Opinion

If Scheer wants to stop being questioned on his views on gay marriage, he should offer an answer: Robyn Urback

Conservatives will say it shouldn't matter what leader Andrew Scheer's personal views are on issues such as same-sex marriage as long as he won't base policy on them. That is a nice, idealistic — and perhaps unrealistic — way of thinking about how elections are decided.

'The country has moved on' does not explain how his own views have evolved

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has been less than clear when it comes to his personal views on same-sex marriage. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

No doubt the Conservatives are frustrated that leader Andrew Scheer keeps getting the same question over and over on the campaign trail: Can you explain how your personal views on same-sex marriage have evolved since 2005?

Yet it apparently has not occurred to the party — or else, they prefer not to acknowledge — that the best way to get people to stop asking the question is to answer it. To really answer it.  

Scheer has been asked to explain his personal evolution on LGBTQ rights multiple times: back in August, after the Liberals unearthed footage from 2005 of a young Scheer arguing against gay marriage in a speech in Parliament; in September, in the context of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau offering his own apology for past behaviour; and earlier this week, in conversation with the CBC's Rosemary Barton. 

Each time, the question is some variation on the following: How, and when, and why did your views on same-sex marriage shift?

And each time, Scheer offers up something that sounds like an answer but is really just a collection of banal observations about how Canadian society has evolved. It's like being asked what topping you want on your hamburger and responding with a dopey: "Yes, I like hamburgers."

'I've moved on'

Scheer's script is always the same: "My personal views are that every single Canadian has the same equality rights under the law."

"It is the law of the land. It's been settled in Canada."

"Society has moved on. I've moved on."

"Yes, I like hamburgers."

The question, of course, is not about how our collective views on same-sex marriage have changed but how Scheer personally went from believing gay marriage was as weird and unnatural as calling a dog's tail a leg to thinking same-sex marriage is totally fine.

"I've moved on" is not an answer to this question. (And yes, I know, Trudeau has quite an affinity for this type of dodge also, but the whole purpose of being the "change" option is to convince Canadians you will be different.)

Conservatives would argue that Scheer's personal views on same-sex marriage shouldn't matter because he has promised that he will not reopen the debate. That is a fine perspective to take if your fixation is on how elections should be decided instead of recognizing how they are actually decided. 

Part of the Liberals' get-out-the-vote strategy is very clearly to convince moderate voters that Scheer isn't worth the risk: that, sure, he says he won't reopen debates on social issues, but can you really believe him, especially when he won't go into detail about how his personal beliefs have changed? Scheer's obfuscation just plays into this narrative.

The Conservatives appear to have concluded that letting people make assumptions about Scheer's views is preferable to him actually providing an answer. (Emilio Avalos/Radio-Canada)

Just recently, the Conservative leader decided to be more forthright on his views on abortion. Speaking to reporters in New Brunswick Thursday, he confirmed that he is "personally pro-life" but that he will "ensure that we do not reopen this debate." 

This was presumably an easier admission for Scheer given that the news that he is against abortion is hardly a revelation. It's also easier to defend a position when your stated justification is to preserve life as opposed to one where you're imposing your moral and religious beliefs on others simply to preserve an entrenched idea about the institution of marriage.

I don't actually know if Scheer still personally views it as wrong for two men or two women to marry. I don't know, because he won't say — which, in many people's minds, is just his clumsy way of saying he still views it as wrong (while conveniently denying his opponents the sound bite).

The Conservatives appear to have concluded that letting people make that assumption is preferable to Scheer actually providing a fulsome answer — an answer through which he could provide nuance, context and perhaps also explain how he grapples with conflicting religious doctrines that teach tolerance and acceptance but also intolerance of certain practices.

There are probably a good number of Canadians who could relate to that conflict.

There is no question the Liberals would weaponize whatever Scheer says, stripping out all of that nuance and context. But it's unlikely that it would be any worse than the image Scheer is projecting now: one of cageyness, suspicion and a brand of dogmatism he's too meek to own. In that light, it is difficult to see how Scheer's current strategy is the preferred option, especially since avoiding the question is the best guarantee that it will keep coming up.

Talking points are a public relations tool used by politicians and parties at every level. The intention is to keep politicians on track and ensure the party message sinks into the public consciousness, but some experts say sticking too close to a talking point risks losing the message entirely. 7:32

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About the Author

Robyn Urback

Columnist

Robyn Urback is an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at:

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