Michael Den Tandt: You want a ‘sunnier’ conservatism, Jason Kenney? What a comedian

Some uncomfortable truths here, particularly given the drubbing the Conservatives received in those suburban ridings where new Canadians and visible minorities form a majority or close to a majority of voters (see Visible minorities elected to Parliament close to parity, a remarkable achievement):

Jason Kenney is a wizard in a scrum. Intellectually nimble, rhetorically agile, reflexively partisan, the Conservatives’ former “Mr. Fix-it” is everything one could ask for in a future party leader, yes? Of course yes. Kenney is also, it turns out, a comedian.

“We need a conservatism that is sunnier and more optimistic than we have sometimes conveyed,” he was quoted by The Canadian Press as saying, following his party’s historic drubbing at the hands of Justin Trudeau, a man Kenney himself has incessantly belittled and mocked, for years.

Apparently defeat has refocused the former immigration and multiculturalism minister’s mind on the better angels of his nature. Kenney, long believed to be angling for the Tory leadership in a post-Harper era, has had his conversion on the road to Damascus. He wishes to purge his party of its grim, Harperesque baggage. Perhaps he will be the wire brush, to borrow the Liberal expression from the post-Sponsorship-scandal era, to scrape the Conservative party clean. Perhaps he will tell jokes and smile and speak of building a greater Canada. Perhaps he, too, will hold a news conference in the National Press Theatre, during which he gently reminds shell-shocked journalists they have a role to play in democracy, and are not despised.

Optimism, it has been miraculously revealed, works, and Jason Kenney will be its new blue paragon.

Seriously, now. If there is a single minister other than Stephen Harper who must wear the Conservative loss, it is Kenney. That’s due to his abilities and strengths, ironically enough, as much as his omissions and flaws.

It was Kenney who famously delivered Ontario’s 905 seats, where many hundreds of thousands of new Canadians reside, in the 2011 federal election. It was he, lovingly dubbed the Minister of Curry-In-a-Hurry, who managed to pull off the apparent miracle of streamlining and toughening Canada’s immigration and refugee system, while increasing support among the various communities most affected.

It was Kenney also who spoke up most loudly and clearly, among federal ministers, in the fall of 2013 when former Parti Québécois premier Pauline Marois hauled out her xenophobic charter of values, which later cost her the premiership. “If you want people to become a part of your society and fully participate in it, then you have to create a space (and) send a message that people are welcoming (and) including,” Kenney was quoted by CTV as saying at the time.

But two years later, in the heat of a campaign, there was Kenney front and centre in the bid to transform fear of niqab into votes. It was on Oct. 2, in fact, the day his colleagues Chris Alexander and Kellie Leitch unveiled their proposed “barbaric cultural practices” tip line, that Kenney said this to radio host Evan Solomon: “I believe it (the niqab) reflects a misogynistic culture that — a treatment of women as property rather than people, which is anchored in medieval tribal customs …”

Four days later, prime minister Stephen Harper doubled down, saying in an interview with CBC’s Rosemary Barton that he’d consider banning the veil across the civil service. There were no women wearing niqabs in the civil service, it later emerged, but never mind. This was the Conservative leader saying the wrangling would go on, and on. That very week, Conservative support began to slump, polls showed. It never recovered.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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