MONTREAL — Prime Minister Stephen Harper took his own troops by surprise when he ratcheted up his anti-niqab rhetoric in the House of Commons on Tuesday.
If the anecdotal evidence gathered over the course of subsequent conversations with members of the government — including some pretty senior ones — is any indication, it was not a pleasant surprise for all Conservatives.
In response to a question from Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Harper lashed out at critics of the government’s decision to appeal a court ruling that struck down the ban on wearing the face-covering niqab during a citizenship oath.
He accused them of embracing a piece of clothing whose existence is rooted in a culture hostile to women.
Some Conservative MPs would have liked the prime minister to expand on that thesis, if only to make it clear that he was not talking about the entire Muslim faith.
Others would have preferred that Harper steer clear of leading the government further unto the minefield of cultural accommodation.
What ensued was unusual confusion within government ranks.
In the apparent absence of coherent talking points to explain Harper’s comments, at least one senior minister decided that retreating from the media front line was the better part of valour.
Others improvised as best they could — with decidedly mixed results.
International Development Minister Christian Paradis opined that the citizenship oath niqab ban was only necessary for identification purposes. That’s also what GTA MP Costas Menegakis — the parliamentary secretary to the minister of immigration — told The Canadian Press.
In fact, women who wear the niqab do take off their face-covering veil for the purpose of identification at citizenship ceremonies. They put it back on to take the oath.
Identification — as the Federal Court ruling that struck down the ban noted — is not at issue in this matter.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement defended the ban in the case of the citizenship oath but went on to say that wearing a niqab to work — including in the federal public service — was acceptable.
Few took up Harper’s “anti-women” thesis.
Still, by the time a large section of the Parliament Hill community convened for the annual Politics and the Pen dinner on Wednesday, the niqab had become fodder for the water-cooler conversations of the country — to the visible chagrin of more than a few Conservatives.
Many of them are disconcerted by the prime minister’s resolve to shift a debate on national security onto the shifting sands of the accommodation of certain minorities.
The first issue — pertaining to anti-terrorism — plays to a perceived strength of the ruling Conservatives. The other — relating to minority rights — is at the best of times uncertain terrain for any politician.
It was on a pit stop in Quebec last month that the prime minister jumped in front of the niqab parade by announcing the government’s appeal of the court decision to strike down the ban.
The political rationale behind that was that it could pave the way to Conservative gains in Quebec in next fall’s election.
Polls show that a strong majority of Quebecers — including many who opposed the Parti Québécois charter last year — back the notion of a ban on wearing a niqab to receive or dispense public services.
Be that as it may, Harper’s strategy mostly smacks of self-defeating overkill.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings, his anti-terrorism agenda — including the Canadian military engagement in Iraq — was popular in its own right in Quebec.
The risks involved in venturing on the battlefield of collective values in the hope of consolidating that advantage are ultimately greater than the potential gains to the Conservatives.
In hindsight PQ strategists admit that ex-premier Pauline Marois could have fared better in last April’s election if she had just stuck to bread-and-butter issues.
For the reality is — as the Conservatives are starting to discover — that a values-driven political debate tends to act like a black hole on the rest of a government’s agenda.
That should suit Trudeau just fine. Many voters do not see the economy or — for that matter — foreign affairs as the Liberal leader’s forte. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, on the other hand, is in his political DNA.