Preston Manning, a man who knew a thing or two about dodging friendly political fire, has warned his conservative “family” many times.
Its Achilles heel, the patriarch of today’s movement has said, is the “intemperate and ill considered remark,” the deeply held conviction spoken in public that blindsides and discredits conservative governments, parties and campaigns.
They’re also known as “bozo eruptions.”
Manning never got them under control, but Stephen Harper did — until recently.
On the surface, it would appear that Prime Minister Harper is also dealing with some incoming fire from a Conservative caucus that suddenly seems to include a number of plain speakers who have decided that honesty is not ill considered.
But Harper isn’t doing much ducking.
To use the Manning definition, these would appear to be deeply held views from some caucus members, but differing from Manning’s futile firefighting in the old days of his Reform party, today’s plain-speaking Conservatives appear to be merely taking their cue from the boss.
We are dealing with government MPs who are mixing alarmist rhetoric, racist comments and the “get off my lawn” mentality that constantly tripped up Manning.
This week, Conservative MP Larry Miller crafted a new take on Conservative immigration policy in a radio interview with CFOS radio in his Ontario riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound.
“Stay the hell where you came from,” he advised would-be immigrants who come to Canada because it is the best country in the world and then want to change things before they are officially Canadian.
It was his reaction to the niqab controversy in this country, Miller’s harsh rejoinder to Zunera Ishaq, the Mississauga woman who has refused to remove her face covering at her citizenship oath.
Miller, credited with being something of a barometer of Canadian opinion in the Conservative caucus, later apologized for his “inappropriate” language, but not for his view that citizenship should be denied if the woman does not remove her niqab.
Harper’s office said Miller went beyond the party position, but then quickly reiterated the belief most Canadians find it offensive that someone would cover their face as they sought to become Canadians.
Last week, the prime minister called the niqab a symbol of a culture’s hostility to women.
Miller’s message comes on the heels of New Brunswick MP John Williamson’s musings on the temporary foreign worker program. He gave voice to party frustration with this disastrous statement: “It makes no sense to pay ‘whities’ to stay home while we bring in brown people to work in these jobs.” (He later apologized).
Alberta MP Diane Ablonczy was accused of using “McCarthyesque” tactics during a committee appearance by Ihsaan Gardeen, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims. That association has already sued Harper’s former communications director Jason MacDonald for publicly linking the group to Hamas.
At another hearing in the Senate, Shahina Siddiqui of the same organization faced similar accusations from an Ontario Conservative senator, Lynn Beyak. When Siddiqui told the committee her organization was not the enemy, Beyak told her to stop being so thin-skinned.
Manitoba Conservative Lawrence Toet sent out a ridiculous flyer asking constituents whether they backed the government anti-terrorism bill or believed that “terrorists are victims, too.”
Alberta MP Leon Benoit (like Ablonczy, a Reform alumnus) went after the Supreme Court, calling it “lawless” and claiming the bench is imposing personal views on Canadians.
Many Canadians may find the above offensive, but none really fit the “bozo eruption” definition.
None of the MPs has been sanctioned by the Prime Minister’s Office.
Benoit, for example, was not told to temper his language. He proudly posted his statement on his website.
Back in Manning’s day, different members of his caucus opined that they would put gays at the back of the store, or agreed homosexuals should not be allowed to teach children. Another advocated caning as punishment.
But they were not pushing party policy, mimicking the leader or purporting to speak for a majority of Canadians. Manning was badly hurt by these pronouncements.
It’s not clear that Harper’s MPs are doing anything more than — inelegantly — espousing party policy or articulating the frustrations of the base. They feel safe in the warmth of public opinion.
No doubt they feel they are taking the PM’s message to the ramparts or speaking truth to the villains, real or imagined.
These Conservative plain speakers can certainly say what they want. But they should not be rewarded by voters for their reckless statements.
Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.