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RALPH SURETTE: Note to the Trudeau Liberals: cut out socially divisive stuff


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau poses for a photo with supporters in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., in August. - REUTERS
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau poses for a photo with supporters in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., in August. - REUTERS

Sleazy political dog whistling, usually meant to divert public attention from some other squalid business a political party is involved in, has normally been the stuff of conservative and right-wing parties. Have things changed?

The Trudeau Liberals, apparently trying to squish the SNC-Lavalin story deeper into electoral amnesia, have more or less opened the fall election campaign by making a couple of our worst social divisions — abortion and LGBT rights — bleed afresh.

It started with a tweet (suspect anything that starts with a tweet) from Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, normally the most sensible of Liberal heads, reviving a speech Tory Leader Andrew Scheer gave 15 years ago opposing gay marriage. A rousing Commons speech that Scheer made two years ago supporting gay marriage was ignored, as were the two times Goodale himself voted against it in the 1990s.

Scheer responded by saying that, if elected, he would stay away from socially divisive terrain, and not legislatively re-open those issues. He got hit from all sides, hardest of all by the anti-abortionists in his own base hoping for a (doomed-to-defeat) parliamentary showdown.

He’s right, and Trudeau is wrong to be scratching at these sores. Scheer’s discomfiture may have given Trudeau a short-term war room victory, but at the cost of tearing at the social fabric, which deserves only condemnation.

We need only keep an eye on the house divided across the border to be wary. There, a social war is raging with abortion at the centre. In its latest incarnation, some 19 states have clamped down hard on abortion services this year alone, emboldened by President Trump’s naming of Brett Cavanaugh to the Supreme Court. With the court properly packed, the expectation of these states is that it will overthrow its 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that made abortion a constitutional right.

Socially liberal states — so far, Maine, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Illinois — have been doing the opposite: loosening restrictions, hardening protections for abortion rights and even allowing medical workers other than doctors to perform them, also in anticipation of a Roe vs. Wade reversal.

Scheer’s discomfiture may have given Trudeau a short-term war room victory, but at the cost of tearing at the social fabric

There, as here, there are two absolutist sides who can foresee only one acceptable — and largely impossible — outcome: to triumph by crushing the other side into oblivion. It’s war, sometimes a shooting one. A number of abortion doctors have been shot in the U.S. over time.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a column proposing that the Canadian government strike a commission — made up of retired female judges with impeccable credentials — to explore the possibilities of finding common ground between these two sides. The aim: a bargain in which the pro-life side accepts the legal reality once and for all in exchange for the pro-choice side accepting to co-operate with programs to reduce the numbers of abortions.

A fantasy perhaps (such attempts have been made locally in the U.S., admittedly without much success), but a will to try to heal the divide is better than a will to widen it. In reaction to my piece, an interesting letter appeared in this newspaper at the time from an ex-Maritimer in Alberta. The writer said there was no dispute and no basis on which to bargain. Abortion was a legal and accepted fact in Canada (that is, there is no law governing it) and the pro-choice side has won. That’s progress, he was saying, and there’s thus no need to bargain with the forces of backwardness.

Mission accomplished in other words — and also the type of “liberal” arrogance that can get lots of people to vote for the likes of Donald Trump. And indeed, in the two years since, some pro-choice voices have been expressing fear and trepidation that the American abortion war will slop over the border.

Further, I’ve been intrigued from the beginning at the extent to which the abortion issue is the glue that keeps many pro-Trumpers glued to Trump. Never mind that he once described himself as “very pro-choice” and, having no principles of any kind, is not genuinely anti-abortion either. Everything else can be overlooked as long as that’s his political stand, genuine or not. Could that happen here?

A society’s well-being (and, let us not forget, Canadians are among the most fortunate people on Earth) depends to a high degree on its social cohesion — the adherence of a large majority to commonly accepted principles beyond mere partisan politics. Social — including class and religious — divisions are the worst for not only disturbing the peace, but for diverting attention away from essential business.

Some recent polls, interestingly, put environment as the top issue in the upcoming federal campaign. Note to the Trudeau Liberals: rein in your war room on the social issues and concentrate on that.

Ralph Surette is a freelance journalist in Yarmouth County.

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