Must-see QP: Trudeau and Harper soften their rhetoric

Your daily dose of political theatre

Content image
Adrian Wyld/CP
Adrian Wyld/CP

Maclean’s is your home for the daily political theatre that is question period. If you’ve never watched, check out our primer. Today, QP runs from 2:15 p.m. until just past 3. We livestream and liveblog all the action.

The must-see moment

Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper knew they’d be in the same room at 2:15 p.m., and that the former would ask the latter at least three questions soon thereafter. They’re disagreeing lately about each other’s commitment to liberty, which isn’t a minor quibble. When his time came, Trudeau stood and recalled Harper’s remarks of about 24 hours earlier.

Yesterday, the PM left no one confused about his opinion of niqabs at citizenship ceremonies: “Why would Canadians, contrary to our own values, embrace a practice at that time that is not transparent, that is not open, and frankly is rooted in a culture that is anti-women?” That last word, the possibly feminist defence of unveiled faces at citizenship ceremonies, formed the basis of Trudeau’s first question today. “Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister made more alarming statements yesterday on the rights and freedoms of Canadians,” he preambled. “Can he please explain to Canada’s half a million Muslim women why he said their chosen faith is anti-women?”

Harper dismissed the premise off the bat. “Well, of course, Mr. Speaker, I said no such thing.” Let’s take a look, again, at the record. Harper called the wearing of the niqab a “practice … that is rooted in a culture that is anti-women.” The PM will say he referred only to anti-women elements of Muslim culture, but his phrasing was ambiguous enough that Trudeau was bound to pounce. So the two men went back and forth a couple of times and, all said, that was about as uncivil as it got.

What the exchange made clear was that the worst of this Trudeau-Harper feud might not reveal itself in the House of Commons. Trudeau didn’t refer to Harper’s apparent repressive impulses to pervert liberty, as he did in Toronto the other night; and no one on the Tory side called the Liberal leader a segregationist, as Kenney did in an interview with Maclean’s Ottawa bureau chief John Geddes.

That the most vigorous, personal debate between Trudeau and Harper should occur outside of the big room in Ottawa they’re elected to occupy should probably not come as a shock. The House of Commons is Thomas Mulcair’s domain; it’s where he, not Trudeau, opposes Harper with glee. The Liberal leader prefers to schmooze with his fans elsewhere. The Prime Minister prefers to make big announcements elsewhere. Soon, they’ll fight an election almost exclusively outside the chamber.

The NDP leader will, eventually, join them in those other places. For now, someone’s gotta oppose the mission in Iraq, a fraught anti-terror bill, and a minister’s conflict of interest. Too bad for Mulcair that the other major party leaders aren’t really listening.

The recap

The context

If is any measure of what people are talking about at the nation’s water coolers, then the nation is talking about Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper’s struggle to convince a country that one of them is the unrelenting champion of religious freedom, and the other guy has a regular lunch date with the devil. Naturally, they disagree about their respective roles in the co-production.

Trudeau, the Liberal Leader, was just recently finding it difficult to disagree with Conservatives on another of the nation’s great debates. While New Democrats filibustered the parliamentary committee tasked with scrutinizing anti-terror legislation, and while their leader charged that Bill C-51 “endangers Canadian liberties while failing to improve security,” the Liberals spent question period talking about the economy. Trudeau has said he’ll support C-51 and fix the law when he’s prime minister. The NDP, as is its wont, pounced on the traditional Liberal, Tory, same old story refrain. Apparently, the Liberal Leader grew tired of the comparisons and used a speech in Toronto on March 9 to expound on his differences with the Prime Minister.

Related: Justin Trudeau and a Liberal take on liberty

Trudeau’s chosen battlefield was liberty, that historic, basic right treasured by people who live in liberal democracies. In his opinion, he’s a great defender of the L-word, and the Prime Minister? Not so much. What separates the two men, said Trudeau, is an article of clothing: the niqab, a veil some Muslim women wear that covers their face. Right now, the feds are appealing a Federal Court ruling that shot down a ministerial directive that prohibited the wearing of niqabs at citizenship ceremonies. On this, the ability to cover one’s face if one chooses when they’re sworn in as citizens, Trudeau and Harper don’t just disagree; they see evidence of the other’s worst tendencies.

Yesterday, Harper made what some might call a feminist argument against the niqab. “Why would Canadians, contrary to our own values, embrace a practice at that time that is not transparent, that is not open, and frankly is rooted in a culture that is anti-women?” he said. Trudeau had pre-emptively struck at that particular defence the night before. “Cloaking an argument about what women can wear in the language of feminism has to be the most innovative perversion of liberty that conservatives have invented in a while,” he said. “It is, of course, not the first time the most illiberal of ends has been packaged in the language of liberation.”

Related: Justin Trudeau and the niqab

The Liberal Leader went on. “Those who would use the state’s power to restrict women’s religious freedom and freedom of expression indulge the very same repressive impulse that they profess to condemn,” he told a room of McGill alumni. “It is a cruel joke to claim you are liberating people from oppression by dictating in law what they can and cannot wear.” Trudeau inflamed things somewhat by dismissing Harper’s view of niqabs as “in the spirit of” the last century’s insidious anti-semitism.

We’ll leave the Tory rebuttal to Jason Kenney, the defence minister who, as immigration minister in 2011, ordered the niqab directive. “Some people say, Why can’t you have women wearing face coverings go and swear the oath in a separate room? The reason is because I don’t believe in segregation. I think it’s profoundly offensive, as Mr. Trudeau believes, that in the very first act of somebody becoming a Canadian that they should be segregated, ostensibly on the grounds of their religion.”

Related: What the new security agenda means for Parliament Hill

There you have it: the Conservatives harbour repressive impulses to pervert liberty, and Liberals believe in religious segregation. Civil disagreement? No thanks. Politicians dismiss journalists frequently for reducing politics to war metaphors. Politics isn’t about fighting most of the time, they’ll say. They shouldn’t bother making that argument today.