Melissa Lantsman is vice-president, public affairs, at Hill Knowlton Strategies. Jamie Ellerton is principal at public-relations firm Conaptus Ltd. Both are former Conservative Party senior staffers and strategists.
For the Conservative Party of Canada to be electorally relevant to the majority of Canadians, it should consider breaking from the past and look to a more contemporary conservatism that resonates more broadly across the country. Nowhere is this more clear than on the question of LGBTQ rights, which ought not to be a question at all.
For months, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has struggled to deviate from a script that reluctantly accepts marriage equality as the “settled” law of the land. His visible discomfort in answering questions relating to LGBTQ people and their place in society only amplifies this reluctance.
While it is rightfully troubling for politicians to be chastised to declare their personal views, the agonizing inability to provide a coherent response raises just enough doubt for many to overlook that entirely.
Pursuing this issue is not anti-religious or “anti-Catholic bigotry,” as stated by one Conservative MP. Nor is it a product of a systematic attack on traditional values propagated by a conspiracy to conscript a political leader into becoming the grand marshal of a Pride parade. Equality of opportunity is not a zero-sum game.
The fundamental problem is the Conservative Party’s lack of clarity on LGBTQ rights. Canadians expect their political leaders to share their values. Full stop. Yet the Conservative Party appears incapable of even offering table-stakes pleasantries to LGBTQ Canadians, while other cultural groups – be they religious, national or ethnic – command that respect without question.
Convincing a rightfully skeptical electorate that the current iteration of the Conservative Party has grown in its thinking is particularly difficult when they are casting moral aspersions – purposefully or not – on LGBTQ Canadians. Suggesting begrudging tolerance for marriage equality is now too far-removed from what the majority of Canadians believe.
What is most troubling is that Conservatives do not see the LGBTQ community as marginalized people who continue to face discrimination. The claim “we will always stand up for their rights” qualified by statements such as “as protected by law,” fails to recognize many LGBTQ Canadians who view the current scope of Canada’s laws as inadequate protection to inoculate them from inequality, discrimination or worse – violence. Cold comfort is the idea that maybe a Conservative government will stand up for you if you are a persecuted minority in Iran or Russia, which suggests LGBTQ people are merely a convenient pawn in a geopolitical foreign-policy manoeuvre.
Societies that respect human rights and the diversity of all their citizens are strong societies. This is a foundational idea and principle that will renew Canada’s success for another generation and strengthen our place in the world. For the Conservative movement to grow, unequivocal support for LGBTQ people cannot be up for debate. When one minority group has their legitimacy questioned, others take notice and wonder if they, too, are excluded.
Being pro-family is not, and cannot be, a dog whistle. If sharing values with voters is necessary to win, the party can make supporting the family unit one of its greatest strengths. But for this to ring true, Tories must recognize that, in 2019, families come in all shapes and sizes, and a prime minister needs to ensure the government of Canada supports all of them.
The continued obfuscation on questions about LGBTQ people lends credence to those who celebrate ignorance and fuels those harbouring ill will and hatred. Canada’s Conservatives ought to call that out and unite Canadians behind a positive vision of the country that truly advances equality of opportunity. This vision of Canada should have supports in place for those needing a hand up, removing the barriers that prevent LGBTQ Canadians from reaching their potential, achieving their dreams and aspiring for better.
Tweaking words here or there will not bring less scrutiny to Mr. Scheer’s position on this issue. Relying on “better communication,” as some MPs have mused, will not do much good when what you have to communicate is not saleable. Now is the time for some serious introspection on the part of Conservatives. Being stuck in the past will not help them win in the future
Until they figure out how to move forward, Canada’s right will have to be satisfied with second place.
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