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Opinion

How bad can it get? Look south 

By Susan Riley      

And, brace yourself: it is almost certainly bound to get worse, as we head into an interminable pre-election period starting in the fall.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is doubling-down on his personal attacks on Justin Trudeau, straying from predictable partisan abuse to outright fiction—this from a man who promised to be a shiny new leader with a positive vision, writes Susan Riley. The Hill Times photograph Andrew Meade
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CHELSEA, QUE.—It is a miserable ending to a miserable political season.
Spite rules the day at home, Canadian livelihoods are menaced by an intemperate megalomaniac to the south and no one seems to want to go to the famous July 4 party at the American Embassy. With a tariff war raging, no amount of bourbon is going to make it fun.
And, brace yourself: it is almost certainly bound to get worse, as we head into an interminable pre-election period starting in the fall. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is doubling-down on his personal attacks on Justin Trudeau, straying from predictable partisan abuse to outright fiction—this from a man who promised to be a shiny new leader with a positive vision.
That positivity is hard to find in the recent Conservative ad declaring, in large type, that “Justin Trudeau is charging Canadians over $90,000 to upgrade his summer home. This kind of wasteful spending may seem insignificant to Justin Trudeau but he must realize that it isn’t his money to spend.”
But Harrington Lake—which is undergoing some upgrades—is not Trudeau’s “summer home.” It is the official cottage of the prime minister of Canada, enjoyed by many families over the years, including Stephen Harper’s. It is managed by the National Capital Commission, which is installing a play structure, a sauna, a screened-in porch and making other improvements to the large cottage residence on a picturesque lake in the Gatineau Hills.
And Trudeau is not charging taxpayers $7,500 for a new swing set as Scheer insisted repeatedly during Parliament’s final week. In fact, the prime minister is paying for the swing set, and for the sauna. Even after that was pointed out, the opposition leader continued to retail the false figure.
It is an outlandish price tag, true, but the blame, such as it is, rests primarily with the NCC. Everything government builds cost three times more, no matter the level of government or the political stripe. Trudeau, of course, could overrule the commission’s recommendations, just as previous prime ministers have done with the official residence at 24 Sussex Dr., now a crumbling, uninhabitable ruin. But prime ministers have to live somewhere.
Scheer knows all this, better than most. He has been on the public payroll himself since he was 32. He spent five years as speaker of the House, with his own taxpayer-subsidized summer retreat, The Farm, where he entertained politicians, media and diplomats regularly. He and his wife and five children currently live in a 34-room mansion in Rockcliffe with a cook, driver, and all the other entitlements that go with the opposition leader’s job. Stornoway is no more his “mansion” than Harrington Lake is Trudeau’s “cottage.”
The hypocrisy, the pretence, is quite staggering, although it will be lost on voters determined to hate Trudeau, or Liberals, or politicians in general. And that is the danger. The kind of class warfare that Scheer is engaged in—portraying Trudeau as a trust-fund baby with no connection with, or concern for, average Canadians—substitutes lazy slurs for serious analysis of the Liberals’ mistakes and reversals. And the attacks are increasingly rooted in a dishonesty that transcends the usual political spin.
They are accompanied by some time-worn parliamentary theatrics—all-night votes engineered by Scheer’s office to frustrate the passage of bills—and something new. Unnamed right-wing operatives are creating background noise on Twitter in the form of “parody accounts” of Liberal cabinet ministers that trade in sneering put-downs and caricatures of Trudeau as a snooty elitist.
The truth is that neither Trudeau, nor Scheer—both entrenched members of the one per cent, when it comes to income and lifestyle—are oblivious to the concerns of average families. As politicians who constantly travel the country, taking to people of all kinds, from all regions—sprinkling largesse, or promising something even better—they are probably better connected to Main Street than most.
And while Scheer frets about the India trip, or a swing set, he spends scant time hounding Liberals about their shabby treatment of vice-admiral Mark Norman, who is still awaiting trial on charges that he leaked sensitive military information (that embarrassed cabinet). Nor has the opposition leader much to say about the deployment of Canadian peace-keepers to Mali, a doomed operation if ever there was one. Conservative MPs do pursue more substantial matters in Question Period, but Scheer only really comes alive when he is engaged in personal attacks that play to his base.
It is only a matter of time before he starts prodding Trudeau about a so-far unverified report that the prime minister “groped” a young reporter 18 years ago, before he was in politics, at an outdoor event in B.C. Whatever happened, if anything, may never be known, but that won’t stop Scheer’s allies. It is no co-incidence that one of Scheer’s close collaborators is Hamish Campbell, a former director, with Ezra Levant, of The Rebel, a publication not known for its journalistic rigour.
Veteran columnist Chantal Hébert, among others, has noticed how untethered from truth political discourse is becoming. As she wrote recently: “Over Scheer’s first year as leader, the Conservatives have become more and more comfortable with misrepresenting major government policies.” And they don’t care about being called out, especially by the media. As with Trump, an informed and challenging press—i.e. reporters doing their jobs—becomes another convenient target.
It is interesting that conservative politicians, especially, who expect asylum-seekers at our borders to tell the truth, who excoriate Indigenous leaders who try to enrich themselves dishonestly, who laud Canadians to pay their taxes and play by the rules, who teach their own children not to lie, are so sanguine about creeping corruption in their own profession. “By any means necessary” appears to be the new watchword on the right.
So far, the Trump-flavoured tactics have not been taken up by the other parties. The Liberals spin, prevaricate and evade; they break promises and hide important information. But they do not promulgate flat-out lies about their opponents. Not so far, at least.
Meanwhile, summer cannot come soon enough.
Susan Riley is a veteran political columnist who writes regularly for The Hill Times.
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