Analysis

Tony Clement and the Conservative Party's reckoning with itself

On selling military vehicles to Saudi Arabia, former cabinet minister Tony Clement asks the new Liberal government to hold itself to a higher standard than the previous Conservative government.

Conservatives must contend with both the new government — and the one they used to lead

Tony Clement speaks to the House of Commons as a Conservative cabinet minister in March 2015. He sees things differently now as a member of the Official Opposition. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Tony Clement might be commended for his mental dexterity. He could be celebrated for his ability to risk public mockery so that he can properly fulfil his duty as a member of the Official Opposition, those tasked with the vital duty of holding the government to account.

The term "hero" should be not be assigned casually, but perhaps it applies to the Conservative MP for Parry Sound-Muskoka.

Which is not to suggest he should be spared the trouble of having to try to explain himself, as happened on Tuesday when he agreed to appear on CBC Radio's As It Happens and be interviewed by Carol Off.

"We can argue on your show what the Harper government did and did not do, but we now have the Trudeau government," Clement explained. "If they want to be judged differently than the Harper government, they have to behave in a way that's consistent with their promises."

This is a perfectly reasonable thing to say. It is only somewhat inconvenient that it would be said by a former cabinet minister of the Harper government. And that said minister would be arguing for the new government to do something that his government did not do — that is, release a report relevant to the sale of military vehicles to Saudi Arabia.

"I'm saying, that if the judgment of the public was that we weren't transparent enough and that they elected a government that promises to be more transparent, I'm calling on the government to live up to their promises," Clement said.

There are calls for the Liberals to share the details of a $15-billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia. And some of the loudest critics are coming from the Conservative Party -- the same party that, while in government, were mum on the deal's details. 8:11

In an interview earlier this week, Clement was even more acrobatic. "This is a [Liberal] government that has promised more transparency. I think that is consistent with the times in which we live," he told the Globe and Mail. "So don't take the signal from the last government. If you want to be true to your principles and values, which the Conservative Party under new leadership shares, let's move forward."

That was then, this is now and certain aspects of the last nine years are no longer applicable.

The Conservative opposition's greatest weakness is that it used to be the Conservative government. And this was but the latest curlicue of the Conservative Party's post-governing period. 

'Sunnier' new values

"We need a conservatism that is sunnier and more optimistic than we have sometimes conveyed," Jason Kenney mused on election night last October, less than a month after publicly claiming that Justin Trudeau would impose brothels and heroin-injection sites on Canadian communities.

Two weeks later, Clement attempted to put some distance between himself and the elimination of the long-form census that he publicly defended. "I think I would have done it differently," he told reporters. The next day, interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose offered her party's newfound support for an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, something the Conservative government had refused to launch. And two weeks after that, Ambrose explained that she did not support her party's previous proposal of a "barbaric cultural practices" tipline.

Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose's support for an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women marks a sudden change after the Tory election defeat. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press )

Conservatives have also lately shown an interest in seeing the sort of consultation — with voters and opposition MPs — that they were often said to eschew while in power. (The new prime minister has, by way of rebuttal, suggested a contradiction.) And a Conservative Party leadership race should offer more fun opportunities for differentiation. 

Some of this could be described as the natural, and healthy, consequence of an election — the Conservative Party deferring to the wisdom of voters who preferred the Liberal offer. It should also be noted that changing one's mind is not, contrary to the howling that often results, an inherently ignoble act. And, on Saudi Arabia, it is also simply Clement's job, as a member of the opposition, to demand the utmost transparency from the government of the day.

Somewhat more cynically, one might say that this is the circle of life. That once returned to opposition from government, a party inevitably rediscovers principles it forgot about while in power. 

Governing is hard, and an opposition party, unencumbered by the burden of governing, no doubt has an easier time asserting high principles of accountability, transparency and sunny ways. (Indeed, the NDP's inability to win government at the federal level is its greatest competitive advantage.) Proper and good opposition might even require unrealistically high standards.

The most optimistic view might be that steady progress is slowly made as governments fail and are replaced by governments who address those failures before finding new ways to fail. Less optimistically, it might be that nothing erodes public trust in the political system quite like the hypocrisy of the newly elected doing what he or she once decried.

It should at least behoove Clement and all those Conservatives who might soon be demanding different standards or positing contradictory positions to explain how and why they came to these new places of enlightenment. How do they reflect on the nine years of the Harper government? What, if anything, did they do to change things at the time? Politics breeds and demands oversimplification, but the times in which we live might benefit from more introspection and explanation.

Of course, a similar test exists for the current governing party. For as long as the Liberals are in office they should be haunted by the question of what they said — and would say — in opposition.

Follow Aaron Wherry on Twitter.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail.

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