Given the near constant political drama in America – failed attempts at repealing Obamacare, the president’s Twitter feed, the fear of impending nuclear war – you can be forgiven for not keeping up with some of the antics happening in our federal political scene.
This week it’s been worth paying attention to our own parliamentary theatre. Political posturing was on full display all over a nomination for perhaps the most routine and mundane aspects of our system: selecting a committee chair.
A meeting for the House Status of Women’s Committee was quickly ended when the Liberal members of the committee staged a walkout in protest of the Conservative nomination for chair, Rachael Harder, citing her anti-abortion views and voting record.
First, let’s state the most glaring aspect to this entire debacle, which is both the NDP and the Liberals could have simply voted down Harder’s nomination for chair. Yes, all of this could have been avoided had both pro-choice parties done what is normally done and just voted against Harder. However, politicians will indeed play politics – the Liberals have already sent out a fundraising email on the issue – so it’s not incredibly surprising that this went down the way it did.
It also must be recognized that on a procedural note, it’s awfully unusual that the Conservatives would have put up Harder to begin with since she also serves as the official critic for the status of women.
WATCH: Trudeau stands by his MPs who protested selection of Rachael Harder
Parliamentary journalist Dale Smith sums it up quite nicely.
“For starters, it makes no sense that the Conservatives would name their chosen critic for the portfolio to be the committee chair. Why? Because a committee chair is supposed to be a somewhat more neutral figure who presides over the meetings in order to maintain decorum, decide on questions of order and procedure, and only vote in the event of breaking a tie. These are qualities that a critic should be dealing with.”
Let’s put the procedural aspect of this aside for a moment and consider solely the optics of nominating Harder for chair. The Conservatives already have a problem courting female voters, with recent polling suggesting that women in Canada prefer the Liberals to the Conservatives by a two to one margin, and they also have a bit of a branding problem. According to Abacus Data, among the top 10 word associations for the Conservatives were “old fashioned.” Contrast that to the Liberals, which had “treat men and women equally” in the top 10.
WATCH: Conservatives attack Liberal response to women’s committee vote
And in the last few weeks, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has been bogged down by having to distance himself from the alt-right, apologizing to Catherine McKenna, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, on behalf of one of his MPs for referring to her as “Climate Barbie,” and having to backtrack on one of his key leadership planks of rescinding federal funding from universities that did not uphold free speech.
Did Scheer really think it was wise to nominate someone for chair who was not only unsuitable in a procedural sense, but one that he fully knew was going to cause controversy?
Rachael Harder isn’t just anti-choice in some abstract, philosophical way. She has received an endorsement from Campaign Life Coalition, has stated that life begins at conception, doled out close to $12 000 to pregnancy care centres that refuse to refer to abortion providers, and has committed to pass and introduce legislation to protect “unborn children.”
Scheer went ahead and named her status of women critic anyways, which is obviously within his prerogative to do so, but considering the backlash and ensuing drama, he had to have known this was also going to be an issue.
In fact, even if Scheer did not have the foresight to know this would be an issue, the NDP basically let him know on Monday they were more than ready for a fight to make it one. And did anybody really think the Liberals were going to let the NDP own the narrative of being the party to take a moral stance on a woman’s right to choose?
This whole thing also highlights a key pain point for Scheer that former prime minister Stephen Harper was quite adept at avoiding. Scheer needs to keep social issues like abortion out of the headlines. The majority of Canadians support abortion rights. Recent polling on the issue has found that 77 per cent believe abortion should be permitted and six in 10 Canadians feel abortion should be permitted under any circumstance.
By nominating Harder, Scheer was inviting attention to the fact that his is the only federal party that has members actively trying to chip away at reproductive rights. That’s a great strategy for drumming up support from the Conservative base, but less so when you’re in pivot mode to appeal to the general electorate.