A real test of the Conservative party’s new tone

To measure the Conservative party’s new tone, look to one question of public policy: how we deal with heroin addiction
Photograph by Blair Gable
Photograph by Blair Gable

Rona Ambrose summoned reporters to the Opposition leader’s office yesterday to introduce her new lieutenants—deputy leader Denis Lebel and House leader Andrew Scheer. “Denis and Andrew bring not only a wealth of intelligence and parliamentary experience, but they bring the right tone,” said Ambrose in the official announcement. “Tone” has become the early theme of the post-Harper Conservative party and that Scheer, the former Speaker, succeeds Peter Van Loan, the rather gleeful partisan, as House leader could be greeted as some gesture towards that. So too could Ambrose’s revelation yesterday that she didn’t support her party’s proposal of a tipline for the reporting of “barbaric cultural practices.”

Conversely, one could wonder about whether being “embarrassed” and “sickened” by the new Prime Minister’s foreign policy is properly in tune. But these are small measures—even renouncing the hotline is fairly easy now that the election is over.

A day after she became the interim leader of the Conservative party, Ambrose appeared on the CBC and said the Conservatives should be “strong, but not angry” and “substantive, but never petty.” She proceeded to use the word “respect” three times. In a later interview with CTV, she suggested that Conservatives would “leave the nastiness behind.”

As luck would have it, the CBC’s Rosemary Barton also asked Ambrose about drug policy, specifically the legalization of marijuana and Ambrose’s expression of outrage earlier this year when the Supreme Court ruled that medical marijuana laws should cover all forms of consumption (not just smoking, but edibles). “My outrage was because the Supreme Court made the decision without the medical authorities weighing in,” she explained. “And I think that these kinds of questions have to be left to public health experts.”

Here approximately would be a good place for Ambrose to start; indeed, to initiate a real and important shift in the tenor, behaviour and idea of the Conservative party.

Whatever her interest in medical authority, Ambrose loudly overruled officials at Health Canada two years ago after they had given doctors in British Columbia special dispensation to continue prescribing heroin to patients who had participated in a study of alternative treatments for heroin addiction. Ambrose subsequently appeared on the CBC to claim there was “no evidence” of the effectiveness of heroin-assisted treatment, despite the results of randomized controlled trials in Europe and Canada.

A day after Ambrose’s announcement, the Conservative party sent an email to supporters under the subject line, “Stop giving heroin to addicts.” “If the NDP or Liberals are elected in 2015, you can bet they would make this heroin-for-addicts program permanent,” Conservatives were warned. Supporters were then encouraged to enter their names to let the party knew that they stood with it.

That 2013 email was signed by Fred DeLorey, the party’s director of political operations, but Ambrose was credited with a party email this August that warned, in part, of the “heroin injection houses” that a Liberal or NDP government would seek to establish in “neighbourhoods like yours.” Ambrose, as health minister, had been the sponsor of the soothingly named Respect for Communities Act, which established new—and arguably excessive—tests to be passed before a supervised injection facility, like Vancouver’s Insite, can be established. “We will consult and listen to families and residents whenever a heroin injection house threatens to open in their community,” Ambrose explained to supporters, shortly before asking for a donation.

On the day the Respect for Communities Act was tabled in 2011, Conservative supporters received a note with the subject line, “Keep heroin out of our backyards.” “Do you want a supervised drug consumption site in your community? These are facilities where drug addicts get to shoot up heroin and other illicit drugs,” reported Jenni Byrne, the party’s national campaign manager. “I don’t want one anywhere near my home.”

If the promise of a new tone means anything—if there’s much here beyond a shallow commitment to smile more—Rona Ambrose and her party will abandon this rhetoric and make it through at least the next four years without again stooping to such stuff.

The notion that a society should be judged by how it treats its weakest might be adjusted and applied here: a political party should be judged harshly for exploiting the plight of society’s weakest. And on that count, the former government’s heroin politics should rank as one of its worst attributes.

The Conservatives not only opposed supervised injection facilities and heroin-assisted treatment, but sought to win and rally support around the basest fears and feelings about heroin addiction. Sometime before he decided his party needed a “sunnier” disposition, Jason Kenney was saying that Justin Trudeau “wants to force communities to establish illegal drug injection sites.” Conservative ads aimed at Chinese-Canadian voters included a picture of someone being injected with a needle.

Were the Liberals suggesting that they would support the creation of new mental-health facilities and were the Conservatives thus warning that “insane asylums” would be forced upon your neighbourhood, there would surely be some degree of popular outrage at the attack. But the political calculus of attacking new treatments for heroin addiction is obviously different. The discomfort that some feel about the nature of those treatments—the initial incongruity that might seem to exist in offering a safe space to inject drugs or providing some addicts with heroin—and the NIMBYism that can arise shouldn’t be blithely dismissed and the merits of medical treatment shouldn’t be considered beyond debate, but the self-respecting politician should hold himself to a certain standard of decency, one that does not recognize any honour in exploiting the spectre of heroin addiction and the heroin addict for partisan gain.

A real test of Ambrose’s Conservative party could come soon enough. The city of Montreal has asked the federal government for an exemption to establish four safe injection sites. If the Trudeau government grants that exemption, Ambrose’s Conservatives will have a decision to make. Do they object? If so, why, how and how loudly?

Ideally, the Conservatives might entirely reverse their position on supervised injection facilities or at least agree to follow the evidence and consider expertise. Failing that, they might justifiably fall back on the idea that the concerns of local communities need to be considered. But a substantive tone would not include anything like the caterwauling and pandering of the last four years and a respectful party would be above such stuff.