COMMENTARY: How Rachael Harder became a prop in a virtue-signalling contest

Conservative MP Rachael Harder's nomination to chair the status of women committee prompted the Liberals to walk out of the meeting Tuesday, Sept. 26. Global News

Abortion. It’s the issue that all federal parties pledge not to touch. It keeps cropping up, though — especially when it’s politically useful.

When Justin Trudeau became Liberal party leader in 2014, he used abortion to boost his female-friendly credentials by demanding party unanimity on the matter. “I have made it clear that future candidates need to be completely understanding that they will be expected to vote pro-choice on any bills,” he said, sidelining pro-life Liberals.

Many decried this decision as running contrary to the principle of freedom of conscience, but Trudeau likely calculated that the positive fallout would outweigh the outrage. From the results of the 2015 election, it appears that he was right.

Today, the Liberals are still betting on the same horse. They think more votes are parked in the pro-choice camp than in the freedom-of-thought camp. They assume that Canadians will forgive them for their trespasses if they defend the “right” sort of opinions. And those trespasses include refusing to accept the nomination of Conservative MP Rachael Harder as chair of the Status of Women Committee.

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READ MORE: Liberals accused of ‘thwarting democracy’ after walking out of women’s committee vote

Harder is a first-term MP from Lethbridge, Alberta. She is 29 years old, the first woman to represent the riding. She is also pro-life, believing that the only justification for abortion is when the mother’s life is at stake. Her anti-abortion views won her the endorsement of the Campaign Life Coalition.

Last week, those views ran headlong into the pro-choice position of Liberal MPs on the Status of Women Committee. When Harder was nominated as chair, the Liberals walked out — then nominated Karen Vecchio, another Conservative MP, despite the fact that Vecchio didn’t want the job and had supported Harder’s bid for chair.

WATCH: Trudeau stands by his MPs who protested selection of Rachael Harder

Click to play video 'Trudeau stands by his MPs who protested selection of Rachael Harder' Trudeau stands by his MPs who protested selection of Rachael Harder
Trudeau stands by his MPs who protested selection of Rachael Harder – Sep 26, 2017

Vecchio and Harder promptly issued a joint statement slamming the prime minister. “For Justin Trudeau to say a Member of Parliament is unfit to hold a procedural position because she doesn’t agree with his personal position is ridiculous … It’s disappointing that Justin Trudeau would act this way and his actions demonstrate the intolerance of the Liberal Party of Canada, which claims to value diversity.”

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True enough. But it’s also worth noting that the Liberals wouldn’t have had a chance to do this little stunt had Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer named a different critic to the Status of Women portfolio. And this is where we get into the more interesting question — of who’s playing and who’s being played.

There are plenty of MPs who could have taken on the job of Status of Women critic. Why Rachael Harder? Her bio describes her as highly entrepreneurial, with an educational background in sociology, psychology and political science. She’s an avid volunteer for such causes as the Canadian Mental Health Youth Anti-Stigma Leaders’ Steering Committee and for the Lethbridge 2019 Canada Winter Games bid.

WATCH: Would Rachael Harder have been able to put personal beliefs aside?

Click to play video 'Would Rachael Harder have been able to put personal beliefs aside?' Would Rachael Harder have been able to put personal beliefs aside?
Would Rachael Harder have been able to put personal beliefs aside? – Oct 3, 2017

While she was a member of the Status of Women committee, it didn’t automatically follow that she should become the Opposition critic. She could have served as critic for any number of portfolios (Youth, Sport and Persons with Disabilities, Small Business) for which she would have been a better fit.

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But when one is the opposition critic for Status of Women, one is by convention nominated as committee chair. Scheer would have known this. He also would have known that the Liberals would oppose her nomination due to her views on abortion.

By putting Harder in that position, Scheer may have been spoiling for a fight — one which the Liberals were all too eager to give him. That may have more to do with rewarding his base than expanding the Conservative tent.

COMMENTARY: Conservatives want to remind you they’re not pro-choice

Scheer owes his leadership victory to a set of strange bedfellows. There were the Conservatives who appreciated his sunny, consensus-building style — a change after the more autocratic mien of Stephen Harper. There were the Quebec dairy farmers who wanted to preserve supply management, a position Scheer endorsed and rival Maxime Bernier opposed. And then there were the social conservatives who supported pro-life candidates Brad Trost and Pierre Lemieux — and who chose Scheer as their alternative should their candidates drop off the ballot.

All of them had reason to support Scheer over the more outspoken and libertarian Bernier. Scheer owes them all. For the first two groups, the debts are easy to repay: Keep smiling, don’t dismantle the dairy cartel. When it comes to the so-cons, however, it gets a little trickier. The Conservative party, and Scheer himself, have promised not to reopen the abortion debate. So how does he show them that he appreciates them, that he takes their concerns to heart?

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He does what Harper did — he dabbles in small, socially conservative actions that don’t rock the boat too much. Harper refused to fund abortions overseas as part of the Women’s Health Initiative. He created an Office of Religious Freedoms to defend the interests of persecuted faith communities, mostly Christian, abroad. Scheer, following the track laid down by his old boss, nominates a female pro-life MP as critic for Status of Women.

So at end of the day, both Trudeau and Scheer got what they wanted, more or less. Scheer got to please his social conservative supporters and stand up for freedom of thought. Trudeau got to paint the Liberals as feminist, and reinforce the perception that the Tories are anti-women.

And Harder? It’s not at all clear what she got out of it, apart from a week’s worth of headlines.

Well played, boys. Well played.

Tasha Kheiriddin can be heard between noon and 2 p.m. ET on Toronto Talk Radio AM640. She’s also a columnist with Global News and iPolitics.cawhere this piece first appeared.