Hébert: Another swing and a miss for Alexander

What could former immigration minister Chris Alexander have been thinking?

On Saturday, the federal Conservative leadership hopeful spoke at an Alberta rally against that province’s planned carbon tax.

As he regaled the crowd with an invitation to vote out NDP Premier Rachel Notley, protesters began the “Lock her up” chant that was one of the more despicable features of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump’s campaign.

A video of Alexander shows him smiling and then nodding along and gesturing in time with the chant.

He then resumed speaking — for about a full minute — but never alluded either to the chant or to what he subsequently said was his sense that it was totally inappropriate.

He told the CBC: “I was smiling because I was trying to think of a way to change the chant.”

To Maclean’s, he maintained that he disapproved of the chant but that he believed one should listen to constituents.

But the latter did not stop Jason Kenney — even as he is campaigning for the Tory leadership in Alberta — from calling out the protesters.

As opposed to Alexander, Kenney does have a dog in the provincial fight against Notley. He tweeted: “There are good reasons to oppose a carbon tax. But calling on our democratically elected premier to be ‘locked up’ is ridiculous and offensive.”

Just last week on CBC’s The National, Alexander agreed to read some of the abusive emails and tweets he received for his role in handling the Syrian refugee crisis.

The main point of the exercise was to expose how social media has become a vehicle to spread hatred against politicians and their families in general, and women in politics in particular. Vile language is increasingly becoming par for the course in Canada’s public debate — at some cost to citizen engagement.

For every protester validated by Alexander’s reticence on Saturday, there are likely many who found his complacent silence at least as disturbing as the chant itself.

Does he not believe that those who aspire to leadership positions have a responsibility to draw the line at what constitutes gratuitous abuse versus legitimate debate?

One can only wonder why Alexander spoke at the demonstration in the first place. Federal leadership aspirants do not normally take the stage at protests against sitting provincial governments. There are good reasons for that.

As often as not, the stuff that party supporters dislike in one province is party policy in another.

In Alexander’s own province of Ontario, Tory Leader Patrick Brown, a former federal caucus colleague, subscribes to the necessity of pricing carbon.

In Manitoba, Conservative Premier Brian Pallister — yet another former federal Conservative caucus member — has promised to deliver a made-in-Manitoba carbon pricing plan.

Both are leaning toward a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

Alexander left diplomacy for elected politics less than a decade ago. At the time he was considered a star recruit. But the go-along-to-get-along attitude that may have been an asset in diplomatic circles has not served him well in politics.

This is not the first time he has missed an opportunity to show that he is neither tone-deaf nor spineless.

With Canadians reeling from the photographs of the lifeless three-year-old Alan Kurdi at the time of the 2015 federal campaign, he gave the CBC an interview about the Syrian refugee crisis that was so devoid of empathy that it probably went some way to costing him his seat on election day.

In the days leading up to the vote, he, along with leadership rival Kellie Leitch, took on the dubious mission of promoting a government snitch line to report so-called barbaric cultural practices.

Prior to throwing his hat in the leadership ring, Alexander said in an interview that both issues had been mishandled. He believes that contributed to the Conservative defeat. They were also the only two campaign events that featured him in a front-line role. Not that it is really an excuse, but in contrast with Saturday’s appearance in Alberta, he could at least be assumed to have been acting on orders from the campaign brain trust.

On Tuesday evening, the 14 men and women who are currently vying for Stephen Harper’s succession will take part in the first of two debates designed to offer a measure of how fluent they are in both official languages.

That may be the only test of leadership the bilingual Alexander will pass with flying colours between now and next May’s Conservative vote.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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