Score one for the Conservatives, or maybe not

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Conservative MP Michelle Rempel’s abrasive questioning made for great television. But her vitriol actually detracted from any political message.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on July 30, 2018.

OTTAWA—The lazy days of summer are always a good time to draw attention to a political issue. Except when they are not.

Last week’s “emergency session” on asylum seekers managed to secure major media exposure and testimony from three ministers. So the Conservative opposition succeeded in its goal of shining a light into a little-known corner of public policy.

Score one for the Tories. Or maybe not.

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel’s abrasive questioning made for great television. But her vitriol actually detracted from any political message.

If anything, the anti-immigrant tone will do more to hurt her party’s brand than help.

Every parliamentary committee these days is a chance to sharpen up a narrative for party platforms in the next election.

By launching hyperbolic asylum-seeker attacks, Rempel has succeeded in aligning herself with the Kelly Leitch view on immigration.

Rempel keeps claiming that she is in favour of newcomers, but her words of support don’t ring true when coupled with exaggerated claims on the public safety front.

More important, as chief critic on immigration, Rempel is sending a message of support for a minority of Canadians who believe closing our borders is the appropriate response to the global call for refugee assistance.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would love nothing better than to run an election surrounded by successful Syrian transplants in contrast to Conservative messaging that Canada’s doors are closing.

Rempel will argue that her position is not anti-immigration. She always prefaces all attacks with statements about support for the role newcomers play in building Canada. But politics is as much about image as it is about substance.

The Conservatives need to soften their approach in order to derail the Trudeau love train in time for the next election.

Last week’s shenanigans had the opposite effect. The hardline questioning resurrected the ghost of anti-immigrant tirades that played so big in the recent Conservative leadership campaign. Kellie Leitch, campaigning for a “Canadian values test,” got support from party extremists but turned off the country.

In the same vein, Leitch, and candidate Chris Alexander damaged party fortunes last time with the infamous press conference promising a snitch line for Canadians to anonymously report on “barbaric cultural practices.”

The last thing the Tories need is to repeat the anti-immigrant messaging that cost them so dearly in the last election.

Former Conservative minister and political panellist James Moore lauded Rempel’s committee performance, congratulating her for bringing the urgency of the border crossing issue to the table. He specifically cited the concerns of Ontario and Quebec as provinces that are looking for federal resettlement support for the issue.

Quebec and Ontario also happen to be the keys to the Canadian political kingdom. Nationalist Quebec has tried to align itself with the Conservatives on the values debate, but the proposed charter of Quebec Values cost the Parti Québécois dearly in the last election.

And even though the election of Doug Ford would seem to signal a move to the right, on immigration issues, the Ontario Progressive Conservatives were noticeably silent.

Bluntly put, it is impossible to get elected in the most multicultural city in Canada on an anti-immigrant platform. So while Ford trumpeted his credentials as a fiscal conservative, he stayed away from exploiting the immigration question during his leadership race and the election.

That doesn’t mean he won’t ask for money to solve the resettlement challenges. But he won’t be setting up his party to run a campaign on it.

Rempel seems to be ramping up her rhetoric, in the dead of summer, to make sure the Tories are on the “right” side of the migration issue.

But she is on the wrong side of Canadian voters.

When it comes to lending a hand to migrants, Canada prides itself on being a welcoming country. That is not going to change any time soon.

Even the most remote communities in the country are happy to welcome newcomers who bring jobs and hope to economies in decline.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer needs to do a quick autopsy on the results of the emergency parliamentary committee before Rempel’s rhetoric does permanent damage to his brand.

Leaving this critic in her current position merely promotes the notion that a Tory Party, tough on crime, will stop all comers at the border.

Even American President Donald Trump could not withstand the public pressure against his administration’s decision to separate border-hopping parents from their children.

Scheer is doing his best to soften the Harperite sharp edges. Rempel is one of them.


Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.