Andrew Coyne: Why does Andrew Scheer find it so difficult to say the right thing?

Hours later, Andrew Scheer said the things he should have said the first time.

Responding to the horrific massacre of Muslims at prayer in New Zealand, the Conservative leader issued a statement Friday afternoon expressing his “profound condemnation of this cowardly and hateful attack on the Muslim community” along with “the type of extreme and vile hatred that motivated this despicable act of evil.” He added: “To the Muslim community around the world and here at home in Canada, we stand with you.”

It was spot on: straightforward, fitting and right. It was also about 15 hours too late, coming as it did only after Scheer had come under intense criticism for the inadequacy of his first response, which spoke vaguely of an attack on “freedom” and unspecified “worshippers.” The appositeness of the second only highlighted the strange, withholding coldness of the first.

We cannot know exactly what explains that initial, catastrophic choice of words. But neither is Scheer automatically entitled to the benefit of the doubt. Politicians are in the business of being politic, of saying the right thing at the right time, and nothing goes out over their name without a great deal of thought, not to say calculation.

Other party leaders managed to name the victims — Muslims — and the beliefs — white supremacism, Islamophobia, the familiar, toxic mix of racism, xenophobia and hatred that so often finds Muslims as its target — involved in what was self-evidently an act of terrorism. Why on earth couldn’t Scheer?

The suspicion that this was no accident is not unreasonable, given Scheer’s past statements and actions. Perhaps he truly did not hear the questioner at a recent town hall who invoked “pizzagate,” the lunatic conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton was connected to a child sex ring supposedly operating out of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria.

But nothing required him to speak at last month’s “United We Roll” rally on Parliament Hill, whose stated purpose — to protest federal environmental policies on behalf of unemployed workers in the oil industry — may have been legitimate, but which had clearly been infiltrated by anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant elements. At the very least, he might have taken the opportunity of his appearance to denounce these views. He did not.

Just as disturbing was Scheer’s recent endorsement of conspiracy-minded interpretations of a United Nations document called the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, an unenforceable statement of good intentions with regard to the handling of immigrants and refugees to which most of the world’s nations agreed last year.

This, on top of his party’s unceasing alarmism on the subject of the asylum seekers entering Canada illegally via our southern border — a legitimate issue, to be sure, and one on which the government may deserve criticism, but nothing like the existential “crisis” of so much Conservative rhetoric.

And before that there was the hysteria over M-103, a non-binding motion — not a bill — condemning Islamophobia that was somehow elevated, via the panic mills of the populist right, into an assault on freedom of speech worthy of a police state. The motion passed two years ago. Not one person has since been carted off for criticizing Islam or faced sanctions of any kind because of M-103.

And before that there was the gratuitous ban on face-coverings at citizenship ceremonies. And the “barbaric practices” snitch line. The federal Conservatives are not by any means the only party to pander to racial and religious intolerance — Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals won an election in Ontario in 2007 on a coded anti-Muslim fear campaign, while the government of Quebec’s baiting of the province’s religious minorities enjoys near all-party support — but they are surely the most consistent. Or were, until Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party came along.

And it seems to be growing worse: as xenophobic and anti-Muslim rhetoric is normalized by repetition on social media and other online sites — most notoriously The Rebel — so a certain section of the public has been radicalized, persuaded that only “globalists” and other elites could oppose such disgraceful sentiments. Exploiting public fears of immigrants and minorities has a long and dishonourable tradition in this country. But exactly what kind of voter did Scheer worry would be put off by explicitly naming the sole victims and declared targets of a mass murderer?

That all of this is happening in the wake of the 2017 murders at a Quebec City mosque — the New Zealand attacker cited it as a model — makes this winking indulgence of the worst elements of the populist right particularly reprehensible.

Obviously neither Scheer nor The Rebel is responsible, in themselves, for the actions of terrorists. But they can be held to account for their part in creating the climate of opinion in which extremists flourish and madmen find inspiration. After Christchurch, after Quebec City, after Brevik and other atrocities, this is hardly a theoretical concern.

None of this is to justify further limits on free speech: we lack the kind of certainty about cause and effect that would even begin to make a case for legal restrictions, and we know from long experience how such laws can be abused. But all of us are morally responsible for the things we say, or do not say. Each of us is part of a moral order it is our duty to sustain — political leaders most of all.

This isn’t about censorship, or political correctness. It’s about judgment, and choices. Scheer has been too eager to appease, or too afraid to offend, a section of opinion that is at best filled with fear and at worst filled with hate. Now would be a good time for him to stop.




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