Politics·Analysis

Scheer tried to douse a debate on abortion, same-sex marriage — and muddied the waters even more

Would a Prime Minister Andrew Scheer allow Conservative caucus members to push motions or bills on abortion or same-sex marriage? It wasn't clear earlier this week. After Scheer answered questions about the issue Thursday, it's still not clear.

Canadians can be forgiven for being puzzled about what the Conservative leader really thinks

Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer can expect to face a lot more awkward questions about his stance on same-sex marriage and abortion over the coming election campaign. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer's appearance at a hotel near the Toronto airport on Thursday afternoon was his first interaction with reporters in more than a week — a gap that coincided with the Liberal Party's decision to resurface video of Scheer talking about same-sex marriage in 2005.

By the time he finally stepped forward, the Liberals had posted another clip — this time raising questions about what Scheer has been telling anti-abortion activists.

In response, Scheer accused the Liberals of "dredging up divisive issues" to distract Canadians.

But if Canadians are distracted, it's in no small part because Scheer is still struggling to explain himself.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says that every Canadian, including LGTB Canadians, have the same equality rights under the law and that he will defend those rights both here and abroad. 1:15

On abortion, Scheer first said that "individual MPs have the right to express themselves on matters of conscience, but a Conservative government will not reopen these divisive social issues." This, he said, was in keeping with the approach of the previous Conservative government led by Stephen Harper.

But Harper's position actually seemed to change over time.

At first, Harper was willing to let backbench Conservative MPs bring forward bills and motions related to abortion. A few MPs did so. But in 2013, Harper seemed to adopt a new attitude — provoked by a motion about sex-selective abortion, he apparently decided that he would do everything in his power to ensure that no Conservative proposal on abortion reached the floor of the House of Commons.

According to a HuffPost Canada article earlier this week, Scheer's own Quebec lieutenant apparently believed that such a ban on backbench activity was still in place. But Scheer's office subsequently was unwilling to clarify how much freedom Conservative MPs would have under a government led by him.

"It's really just the Liberals" pushing these questions, Scheer protested on Thursday.

Scheer in 2017 vs. Scheer today

But the Conservative leader is no doubt well aware that it's not just Liberals who are interested in his stance.

In 2017, when Scheer was seeking the Conservative leadership, he was asked by an anti-abortion organization to explain how he would handle the issue. He insisted then that both backbench MPs and cabinet ministers would be able to vote freely on matters related to abortion and that he would support the "right" of MPs to "speak out and introduce matters that are important to them."

It was an account of that interview that the Liberals unearthed and posted to Twitter on Thursday morning.

On Thursday afternoon, Scheer was asked whether Conservative backbenchers would be punished by the party whip if they tried to bring forward an initiative related to abortion. Scheer dismissed the question as hypothetical and proceeded to argue that his party was the only major party "that allows people to hold a deeply held personal view on these types of issues" — but then he seemed to suggest that he did not expect a Conservative MP would ever try to table such a bill.

Conservatives, he said, "recognize that we will ... oppose measures to open this. I am confident that my party, my caucus understands that."

"We welcome people with different perspectives on any number of issues," he added later. "But when we come together, we work as a team."

So, yes or no — could a Conservative MP freely table a bill on abortion?

It's not at all clear.

Scheer in 2005 vs. Scheer today

On same-sex marriage — the other issue on which the Liberals have hit Scheer simply by quoting his own words back at him — the Conservative leader was equally reluctant to dwell on details.

The issue, he said, was "settled." As prime minister, he would uphold the law and the equality rights of all Canadians.

But he was unwilling to say whether his own opinion has changed. He passed on the chance to revisit or reflect upon what he said in 2005, when he told the House of Commons that same-sex marriage was a contradiction in terms because same-sex couples could not be equally entitled to an institution intended for "natural procreation."

"These were arguments that were being put forward by many people who held views on this issue," he said.

Some of those people might be willing now to march in a Pride parade. But Scheer continues to decline the opportunity.

"There are many ways to support the community," he said Thursday, citing his support for protecting LGBT refugees fleeing persecution in other countries. He didn't mention his vote against a bill to expand protections for transgender Canadians.

Scheer's situation is no doubt complicated by disagreements within the Conservative movement. But it's the task of every leader to manage differing opinions, and to rise to the occasion when difficult moments emerge.

In addition to accusing the Liberals of needlessly raising divisive social issues, Scheer tried to mount an offensive on the basis that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has so far only committed to participate in two election debates, instead of the four to which Scheer has committed.

"I urge Justin Trudeau to show some courage, show up, to defend his record and his decisions over the last four years," Scheer said.

It was an odd argument to make after seven days of self-imposed silence.

But if the last week is a sign of things to come, Trudeau and the Liberals might soon be very eager to give Andrew Scheer every possible opportunity to explain himself again, and in public.

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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