OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer sowed more confusion Thursday about his party’s stance on abortion, telling reporters his backbench MPs will be allowed to introduce anti-abortion bills, but he will oppose any such measures.
“These issues will not be reopened by a Conservative government,” Scheer declared at a press conference called to address questions about his social conservative views, which have dogged him for the past week.
Scheer blamed the Liberals for trying to focus on divisive issues in an effort to distract from what he called Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “litany of failures,” listing his government’s tax increase, ethical scandals, and massive deficits.
But some of the wounds have been self-inflicted. On Monday, HuffPost Canada first broke the news that Scheer’s Quebec lieutenant had been misrepresenting the party’s position on abortion in the province.
Alain Rayes, MP for Richmond–Arthabaska, told HuffPost on Monday morning that Scheer’s position had changed since winning the Tory leadership in 2017. Over the weekend, in an interview published in Le Journal de Montréal, Rayes said, “Andrew Scheer has confirmed that he will not allow even one of his MPs to present an anti-abortion bill.”
That position was reiterated by star candidate Sylvie Fréchette, with Rayes at her side, telling the Radio-Canada program “Tout un matin” it was “false” Tory MPs would be allowed to reopen the issue.
“That’s totally false,” said the former Olympian and contender in Rivière-du-Nord.
Scheer’s office told HuffPost that Rayes had made those comments — to the candidates he was charged with recruiting and to the public — “based on something he misheard.”
““I will not reopen this debate.”
The leader’s position remains the same, according to Brock Harrison, Scheer’s director of communications. Rayes subsequently told HuffPost he was “sorry for any confusion.”
On Thursday, Scheer repeated that his government would not re-open the issue by tabling anti-abortion legislation, but, he said, “individual MPs have the right to express themselves on matters of conscience.” Scheer’s long-standing position is that backbench MPs can make statements and introduce anti-abortion bills, and all Conservative MPs are free to vote as they wish on such matters.
Nothing has changed for Tories on this issue, Scheer said. A Conservative government led by him would operate under the same principles as under former prime minister Stephen Harper, he said. Under Harper, one motion and three bills were tabled by the small but vocal anti-abortion Tory caucus. They were all defeated. As Speaker in the House of Commons at the time, Scheer could not vote.
“I will not reopen this debate. I will oppose measures or attempts to reopen this debate and Canadians can have confidence in that. A Conservative government will not reopen this debate, we will oppose measures that reopen these types of questions,” Scheer said.
Scheer won the Tory leadership in 2017 with the support of anti-abortion activists. Many, such as the groups Campaign Life Coalition and RightNow, have been working to nominate “pro-life” candidates and knocking on doors to elect MPs that will re-open the debate.
From 2017: Founder of RightNow says it’s time federal politicians listen to critics of abortion. Story continues after video.
But when asked what Scheer would do if a backbench MP did table anti-abortion legislation, he declined to answer. Scheer said his team understands there is a diversity of opinions among his caucus.
“We are the only party that allows people to hold a deeply personal view on these types of issues.”
Still, Scheer said, he was “confident that my party, my caucus, understands” his promise not to reopen the issue.
When asked how he would vote if a bill came to the floor of the House, the Roman Catholic with a perfect “pro-life” record, called it a “hypothetical” question.
“As prime minister of Canada, I will govern for all Canadians,” he later said.
His office offered a statement later Thursday saying that while Conservative MPs are free to represent their constituents and vote their conscience, the “government’s position on such a vote would be to oppose any attempt to reopen the issue,” Harrison said by email.
While Scheer would not whip his cabinet, Harrison said: “Mr. Scheer would certainly expect cabinet to support the government position.”
Scheer said he would ‘always support equality rights’
Scheer was also asked during his press conference about a 2005 video unearthed by the Liberals last week in which the Tory leader opposed gay marriage on the grounds that a marriage could only be between a man and a woman and result in children.
The Grits said they pushed out the video to pressure Scheer to show his commitment to LGBTQ rights by participating in Ottawa’s Pride parade. Scheer has never walked in a Pride parade.
On Thursday, the Tory leader sidestepped a question on whether his thinking had changed from the video. He said he would “always support equality rights for all Canadians, including LGBT Canadians.”
Gay marriage is settled, Scheer said, adding, “Today it is law of the land, and I will always uphold that law.”