Opinion Opinion

Opposition is a caricature, and Scheer is a humid performer: Neil Macdonald

Trudeau is corrupt, sinister, subversive, rotten? One suspects Andrew Scheer doesn't actually believe that

Posted: March 14, 2019
Last Updated: March 14, 2019

If Scheer ever does achieve power, it's a safe bet he'll exercise the same sort of top down control every other prime minister does. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Back in December, NDP MP Charlie Angus approvingly retweeted a Christmas wish on Twitter calling for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to fire then-Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.

"The justice file has been completely bungled" quoted Angus, who accused Wilson-Raybould of all sorts of malevolence.

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But of course that was then. To hear Angus tell it now, Wilson-Raybould is a person of great integrity who put her job on the line over principle and has suffered the consequences of her courage. At a guess, Angus's amended position is that Wilson-Raybould's demotion in January was a bloody travesty.

Conservative MP Lisa Raitt, in 2016, accused Wilson-Raybould of "spewing lies" in the House of Commons. Now, though, she dotingly believes every word Wilson-Raybould utters. After Wilson-Raybould rose in the Commons to say she wanted to speak "her truth," Opposition members erupted in a standing ovation. Wilson-Raybould, says Raitt, wisely warned us all that we must "speak truth to power." (Yes, a former minister in Stephen Harper's government actually said that).

Oh, and that new law allowing negotiated settlements rather than prosecutions of companies like SNC Lavalin? The one Opposition MPs accuse the government of sneakily burying in last year's budget so they could help their corporate pals? An amendment to it was referred to the Commons justice committee last November after it had become law.

The proposal was examined and passed unanimously by the Commons justice committee. Unanimously. No party raised any objection to the concept of allowing negotiated settlements with corporations in the first place. In fact, Conservative MP Rob Nicholson declared his party's satisfaction with the law as he voted for the amendment, which dealt with the question of whether or not to make the agreements public:

"I think it is an excellent suggestion here to do this," he said of the amendment. "I think it remedies any of the issues that arose when this was initially proposed. We're completely supportive of it."

But most of this flippity-floppity stuff goes largely unreported. The respect and admiration of opposition MPs for Wilson-Raybould, and their deep suspicion of the underhanded government decision to let big companies escape rule of law is the new "narrative," to use that awful, hackneyed word.

Why? Because, well, they're opposition MPs, and inconsistency is their parliamentary privilege. They operate in an expectation-free zone. There is no supposition that they will show temperance, nuance, forbearance or shame. They can yell whatever they like and reporters will report it, because democracy, etc.

Angus's opinion of Wilson-Raybould has obviously changed since December, writes Neil Macdonald. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Publicly, former Liberal leader John Turner used to say that "the job of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition is to oppose." Privately, though, he had a better term for Question Period and other televised political venues: "Bullshit Theatre."

He always got a laugh, but it was more than a joke. Turner was acknowledging that the opposition, with its constant, unstinting indignation about everything the government says or does, is a caricature.

For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is their struggle for a share of ink and airtime in the news media, opposition politicians behave like a pack of scent hounds. They have no shame because they know the system is unkind to anyone who does. Their rhetoric is both predictable and extreme; they believe it must be so, in order to make headlines, and they may be right. Still, anyone else who talked the way they do would be regarded as a crank.

Right now, the most humid performance is that of Conservative leader Andrew Scheer.

Appeal to the RCMP

In Scheer's estimation, the prime minister is "disgraced," up to "something sinister," running a coverup, and corrupt in the manner of a Third World despot. Trudeau, Scheer tells us, pressures, harasses, subverts the law and gags elected MPs. And he should be investigated for what are clearly crimes, something Scheer has written to the RCMP demanding.

Now, Trudeau might not be a particularly inspiring, or even articulate fellow. His gurgly moralizing is aggravating. But a sinister, disgraced, subversive, corrupt criminal? Because he tried to get his justice minister to change her decision about a prosecution, to persuade her to use a new law the Conservatives supported, then eventually accepted her decision, and then moved her to Veterans Affairs, an assignment she herself, truth-teller that she is, said at the time was not a demotion?

(Not only did Wilson-Raybould declare that reassigning cabinet ministers is the absolute prerogative of the prime minister, she added: "I would say that I can think of no world in which I would consider working for our veterans in Canada as a demotion.")

And yet, crime, corrupt, sinister, coverup, criminal, disgraced, bad, rotten, lawbreaker.

One suspects Andrew Scheer doesn't actually believe that, but he's the opposition leader, and doesn't have to.

In Scheer's estimation, the prime minister is "disgraced" and up to "something sinister." (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

With Scheer heading the opposition, we are supposed to forget that the government his party formed under Stephen Harper happily imposed its will on Canada's judiciary, using minimum-sentencing legislation to interfere with judicial discretion.

Or that Harper's Conservatives, having denounced Belinda Stronach for crossing the floor to join the Liberal government in 2005 (a betrayal of her constituents, we were told) happily received Liberal David Emerson, who crossed to join Harper's government in 2006, and then booted Conservative MP Garth Turner from the caucus after he protested (speaking truth to power, really) that Emerson should seek a new mandate from his constituents, the way the party had argued Stronach should have.

To be clear, Trudeau's mob is no different. They went from screeching that the Mike Duffy affair was proof of utterly corrupt government, and declaring that the Canadian people demand transparency and answers from Harper, to running an administration at least as opaque and secretive, once in power.

("The Canadian people," incidentally, is probably the most-quoted entity in the opposition benches. The opposition by definition was rejected by voters, yet Scheer apparently consults them every day, and knows their heart intimately).

Top-down control

If Scheer ever does achieve power, it's a safe bet he'll exercise the same sort of top down control every other prime minister does. Does anyone believe he won't? That he wouldn't, perhaps, order Tory MPs on the justice committee to abruptly adjourn rather than take more political damage? I humbly suggest he would.

But back to Bullshit Theatre.

It's tempting to think that things have gone downhill, that there was once a gravitas and comity that has disappeared.

Says David Moscrop, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa who has just authored the beautifully-titled book Too Dumb For Democracy: "If you were to put Justin Trudeau, Andrew Scheer, and Jagmeet Singh beside Bob Stanfield, Pierre Trudeau and … Ed Broadbent, I know what team I'd pay attention to."

But, says Moscrop, it's never really been much better.

"There's no golden age. The introduction of television cameras has amplified the nonsense, and caused politicians to lean into the theatrics. And social media has exacerbated it further."

Only technique has changed, he says. Now, whenever the opposition (or the governing party) has a fit of outrage, they do two things:

"They immediately send out a fundraising request expressing the outrage and asking for five dollars, and they create a data-mining site."

Example: LetHerSpeak.Ca, the website set up by the Conservatives (although you have to go right to the end of the page, and examine the shaded fine print, to find out who's behind it, which is sort of a tacit acknowledgement of opposition credibility).

The nominal purpose of the site is to help The Canadian People demand that Trudeau un-gag Wilson-Raybould, because, you know, she really hasn't had a chance to speak much. Coincidentally, the site gives voters a chance to disclose their names, email addresses and postal codes. If they haven't read the shaded fine print at the bottom, and don't know they're supplying data to Conservative election campaign managers, well, they should buy reading glasses.

"It's the new frontier of bullshit," says Moscrop.

And we journalists are all just theatre critics.

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Corrections

  • A previous version of this column suggested that the provision allowing negotiated settlements was unanimously approved by the Commons justice committee. In fact, the committee reviewed an amendment regarding publication of negotiated settlements — an amendment that was unanimously approved — but this occurred in November 2018 after the provision became law.
    Mar 14, 2019 5:52 PM ET

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Neil Macdonald
Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.