Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed more than he probably meant to this week when he declared that “there has been a polarization in our political discourse.” Because if that is indeed the case, the Liberal Leader is as much a part of the problem as those he accuses of creating it.
Not to belabour the metaphor, but somehow a massive chip on the shoulder has obscured the Prime Minister’s sunny ways. It’s one thing to stand up for tolerance in a country as diverse as Canada. But it’s another to harangue those who think your diversity schtick is a bit much sometimes.
Canada is more than a collection of aggrieved minorities, and federal politics must be about more than championing their causes. Historical injustices must be corrected and equality must be secured and protected. But our national project must consist of more than promoting diversity.
What was Mr. Trudeau thinking when he chose to use the r-word last week in rebuking a Quebec heckler calling on him to reimburse the provincial government for the cost of processing and housing thousands of “illegal immigrants” who have crossed the border since last year?
Instead of ignoring her or calmly explaining that the individuals in question are asylum seekers entitled to a hearing under international law, Mr. Trudeau chose to attack his 74-year-old interlocutor by saying: “Madame, your racism has no place here.”
And he wonders why politics has become so polarized? Nothing gets the backs up of folks who think there are people gaming our immigration system more than being called racist. So, unless you just want to further polarize the debate, you probably shouldn’t call them racist.
To be sure, the heckler may have just been out to make trouble and may have expressed impolitic views. But it was not up to the Prime Minister to insult her, unless he was simply trying to use what could have been a teachable moment to score points with his base.
The Liberals struck all the right notes in welcoming thousands of Syrian refugees shortly after they took power in 2015. But they have managed to turn Canadian public opinion against them in their handling of asylum seekers, mainly because the Prime Minister is too busy stroking his image to understand that average folks think there is something wrong with this picture.
Not that the Conservatives have managed this slippery slope any better. On the contrary, they seem all too happy to exploit the situation for political gain instead of defusing the growing ugliness of right-wing discourse in Canada. Tory Leader Andrew Scheer, who personally avoids the gutter talk, nevertheless encourages it by calling the flow of asylum seekers a “crisis.”
All Mr. Scheer offers in the way of policy proposals is a renegotiation of the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States that is at the root of irregular crossings into Canada. But what are the chances that the most anti-immigration U.S. administration in history is going to take back thousands of Haitian or Nigerian asylum seekers when the U.S. President himself disparages them?
Besides, Mr. Scheer needs to spend more time explaining to Canadians what he is for rather than what he is against. It may be the job of the Leader of the Official Opposition to critique the government, but Mr. Scheer must understand that voters want and deserve more from someone who aspires to replace Mr. Trudeau as prime minister in little more than a year.
Unfortunately, Mr. Scheer has lost control of his own narrative as he is upstaged by an increasingly erratic Maxime Bernier. The Quebec MP and former Conservative leadership candidate has decided that going rogue is the best way to build his own brand, party unity be damned. His angry and dismissive tweets of Mr. Trudeau and his own colleagues concerning diversity play directly into the Liberals’ hands and undermine Mr. Scheer’s authority.
For better or worse, Mr. Scheer is no Stephen Harper. The former Conservative leader brooked no dissent, often to the point of silencing legitimate caucus debates. Mr. Scheer understands that is one reason Canadians grew weary of the former Tory prime minister. But unless he wants to encourage a further descent of Canadian political discourse into the gutter, Mr. Scheer cannot let MPs like Mr. Bernier freelance on a file as sensitive as immigration and diversity.
As the Liberal cabinet meets this week in British Columbia and federal Conservatives gather in Halifax for a major policy convention, both parties need to look hard in the mirror and reflect on why Canadian politics has turned so sour. Because they both have plenty to answer for.