Conservatives have long complained that journalists put questions to small-c conservative politicians that they would never put to politicians of other stripes.
Their latest complaint in that regard came on Wednesday night, when a reporter asked Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer this question: “On issues around social conservatism, around issues like same-sex marriage, you are still not giving your personal views, so question is: Do you believe that being gay is a sin?”
Before I tell you what Scheer said in response Wednesday night, let me first deflect some of the criticism from complaining Conservatives by saying that on Thursday, I e-mailed the question Scheer was asked to the leaders of each of the other federal parties: “Do you believe that being gay is a sin?”
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, through a spokesperson, said “no.” Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, also through a spokesperson, said “Of course not.” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s spokeperson also said Singh’s answer is “no.” Outgoing Green Party leader Elizabeth May, via telephone from the train she was aboard travelling through northwestern Ontario, said “no.”
Here is what Scheer said:
“We made it very clear during the election, in the last few months and years, that our party is inclusive. We believe in equality of the rights of all Canadians. My personal opinion is that I respect the rights of every single Canadian. And my personal commitment is to stand up — that is my personal opinion — my personal commitment to Canadians is to always fight for the rights of all Canadians, including LGBTQ Canadians.”
That’s a very good answer, but it’s an answer to a question that was not asked.
Instead, it’s the sort of prepared talking-point answer that politicians turn to all the time when a topic comes up that may be difficult or controversial. In this case, Scheer fell back on a variation of the same answer he gives whenever he is asked about Pride parades, same-sex marriage, etc. This was his “gay answer.”
And it’s an answer, it must be said, that all other federal leaders would endorse. All of them would, of course, defend the rights of all Canadians, regardless of their sexual orientation.
But the question — “Do you believe that being gay is a sin” — probes a much more fundamental issue. Because if you do believe being gay is a sin, then it follows that you believe that a significant number of your fellow citizens — even some whom are legislators — are morally deficient, defective, and in need of correction.
That is a significant issue for a very large number of voters — or, more importantly, for the persuadable voters that the Conservatives must win over in suburban Ontario and in Quebec.
“I think it’s obvious that Canadians do care and they do expect to see their leader have a bit more comfort in dealing with this,” said Andrew MacDougall, a Conservative and a communications director to former prime minister Stephen Harper. “And barring that, at least a little bit of sincerity.”
Scott Reid, a Liberal and the communications director to former prime minister Paul Martin, agreed.
“I think it matters greatly to many voters,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to all voters. There are going to be some voters who are comfortable with a non-answer because they’ll accept there can be a separation of church and state on these issues. They can separate what the person will do as an individual person and what the person will do as a legislator. And there’s another group of people that are comfortable with that answer because they’re bigots.
“But I think the largest chunk of the public and a growing chunk of the public finds the discomfort that Andrew Scheer displays on this issue, in particular on homosexuality, as equivalent to intolerance. And that’s the fundamental problem for him.”
Michael Diamond, another Conservative who quarterbacked Doug Ford to a win in the Ontario PC Party leadership race and then went on to play a key role in his general election campaign, is not as equivocal as Reid. For one thing, he notes that the press scrum in which Scheer provided this answer came after what was almost certainly a gruelling seven-hour caucus meeting where Scheer would have been on the hot seat.
“A long answer was not his friend,” Diamond said.
From a political communications standpoint, the simple solution for Scheer, if confronted with this question again, would be to dismiss such a query out of hand.
“Absolutely,” said Diamond. “The best way — dismiss it, say ‘of course not’ and move on.”
But ignoring the question or providing a stock non-answer to “do you believe it is a sin to be gay” is not a sustainable communications strategy.
“He can’t dance on the question,” said MacDougall. “But I think if you were to answer it honestly, as a practicing Catholic, you would find that he would be offside with the vast majority of Canadians and that that would act as a check on his electability.
“Whether that’s right or wrong, I think that’s just where people are in Canada right now.”
Once again, it’s important to underline that Scheer did not answer the question so we do not know what he believes. But if he did agree with the teachings of the Roman Catholic church that homosexuality is sinful, would there be a way for Scheer to acknowledge that and not suffer any political damage?
Neither MacDougall, Diamond nor Reid think so.
“I just think that fundamentally places you in opposition to mainstream opinion and to a large percentage of the voting public,” Reid said. “The implication that you are making a moral and absolute judgment. We are in the world of absolutes when you declare something to be immoral and a sin.”
Diamond, for the record, does not believe Scheer is of the view that being gay is a sin.
And all three say encouraging Scheer to just swallow his beliefs and say something he knows not to be true just to make the issue go away would also be a bad idea.
During our telephone conversation Thursday, MacDougall, who once crafted lines for Harper, riffed up a potential answer Scheer might give if asked again if gay people are sinners.
MacDougall suggested Scheer could say: “I grew up a strict Roman Catholic. I still practice as a Roman Catholic. I take my faith seriously. That means these conversations are awkward and difficult for me. I hope you can appreciate that — that these are my private beliefs. And that while I do observe them personally, I would never seek to impose anything. That’s not who we are in Canada. We support rights, protect rights.”
MacDougall finished these proposed lines for Scheer and then said, “I think even that much emotion and candor would at least make people go, ‘OK.'”
During the election campaign and after it, as well, Conservatives are frustrated that questions from reporters don’t focus on other issues — taxes, for example, or Western alienation. Reporters, as it turns out, do have question on those topics and others, but because many Conservatives themselves have questions about their leader’s values and belief system because they felt they were a barrier to increased Conservative support in some parts of the country, it is impossible for reporters to ignore those questions.
“It’s pretty hard to work your way around that,” said Reid. “And I think for a lot of people, it’s definitional. Arguably for it’s definitional. If it wasn’t definitional, he would have no problem answering it more easily.”
Editor’s Note: After this story was first published, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s office responded to queries made by Global News and this story has been updated to incorporate his response.
David Akin is the Chief Political Correspondent for Global News.
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