September 30, 2015

Tom Mulcair and honesty

Things happen during election campaigns. No matter the planning, the strategy and the image control, things happen. Such a thing happened last Thursday during the French language debate and it revolves around the niqab.

As Lysiane Gagnon pointed out in her Globe and Mail piece on September 30, Canadians are overwhelmingly opposed to covering of one's face during citizenship ceremonies.

As early as March, the Prime Minister’s Office commissioned an opinion poll, by Léger, on the wearing of the face-covering veil at citizenship ceremonies. The opposition was flabbergasting: 82 per cent across Canada, 93 per cent in Quebec, 85 per cent among people older than 55 and, strangely enough, 76 per cent among those with a university education.
Those are staggering numbers, especially when one considers the fact that a very small number of women wear the niqab in Canada, and that those who do so at any citizenship ceremony are required to be identified, in private, by a female agent, before the event. Simple enough one would think.
So the Conservatives are now, in effect, campaigning on the back of an isolated and vulnerable minority, which must be the height of cynicism. But the tactic pays. This matter, as objectively trivial as it is when compared with other election issues, led to the most heated exchange during last Thursday’s French-language debate. 
And the polling numbers reflect the debate, especially in Quebec. An Abacus Data poll released earlier this week shows the NDP at 30 per cent support in Quebec, down 17 points since the same pollster's September 11 survey. Much of that decrease can be attributed to Tom Mulcair's position on the niqab. The Liberal Leader shares the same position but his party is suffering less because the Liberals are not contenders in most francophone ridings and get most of their support from anglophone and allophone areas where opposition to the niqab is muted.

Richard Gwyn, a Toronto Star columnist, wrote on Wednesday that Mulcair believes that limiting the rights of women to wear the niqab would violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and he said so. Mr Trudeau agreed, and Gwyn went on:

Almost certainly the Mulcair-Trudeau argument will win out legally eventually. Election debates, though, are not about what is right but what wins votes. Especially in Quebec, but also across the country, polls show considerable support for limiting, even banning, the wearing of niqabs.
Trudeau’s views matter. But Mulcair’s matter more. In the last election, the NDP won an extraordinary 59 seats out of the 75 in Quebec. That achievement is why the party is today a serious national contender, for the first time in its history.
Yet Mulcair didn’t blink. He not only said what he believed during the debate but afterwards sought out reporters to repeat his convictions.
There is something to be said about Tom Mulcair's honesty, determination to do the right thing and his strength of conviction, regardless of how it plays in Quebec or anywhere else.
That’s honesty of a degree rare among politicians at the best of times. For one to do it in the middle of an election is just about unheard of. When the vote counts come in on Oct. 19, Mulcair and his party may well regret their outburst of honesty.

But, at least in this instance, Mulcair will have shown Canadians that there can be more to elections than exaggerated rhetoric and carefully calculated promises of which many are indistinguishable from outright bribes.
Tom Muclair could have found a way to play to his audience in the debate. He didn't, and he is stronger for it. No one said this election would be easy.

Copyright 2015 by Jim Murray.

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