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Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the appointment of Dr. Andrew P.W. Bennett as ambassador to the office of religious freedom on Feb 19 2013. The announcement was made during a media event at the Aiwan Tahir Community Centre. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the appointment of Dr. Andrew P.W. Bennett as ambassador to the office of religious freedom on Feb 19 2013. The announcement was made during a media event at the Aiwan Tahir Community Centre. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

The Office of Religious Freedom, more Conservative slice and dice Add to ...

Andrew Bennett will be the first Canadian ambassador posted to Canadians.

The Harper Conservatives’ latest brainchild, an ambassador for religious freedom, is supposed to criticize other countries’ lack of protection for religious minorities. These critiques will have zero effect on the intended targets, but they will be wildly popular with domestic religious groups, who are the real political targets.

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Promoting religious tolerance is, of course, a justifiable extension of Canadian values and, as such, a fit thrust of foreign policy. No believer in pluralism and the protection of human rights denies the need to protect religious beliefs. But as the Americans discovered when they established such an office, it had no influence anywhere.

There exists a Department of Foreign Affairs that promotes human rights, including religious rights, as part of its mandate. It could be instructed to do more of this promotion. To imagine that an office with a $5-million budget will make a whit of difference overseas is to engage in the foreign policy of headlines and illusion rather than fact and substance.

This $5-million fulfills a campaign promise by the Conservatives. It fits with the party’s overall approach of extending political offerings longer on image than substance to parts of its core vote – in this case, dedicated religious believers.

You can be sure that the announcements from this new ambassador will feature prominently in the church groups in Canada that are the post’s principal targets, to say nothing of Conservative MPs’ household mailings in ridings where religiosity counts. It is guaranteed that the ambassador’s various pronouncements will receive far more attention in these selected slices of Canada than in any of the countries targeted by him or the government.

The newly created office will fit within a department whose guts are being ripped out by budget cuts. Almost $170-million is being removed from the department, according to the 2012 budget. Staff are being laid off, programs cancelled, visa application centres closed, residences sold, embassy budgets slashed – all by a government that brags that Canada has resumed a position of strength and respect overseas, whereas the opposite is largely true.

But this is how the Harper government does politics, and who can deny its success? There are gestures and policies directed at the heart of its base to fire up its enthusiasm for the Conservative cause, and these are accompanied by little targeted tax cuts and spending announcements.

This week, Canadians saw another announcement typical of this approach: $10-million for defibrillators at hockey arenas and community centres. Why these places and not football and soccer fields or YMCAs and YMHAs or yoga studios? True, many people die of heart attacks and seizures, but not so many in hockey arenas to justify this cost. But hockey is dear to Mr. Harper’s view of Canada, as are those who spend time in these arenas, especially the “hard-working Canadian families” he is always talking about and who are central to his vision of who votes for his party.

These are the Tim Hortons voters, not the chardonnay set of the central cities or the supposed beer-drinking men and women of the union movement. They are the bull’s-eye for Conservative strategists, such that we might now call it the 3-H party: Harper, hockey and Hortons.

The $10-million for the defibrillators, like the money Mr. Harper recently announced for the ferry at Lévis, Que., and the millions he sprinkles almost everywhere he makes “announcements,” is at one with what happens every week the Commons is not sitting: A bevy of Conservative ministers shower money across the country – at the very time when budgets of line departments are being cut, $5-billion is being removed from government spending with warnings that more might be needed, programs are being eliminated and Canadians are being warned they are carrying too much debt.

It is the politics of slice and dice, of small ball as they say in baseball, of saying one thing but doing another, of preaching restraint while practising the imperative of targeted spending at portions of the electorate central to the Conservatives’ core.

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