Politics·Analysis

Why the Liberals turned Scheer's same-sex marriage speech into a political weapon

Andrew Scheer may calculate that there is no political advantage to be gained by him participating in Pride events. If so, he shouldn't be surprised when his opponents use his past words on same-sex marriage against him.

To win, Trudeau needs voters to see the election as an either-or choice between Liberals and Conservatives

A speech Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer gave as a young MP in 2005 opposing same-sex marriage has returned to haunt him, courtesy of the Liberals. (Michael Bell)

The question of same-sex marriage is effectively settled in Canada.

As a result of successive court rulings and the passage of the Civil Marriage Act in 2005, same-sex marriage is legal and recognized in all provinces and territories. Parliament has not been asked to consider the question in nearly 13 years. There is no serious push to revisit the issue or repeal the law.

So there is no small amount of politics at play in the Liberals' decision to resurface video of a speech Andrew Scheer gave in 2005 in which he explained, somewhat awkwardly, his opposition to same-sex marriage.

But the presence of politics does not always mean there aren't legitimate questions to be asked. Scheer, perhaps with his own political interests in mind, has yet to publicly reckon with the words he spoke in 2005 or make the sort of statements that would suggest he has moved past the views he once espoused.

In 2015, the Liberals benefited from a wave of progressive voters who were not only excited to support Justin Trudeau, but also eager to be rid of Stephen Harper. Four years later, Justin Trudeau has governed imperfectly and the urgency some voters felt in 2015 likely has dissipated.

Setting up a binary ballot question

For the Liberals, one possible way to re-energize that electorate and rally it behind them is to tell voters that this election is a choice, one that is most likely to produce either a Liberal government led by Trudeau or a Conservative government led by Scheer. Part of clarifying that choice is warning voters about what they might be getting with Scheer.

That would explain why, on an otherwise unremarkable morning in mid-August, video of Scheer speaking in the House of Commons in 2005 appeared on Twitter. After Ralph Goodale (or whoever runs Goodale's Twitter account) posted the clip, a succession of Liberals piled on, reposting it and adding their own comments.

Within two and a half hours, Scheer's spokesperson had posted an official response, reminding Liberals that some in their own ranks also once voted against recognizing same-sex marriage.

In 2005, Scheer was speaking in the House of Commons against the Civil Marriage Act, as it was then being proposed by Paul Martin's government. Scheer argued, in part, that legally recognizing same-sex marriage could lead to infringements upon the religious liberty of those who object to such marriages.

But his primary contention was that same-sex marriage was a contradiction in terms — that marriage was designed for the "natural procreation" of children, something that could not be accomplished in a marriage of two men or two women.

The Liberals weren't all on the same page in 2005

Setting aside the significant hole in that argument (lots of heterosexual marriages don't result in the "natural procreation" of children), Scheer was hardly alone in opposing the Civil Marriage Act: at third reading, the legislation passed by a vote of 158-133. Those who voted against the bill included 93 Conservative MPs, 32 Liberals and one New Democrat. (The Conservatives, at the time, were proposing that same-sex couples could instead be covered by "civil unions.")

On the day he announced his candidacy for the Conservative leadership, Scheer appeared on CBC's Power & Politics and was asked about his position on same-sex marriage. At that time, he said he had no interest in revisiting the issue. But he also avoided explaining his own views.

In his response on Tuesday, Scheer's spokesperson said that the Conservative leader "supports same-sex marriage as defined in law and as prime minister will, of course, uphold it."

If Scheer supports same-sex marriage now, it would be interesting to hear him explain how his thinking has evolved and what he thinks now of that speech he gave 14 years ago. There is no statute of limitation for questions about where one stood on major questions of public policy.

But Scheer's views in 2005 are also relevant now because of where he stands on participating in Pride parades. It was that lack of participation that the Liberals were noting in posting the 2005 video on Tuesday.

As the Conservatives quickly pointed out, the Liberal Party of Canada has not always been on the leading edge of LGBTQ rights. Goodale, for instance, voted against a motion to recognize same-sex marriages in 1999 before voting in favour of the Civil Marriage Act in 2005. But Trudeau's Liberals have embraced the ideal of equality. In 2016, he became the first prime minister to march in a Pride parade when he joined Toronto's celebration. Goodale has marched in Pride parades as well.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, waves to the crowd while waiting to march in the Vancouver Pride Parade with Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, left, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, centre, in Vancouver on Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Scheer's absence from such events has since become conspicuous. In Vancouver earlier this month, three of the four major national parties were represented when Trudeau marched alongside the NDP's Jagmeet Singh and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.

Singh joined the Liberals in jumping on the Scheer video on Tuesday, taking the opportunity to pledge that New Democrats would not prop up a Conservative minority government after this fall's election. But Singh also chastised the Liberals on their own record — accusing them of not moving fast enough to eliminate the ban on blood donations from gay men, for instance, or to institute a ban on conversion therapy.

On Tuesday, Pride flags were flying from the building in downtown Ottawa that houses the Prime Minister's Office — another gesture that a Scheer government could be asked to match.

For now, Scheer presumably has calculated that there are few, if any, votes to be gained by marching in a Pride parade. Conservative party delegates voted in 2016 to drop the party's official position that marriage should be defined as the union of one man and one woman. But 462 Conservative delegates still voted against the move.

By shunning Pride events, Scheer might avoid alienating those Conservatives. But if marching has become a barometer for leadership or values, Scheer's absence can be weaponized by his political opponents and used as an excuse to revive his statements from 2005.

That's politics. It's not supposed to be easy.

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. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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