Opinion

Breakfast with the Tories: Chris Alexander learns to tread carefully

CBC columnist Neil Macdonald talks past mistakes and future plans with Conservative leadership hopeful Chris Alexander.

You get the impression he wishes the Harper years would fade more quickly from memory

Alexander says losing is "truly formative," a lesson everyone should learn at least once. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

I asked Chris Alexander this question over breakfast: once government is finished taxing a Canadian, should that Canadian be able to spend what's left of his or her own money on private medical care?

"I'd have to think about that," he replied, his guard up. "I mean, the way you put it, I think I know what your answer is."

He then went on to explain his support for our system of universally insured medical care — in which Canadians are expressly forbidden to purchase core medical services with their own money — but at the same time stress that he favours more private-sector influence in health care delivery, but at the same time stress he is not advocating a two-tier system.

Chris Alexander wants to lead the Conservative Party of Canada. And he's learned caution.

He's the former immigration minister in Stephen Harper's government who achieved mild fame last election by picking a fight with a CBC host who asked about Syrian refugees, and who then proceeded to flatten him.

Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander fires back when asked about government's commitment to refugees 1:38

He is the fellow who stood before TV cameras with Kellie Leitch, then the minister for the status of women, and announced the invention of a "tip line" for people to report "barbaric cultural practices." He is also the fellow who, more recently, stood before a crowd in Edmonton, smiling and making awkward gestures of encouragement as they channelled Donald Trump supporters, chanting "Lock her up!" about Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.

The video of those episodes has a cringy, faintly pornographic feel: more so because Alexander is not shameless in the manner of Trump, and too intelligent to just bray "Dishonest media! Sad!" on Twitter, and carry on as if nothing had happened.

Alexander says he didn't feel he had any right to lecture the people in the crowd who were angry about Notley's carbon tax. (Sheila Gunn Reid/Twitter, Zoe Todd/CBC)

Why would an Oxford-educated, highly accomplished former diplomat put himself in positions like that? Why, for that matter, would he want to stay in politics at all? (Alexander lost his seat in 2015 by nearly 12,000 votes, trampled by the Liberal he'd beaten four years earlier).

Alexander's answer: losing is "truly formative," a lesson everyone should learn at least once.  

About the television interview, which took place after the corpse of a Syrian boy had washed ashore on a Turkish beach, Alexander concedes that Stephen Harper and former immigration minister Jason Kenney "wanted nothing to do with Syrian refugees."

That, he says, was wrong, and he fought it internally: "It cost us the election."

Increase immigration

As a leadership candidate, Alexander is calling for an increase to 400,000 immigrants annually, including 40,000 refugees.

But he also argues that by late 2015, the parliamentary press corps utterly despised Harper, and was uninterested in any of the immigration reform accomplished by the Conservatives. (He has a point).

The barbaric cultural practices line, he concedes, was a mistake, and one he made on short notice, but he also says he's a big boy, and no one ordered him to participate. "I could have said no. But I do believe forced marriage is a serious issue. It exists in Canada, and worldwide, and it is tantamount to slavery."

Leitch would later cry self-pityingly on camera about having made the announcement. Asked about that, Alexander pauses, a forkful of eggs benedict suspended in mid-air: "Strange."

And the "Lock her up" moment? He says the video broadcast by most news outlets was edited, and did not show him retorting "Vote her out!" He provides alternate video in a later email.

Leitch and Alexander together announced the Conservatives' proposed tip line to report barbaric cultural practices. (CBC)

He was mortified, he says, but also didn't feel he had any right to lecture the people in the crowd, who were angry about Notley's carbon tax, and feared losing their jobs.

Reminded of the way then-presidential candidate John McCain handled a woman at a town hall in 2008 who called Barack Obama an arab (McCain grabbed the mic from her and told her she was wrong), Alexander suppresses his annoyance.

"I've been told about that a hundred times. But there is a difference between handling one heckler and facing thousands of people chanting their anger. I'm proud not to have cut them off. Who am I to do that?"

Clearly, Alexander is sick of discussing his bad moments. Who can blame him? And yet we did. There is no way not to.

Sanctions, taxes, trade...

He brought along a newly expanded platform for his leadership campaign: more free trade agreements, lower taxes, balanced books within four years, a more muscular military. Justin Trudeau's carbon tax, he says, is ridiculous, not even costed. Ontario's carbon tax and hydro rate increases are lunacy. Payroll taxes are deadening.

He wants to toughen sanctions against Russia, and go after the Saudis and Pakistanis for posing as allies while simultaneously supporting extremism.

He has a remarkable grasp of history, particularly Canadian history. He speaks fluent French. His expertise on Afghanistan and Russia is unquestionable. He's learned to moderate partisan-attack impulses.

And with burn scars comes caution. The question on health care remains unanswered.

Asked to name the essence of conservatism in Canada: "nation-building."

No, but as a philosophy? Is it fiscal? Is it social? What do conservatives want to conserve?

"It's nation-building, and allowing and encouraging growth. We don't want failed European experiments."

Is laissez-faire a conservative value? Should people be allowed to do as they wish sexually, and with their own bodies?

"Yes."

Why do we hear otherwise from conservatives?

"You won't hear it from me."

And then he's putting his coat on.  

His manners are flawless, but he's obviously frustrated. You get the impression he wishes the Harper years would fade more quickly from memory. He's not the only Conservative to wish that.

Later, he writes back to question my characterization of the Alberta crowd channeling Trump's mob:

"My takeaway from that rally is that Alberta is hurting — and carbon taxes … will take oil investments elsewhere for a generation if we are not careful. The Trump angle is old news. The new angle is stagnation and unemployment."

Perhaps. But as Alexander surely must understand by now, politicians don't get to define the angle.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.

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