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The Rest

Oct 19, 2015

Canada’s Conservatives open the Howard playbook

In making the niqab -- and by extension, Muslims -- an election issue, Stephen Harper is walking a difficult line. Freelance journalist Tim Forster reports from Canada.

If you took a cursory glance at Canada’s federal election campaign recently, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a bizarre transposition of Liberal Party strategy to North America.

Canadians go to the polls on Tuesday (Australian time) after two months of electioneering. One thing is clear from the campaign: Australia is not the only country where race-baiting and using Muslims as a wedge issue are functional vote-winning strategies.

In the middle of a recession and with rising unemployment, a “good economic stewards” campaign wasn’t working for the incumbent Conservative Party and nine-year Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

As the Conservative poll numbers foundered against the centre-left (Canadian) Liberal and New Democratic parties, Harper began experimenting with some wedge-driving.

The first attempts could have been straight from Tony Abbott’s “stop the boats” playbook: leveraging refugees for votes. Harper tried a “commonsense” argument against opening the “floodgates” against the left-wing parties’ pledges to accept more Syrian refugees, warning that Canada’s immigration department would need to watch out for terrorists hiding among genuine refugees.

Variations on the quintessentially Australian “fuck off, we’re full” refrain don’t play well in Canada; polls suggested a vast majority of Canadians see Syrian refugees as needing help and not just economic opportunists.

Enter the niqab, the item of clothing that could determine the Canadian election. Harper was fighting a losing battle with the courts over a 2011 law banning women from wearing the niqab, the Islamic garment that fully covers women’s faces, during citizenship ceremonies. In September, a federal court ruled that a Pakistani immigrant could wear her niqab during the citizenship oath as long as she showed her face to officials before the ceremony.

Much like the Australian government after Australia’s High Court rejected the Malaysia Solution, Harper kept pushing. It was shrewdly populist — after the issue bubbled to the top of election coverage, a poll showed over 80% support for the ban. Even better for Harper, his main opponents, Liberal Justin Trudeau and New Democrat Tom Mulcair were both in the minority, opposing the ban.

It is the epitome of a fringe issue: only two women have wanted to take their citizenship oath wearing a niqab since 2011, so Harper broadened the issue into a referendum on Muslim assimilation. When a televised debate turned to the niqab, Harper aligned himself neatly with the polls, saying that he’d “never tell my young daughter that a woman should cover her face”.

It was catnip for voters, especially in more secular, French-speaking Quebec, where Harper needed a foothold: his numbers jumped, and the New Democratic Party slumped. The Conservatives pressed on, proposing banning public servants from wearing the niqab and announcing a tip line for the public to report “barbaric cultural practices” such as honour killings — although murder is already decidedly illegal in Canada.

Prime minister John Howard’s strategist, Lynton Crosby, reportedly visited Canada last month to pitch in to the Conservative campaign. Crosby is best known for engineering the 2001 Tampa crisis into an electoral goldmine for Howard.

Canada has experienced many of the same anxieties about Islam as Australia over the last year. Where Australia had the Lindt Cafe siege and Parramatta shooting, Canada had the Parliament shooting. While these atrocities were committed by lone men with histories of mental illness, they led to interminable worrying about fundamentalism — and with facial coverings as a clear symbol of Muslim-ness, women in veils became anxiety-inducing figures of “radicalisation“.

It was simplicity that worked. Just as Abbott wanted to be seen encouraging Muslim leaders to side with “Team Australia”, Harper’s debate comments were about creating the image that he was prodding a minuscule number of women to assimilate to Western, Canadian values.

In journalist Susan Delacourt’s book Shopping for Votes, former Conservative strategist Patrick Muttart admitted that simplicity was the point: in order to push politically unengaged voters to the polls (voting is not mandatory in Canada), “brutally simple” messaging was required. The Liberal and New Democrat views on the niqab had nuance — both agreed that a veiled woman should show her face in private before citizenship ceremonies — but Harper’s message came pre-digested: show your face so we can trust you.

Harper’s success in pushing the niqab issue drew angry criticism from popular, prominent figures like Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi and former provincial premier Danny Williams. It got ample media airtime, but without shouty, high-circulation Murdoch-esque tabloids supporting it, coverage was often critical: even popular Tory-supporting broadsheet The Globe and Mail called it a “distraction“.

Yet Harper and Crosby’s success with the niqab message could backfire: when Crosby made the Tampa tragedy an election issue in Australia, the Liberals were only targeting relatively white electorates. Conversely, Harper is relying on suburban immigrant voters whose cultural values align with his social conservatism — but who could equally be driven away by his us-versus-them posturing. Add the vagaries of the first-past-the-post voting system, and the question of whether Harper’s niqab wedge will prove successful will only be answerable after tomorrow’s results.

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