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Who speaks for the Conservative Party?

Monday, June 14, 2004

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Written by Scott Piatkowski

What would a Cabinet chosen by Stephen Harper look like? What kind of government would he run? These questions would have seemed both pointless and ridiculous just a month ago, but that was before Paul Martin decided to spontaneously combust on the campaign trail. It now makes sense for voters to take a long hard look at Harper’s Reformatories. Based on what we’ve seen from them in the past year alone, it’s not a pretty picture.

Last week, Conservative Health Critic Rob Merrifield announced that women seeking an abortion should be required to take part in what he called “third-party counseling”. Such counseling would be “valuable” because “people who take part in it may only be seeing one side of it.” According to Merrifield, people (or more precisely women) seeking abortions need to be counseled so that they “have all of the information in front of them”.

Appropriately, there have been no legal restrictions on abortion in Canada since 1989, when the Supreme Court struck down the old law. It did so because the law restricted a woman’s right to freedom of choice on an issue affecting the security of her person. Merrifield’s proposal would likely require the use of the notwithstanding clause in order to overrule the Charter of Rights.

Harper was quick to react to the controversy generated by Merrifield’s remarks. Saying that Merrifield went “off message”, Harper urged candidates exercise “caution in an election campaign about what they want to communicate to the public in terms of party position.” Harper also said that he “has no intention of discussing the issue during the election campaign.” In other words, “Please shut up (at least until after the election). I’m trying to pretend that we’re moderate here.”

The week before last, it was Official Languages Critic Scott Reid who went “off message”. Reid advocated ending the requirement that senior public servants be functionally bilingual and reducing French language services offered by the federal government. Of course, like Merrifield, Reid (who resigned as critic) was merely “stating his personal view” and “not speaking for the party.”

But, wait a minute. If a party critic does not speak for the party on their designated issue, then what exactly IS their role? And, in appointing his shadow cabinet, was Harper completely unaware of the “personal views” of his chosen spokespeople? Consider the following choices made by Harper:

  • Merrifield spoke out repeatedly in favour of a private member’s bill introduced by his colleague Garry Breitkreuz advocating mandatory counseling for women seeking abortions. His views could hardly have been a mystery to Harper, yet he was handed the critical health portfolio in Harper’s shadow cabinet. Does that mean that he’d be Health Minister if the Conservatives were elected?
  • Before being elected, Scott Reid wrote two books that thoroughly set out his opposition to official bilingualism. “Lament for a Notion” called bilingualism a failed policy that was too expensive and impractical to continue. “Canada Remapped” argued for the partition of Quebec in the event that the province voted to separate. If these were not party policies, then why would Harper have appointed Reid to speak for the party on language issues?
  • Harper is currently arguing (not all that successfully) that he never really wanted Canada to send troops to fight in Iraq. Yet, his hand-picked Foreign Affairs Critic Stockwell Day (named to the position four times under Harper’s watch) was clear in arguing that Canada should be fighting alongside the Americans. If Harper disagreed, he had plenty of opportunities to say so. He clearly agreed with Day’s position on the war.
  • Harper also appointed Larry Spencer as the party’s Family Issues Critic. Spencer was kicked out of caucus publicly expressing his view that homosexuality should be reinstated as an offense under the criminal code. But, what other party even has a “Family Issues Critic”? Harper had to have known that Spencer was an extremist on this issue and gave him the post in spite of that (or even because of that). Spencer’s sin was to go public with his views

There will surely be more eruptions of intolerance during the campaign, and all of them will be the candidate’s personal views as well. That was the case again when Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant advocated that sexual orientation be removed from hate propaganda legislation (it was just added). But, given that every single member of the Conservative caucus voted against the bill when it was passed, Canadians shouldn’t really be surprised that they would now want to repeal it.

Harper says that, should any of his MPs decide to introduce a private member’s bill on these or other social issues (including same-sex marriage), he would allow a free vote. But, what use is a so-called free vote if the party’s MPs intend to vote – as they have in the past -- en masse against the human rights of Canadians?


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