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Andrew Scheer is seen here with former prime minister Stephen Harper in the House of Commons in 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

What Harper’s legacy tells us about Scheer’s handling of hot-button social issues

Andrew Scheer’s views on abortion and same-sex marriage have come under considerable scrutiny as the country heads towards October’s federal election.

Given his inconsistent messaging on the former and his open opposition to the latter, some have expressed concern about whether Scheer would reopen debate in the House of Commons should he be elected prime minister.

Others have dismissed this concern on the grounds that the Conservative Party leader will likely follow in the footsteps of former prime minister Stephen Harper and refuse to do so.

Scheer, then Speaker, and Harper watch as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signs a guestbook on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in March 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

While the question of whether Scheer would reopen these debates is an important one, it’s not the only one we should be asking. We should also be asking questions that help us to better understand how Scheer’s views on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage would affect how he governs the country, regardless of whether he revisits them in the House of Commons.

Scheer’s positions on a woman’s right to choose and a same-sex couple’s right to marry bear strong similarities to Harper’s. Often referred to as “Stephen Harper 2.0” or “Stephen Harper with a smile”, Scheer relies on Harper for advice and help with campaign fundraising.

The two men are closely connected, both in terms of their ideological commitments and their approach to politics, and this connection is often leveraged by the Conservative Party to gain traction with potential voters.

So if we want to get a sense of how Scheer would make policy, then we would do well to remember how Harper did so.

Harper and maternal health

Take Harper’s international maternal health policy. Launched in 2010, Harper’s policy was harshly criticized because it did not include funding for abortion in developing countries and failed to make good on its promise to contribute to the United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) contraceptive distribution program.

Harper speaks to the media during the closing news conference after attending the Maternal, Newborn and Child Health Summit in Toronto in May 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Speaking at an event in Ottawa in 2016, the executive director of UNFPA said the policy treated women “as bodies that deliver babies” rather than as “human beings with rights and dignity.”

Similarly, the executive director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights contended that the policy “instrumentalized women as child bearers” while ignoring widespread evidence that points to the urgent need for family planning.

It is difficult not to draw a straight line between Harper’s views on reproductive rights and his policy decisions with respect to maternal health. The former prime minister made a number of decisions over the course of his time in office that made it harder for women to control both their reproductive capacities and their family realities.

His decision to dismantle a national child-care plan that had been signed by all 10 provinces and replace it with a taxable $100 per month payout is perhaps the most striking.

But there were other decisions that often went unnoticed, such as cutting a question from the long-form census that allowed the government to collect data on unpaid household chores, caregiving responsibilities and elder care.

In place since Canada participated in the 1995 UN World Conference on Women, this question allowed the disproportionately high amount of non-remunerated work performed by women in the home to be more fully considered in the context of employment-related policy-making.

No protections for LGBTQ people

As with the abortion debate, Harper chose not to reopen the same-sex marriage debate. But that doesn’t mean he protected the rights of those in the LGBTQ community. Not only did he cancel what was known as the Court Challenges Program that helped LGBTQ individuals fight for their constitutional rights, he also surrounded himself with polarizing figures.

Chief among them was Charles McVety, the evangelical Christian leader and anti-LGBTQ activist.

During Harper’s time in office, McVety became widely known across the country for his efforts to repeal the law legalizing same-sex marriage and his role in crafting legislation that sought to deny tax credits to Canadian filmmakers whose films “promoted homosexuality.”

In the end, both initiatives failed.

While McVety’s anti-LGBTQ activism did not amount to much under Harper, it has amounted to rather a lot under Ontario Premier Doug Ford. McVety played a key role in supporting Ford’s bid for the Conservative Party leadership and continues to be one of his most important allies.

Policies aligned

Both Ford’s initial rollback of the province’s sex education curriculum and his creation of a “snitch line” designed to prohibit teachers from discussing LGBTQ issues align with McVety’s politics.

Scheer is not Harper; nor is he Ford. But what both the Harper and Ford governments teach us is that politicians who espouse views like those held by Scheer tend to be closely connected to one another, not only because they make similar policy decisions but also because they surround themselves with similar people.

Read more: Doug Ford's reboot of sex education in Ontario: Same as it ever was

Much more than the Ford government, the Harper government shows us that a leader can promise not to reopen the abortion and same-sex marriage debates while still making policy decisions that undermine the rights of women and LGBTQ individuals.

So those who claim that Scheer’s positions on a woman’s right to choose and a same-sex couple’s right to marry are irrelevant so long as he refuses to reopen debate are missing the point.

Scheer’s views do not exist in a vacuum and will likely have an effect on how the country is governed if he wins on Oct. 21.

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