretted that “more diversity” would destroy Canadian identity, whatever that is. (“And whose identity would that be?” many incisive observers immediately asked of Bernier. I think we know the answer.)
During all of this, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has been missing, for the most part. Presumably, he was somewhere with WiFi and a smartphone. But he remained silent until midweek when he emerged, days ahead of his party’s convention in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to say that Bernier does not speak for the Conservatives and he expects members of the caucus to work together. That’s a second yellow card for Bernier, who was booted from Scheer’s shadow cabinet in June for publishing a chapter from his book suggesting that the new leader had won by using “fake Conservatives.”
Bernier should have been shown off the pitch, but he wasn’t, calling into question whether Scheer has control of his caucus and whether he has the guts to make difficult decisions to manage his side ahead of the fall 2019 election — when he might run against Trudeau and would be required to alienate fringe members of the party. Perhaps he’s nervous about a return to the days of the conservative coalition split, which happened in the 1980s and 1990s when extremist right-wing views found a home on the national stage.
Today’s Conservatives are still regrouping after their 2015 election loss. In government from 2006 to 2015, the party was led by Stephen Harper, who mostly managed to restrain the worst elements of his side — at least until the Conservatives got desperate during their last campaign. But now Harper — who competently ruled the caucus, party and government with a steady if quasi-authoritarian hand — is gone and the young Scheer doesn’t seem up to the task.
I’d like to say we’ve reached low tide for good sense in the Conservative Party. But I can’t. The 2019 federal election is approaching, and the party under Scheer has been cultivating a xenophobic throwback image, a look back to an imagined Canada that never existed and never will. We could hop around the branches of the party family tree, but for our purposes, it’s enough to note that some of those branches are home to radical types, including Hamish Marshall, former director of the far-right Rebel Media, who is the federal campaign chair. Those sorts see the future behind them.
Harper formed the government in 2006 in part because he moderated many of the worst impulses of his party. Plenty of regrettable nonsense still came through. But not so much that the party was prevented from a majority government, which they managed in 2011 and held until their loss to Trudeau. Plainly, Scheer is no Harper. Conservatives lack the discipline and direction of past years. That’s bad news for Canadians who want an effective opposition party and alternative to the Liberals who, at this point, look like favorites for a 2019 election win. For the good of the party and the country, perhaps Scheer will put his hands on the wheel and point his side in the right direction. If not, perhaps someone could persuade Harper to come back.