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The wedge issue that backfired

November 17th, 2015 · No Comments

After the Federal Court ruled in February that Zunera Ishaq, the woman at the centre of a now pivotal controversy, could wear her niqab while taking her oath of Canadian citizenship, Steven Harper’s federal government sought a stay of the ruling pending an appeal. For many, it appeared like an attempt to keep discriminating against Ishaq until the government got its day in court. But during the federal election, the Federal Court of Appeal denied its application, and Ishaq swore her oath, so that only days later she was able to cast her vote, one that would hold greater weight than Mr. Harper could have imagined.

Ultimately, the Conservatives’ mid-campaign decision to keep this issue alive would prove to be their undoing.

Mr. Harper pressed the niqab issue because he believed most of the Quebec population, and his own base across the country, supported him. The niqab issue was a perfect example of how he unapologetically ignored court rulings asserting the government’s responsibility to protect the rights of its citizens under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and continued to propose legislation that the courts would never uphold.

Focusing on such divisive issues was part of an overall Conservative strategy that sought to elicit fear in the electorate, and suggest to voters that they could only trust Mr. Harper to helm the tiller. Indeed, the ad hominem attacks on Justin Trudeau spoke volumes about how worried Conservative strategists were that the Liberals, who began the election in third place, would displace them.

A solid 15 per cent of voters were not swayed by these tactics, and wanted to evict Mr. Harper from the prime minister’s office. How to achieve this end remained unclear until the end, and these Anybody But Harper (ABH) voters found themselves straddling the wedge in Liberal and NDP camps.

By keeping those ABH voters divided, Mr. Harper could hold onto power with a minority government. But the Conservatives needed to ensure that no issue would bridge the electorate.

It was a strategy that initially seemed to work until Mr. Harper himself gave ABH voters a signal. In order to score critical Quebec votes, he continued to press the niqab issue, and even proposed a Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, the evil twin to his government’s assault on the niqab. Zero tolerance indeed.

Meanwhile, the NDP’s Tom Mulcair strongly defended the right of women to wear the veil. With a significant number of Quebec seats, his party had the most to lose, and it became clear after a late September French-language debate that support for the NDP had softened enough to make it unlikely that they would form a government.

“There’s a deep irony here,” wrote Thomas Homer-Dixon, the Centre for International Governance Innovation Chair of Global Systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, recently in The Globe and Mail. “It was the very receptivity of a portion of the population, in Quebec, to the Conservatives’ divisive strategy on the niqab that generated the signal that progressive ABH voters elsewhere in the country needed to coordinate their behaviour.”

ABH voters were no longer divided.

In just two weeks, in our own University-Rosedale riding, polls went from a neck and neck race between the Liberals and NDP to a two-to-one victory for the Liberals. This shift was not a result of anything that happened locally. Both Jennifer Hollett and Chrystia Freeland were smart capable candidates who ran good campaigns, and either one would have made an excellent MP. Many voters were torn over whom to choose, but the forces of the ABH movement hovered above them like a collective unconscious, and Mr. Harper pointed the way with his wedge.

It’s fitting really.

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