Andrew Scheer’s big immigration-policy speech was not about immigration policy, but about telling the country that he’s not a bigot.
That section of the speech, laying out the Conservative Leader’s personal commitment to diversity and equality, and telling racists they have no place in his party, was personal, and it was important.
Good thing, too. The parts about immigration policy were a bust.
Still, at this particular juncture in politics, it is notable that a big chunk of the Conservative Leader’s speech could have fit in one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s familiar paeans to diversity as our strength. Mr. Scheer’s speech was entitled Unity in Diversity.
That’s not only because Mr. Scheer has been accused by Liberals of stirring up divisions over immigration, and of being unwilling to unequivocally distance himself from anti-immigrant extremists. It’s also because there’s the People’s Party of Canada – headed by Mr. Scheer’s former leadership rival, Maxime Bernier – trying to feed off anti-immigrant sentiment and take Tory support.
Mr. Scheer presented a tribute to Canadian diversity that ran through the contributions of Indigenous peoples and successive waves of immigration from all parts of the world, closing the list with “Muslims afflicted by oppression and civil war,” and “Gays and lesbians escaping literal extermination simply for being who they are.”
He was going out of his way to respond to what he called “dangerous” false accusations that his party accepts extremism.
He has said that before. But this time, Mr. Scheer rooted that in his personal beliefs and his faith, describing respect for diversity and equality as “one of my most deeply held convictions.” He talked about his late mother volunteering to help Syrian refugees.
“I believe that we are all children of God. And therefore there can be no inferiority amongst human beings. And that equal and infinite value exists in each and every one of us,” he said. “I find the notion that one’s race, religion, gender or sexual orientation would make anyone in any way superior or inferior to anyone else absolutely repugnant.
“And if there’s anyone who disagrees with that, there’s the door. You are not welcome here.”
Those words alone won’t be enough to convince everyone. Yet, they certainly aren’t the kinds of phrases you will find in Mr. Bernier’s speeches, or on his Twitter account. He rooted diversity and equality in his own beliefs. And it is important for Canadians to hear leaders of their major political parties say that.
The problem is that the rest of his speech was so full of unclear, empty phrases that it won’t reassure anyone about how he will apply those principles to immigration.
After all, Mr. Scheer wasn’t entirely wrong when he complained the Liberals paint his party as a bunch of extremists. Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, for example, accused the Conservatives in January of planning to “militarize” the border to keep out asylum-seekers. Mr. Hussen had twisted a preposterous Conservative proposal – to turn the whole border into an official border crossing – into gun-toting fear.
Yet, Mr. Scheer still uses dramatic rhetoric about the immigration system breaking down, but proposes such vague or half-baked solutions that it allows his adversaries to fill in the blanks.
On Tuesday, he bemoaned the fact that tens of thousands of asylum seekers have crossed the border at unauthorized locations. He suggested, somewhat obliquely, that they are queue-jumpers. But he didn’t propose a real solution to change things, anyway. He said he would close a loophole in a Canada-U.S. agreement so those people could be returned to the United States, without acknowledging the obstacle: The U.S. doesn’t want to do that.
Mr. Scheer said he’d “emphasize” economic immigration, but extolled the virtues of every other category.
How many people should Canada let in each year? Mr. Scheer criticized people who promise to lower the numbers, “without considering the economic impact.” Presumably, that was a shot at a rival, Mr. Bernier, but it also applies to a politician he has courted as an ally, Quebec Premier François Legault. Mr. Scheer also criticized the Liberal government for setting higher immigration targets “without adequate services in place.”
So what should the number be? Whatever “is in Canada’s best interests,” Mr. Scheer said.
He didn’t give the slightest hint of what that means.
No, there wasn’t much immigration policy there. But there was something else – a public embrace of diversity and equality as a core principle. In today’s politics, that matters.