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Chris Selley: A refreshing change on the campaign trail — crystal clear answers from a politician – National Post

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Erin O’Toole is selling a plan he seems to understand back to front. And that is distressingly rare in Canadian politics

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Conservative leader Erin O’Toole used an interesting word this week, at least twice, while answering questions from reporters. The word was “yes.” It’s a simple word, but Canadian politicians will often turn rhetorical cartwheels to avoid using it (or its cousin, “no”). When a reporter concludes a question with “yes or no?” it’s a near-guarantee the response won’t contain either, let alone begin with it.

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O’Toole has been asked repeatedly this week whether his support for a woman’s right to choose an abortion conflicts with his platform pledge to “protect the conscience rights of healthcare professionals.” His reasonable response: a “balanced approach” can accommodate both at the same time. Canadian society balances all kinds of competing rights every day.

On Friday in a very wet Winnipeg, though, he was asked directly whether a doctor with a conscientious objection to abortion would have to refer a woman to someone else willing to consult or perform it. “Yes,” O’Toole said, “they will have to refer, because the right to those services exists across the country.”

Crystal clear.

Twice earlier in the week, O’Toole was asked if he would be willing as prime minister to accept more than the 20,000 Afghan refugees the government has committed to resettling. Twice O’Toole said he really didn’t care about the number, but rather the people and their plights. It was a good answer. If Canada were as generous and welcoming to refugees as it likes to claim, it might not set quotas in the first place.

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But journalists like to nail down numbers, and on the third try O’Toole obliged: “Yes,” he would admit more than the 20,000.

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Clarity is by no means absolute on this campaign. The 20,000 Afghan refugees figure seems to have gotten mixed up with the issue of interpreters and others who worked with Canadian troops, diplomats and aid workers who are actually in Afghanistan right now. (The 20,000 will somehow have to make their own way out of the country.) When O’Toole said he doesn’t care how many come to Canada, he seemed to be referring specifically to the Afghans who worked with Canadians.

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On Friday, a reporter noted that O’Toole’s leadership platform promised to protect “the conscience rights of all health-care professionals whose beliefs, religious or otherwise, prevent them from carrying out or referring patients for services that violate their conscience.” Asked why his position had changed, he said it hadn’t. It clearly has.

No one expects leadership platforms to become campaign platforms in their entirety, or even in large part. Where O’Toole has changed his mind, he should explain why. He would look all the more credible for it. To take one example: His leadership campaign proposed to sell off CBC’s English-language television operations within the first term of government. Now he proposes a wholesale mandate review — long overdue, and a strong position. I think I know why he did that, but he hasn’t offered inquiring reporters an explanation.

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O’Toole isn’t a political colossus or a world-class orator. There’s plenty of chaff to go with the wheat

To be clear, O’Toole isn’t a political colossus or a world-class orator. There’s plenty of chaff to go with the wheat. But he has strong basic communications skills, which he is putting to use selling a plan that he seems to understand, believe in and know back to front. And that’s just distressingly rare in Canadian politics. God knows Andrew Scheer doesn’t have it: He met tough questions on abortion and same-sex marriage with the same verbatim sound bites every day, delivered with all the confidence of a deer caught in the headlights of an 18-wheeler.

O’Toole’s style also offers a useful contrast to Justin Trudeau’s, especially as Trudeau encounters more scrutiny than ever on the campaign trail. If you just listen to the cadences, Trudeau can sound articulate; but if you actually try to parse his words, they often crumble into dust. When it comes to not answering questions, Trudeau takes a back seat to no politician.

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I know (Trudeau) cares, but he never acts

Erin O’Toole

Policy aside, the tone of the campaign O’Toole is running is precisely what the Tories have been looking for since Stephen Harper quit. Many in the party are consumed with various grievance complexes, as if they can never get a fair shake — not from the media, not from government bureaucracy, not from the courts, not from voters. It doesn’t matter if the grievances are justified; it creates a negative cycle. Smother reporters with nonsense day after day after day, and you’re very likely to get negative headlines no matter what you’re doing. O’Toole carries no such chip on his shoulder.

Nor does O’Toole seem to loathe the prime minister in the same way many partisans do. Conservatives assume far more people detest Trudeau than actually do, just as Liberals assume far more people detest Harper than actually do. If that sentiment colours a campaign, it can turn off people who are on the fence.

“I know he cares,” O’Toole said Friday of Trudeau’s attempts at reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, “but he never acts.”

O’Toole doesn’t seem to be campaigning to liberate us from Justin Trudeau’s profligate tyranny, in other words, but simply to run a better government. It’s a refreshing change, and it’s the way forward for Conservatives no matter what happens Sept. 20.

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Uyghur refugee vote by Canada MPs angers China

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OTTAWA –

The Chinese government says a motion MPs passed Wednesday to provide asylum to persecuted Uyghurs amounts to political manipulation by Canada.

MPs including Prime Mister Justin Trudeau unanimously called on Ottawa to design a program that would bring 10,000 people of Turkic origin, including Uyghurs, to Canada from countries other than China.

They passed a motion that acknowledges reports that Uyghurs outside China have been sent back to their country of birth, where they have faced arrest as part of Beijing’s crackdown on Muslim groups.

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Foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said in Beijing that people in the Xinjiang region live in peaceful harmony, contradicting widespread reports of forced labour and sexual violence.

An English translation by the ministry said Canada should “stop politically manipulating Xinjiang-related issues for ulterior motives,” and Ottawa is “spreading disinformation and misleading the public.”

The non-binding motion said the government should come up with the outline of a resettlement program by May 12 that would begin in 2024 and meet its target within two years.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2023.

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Republicans push to remove Ilhan Omar from foreign affairs panel

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Washington, DC – In one of his first moves since becoming speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy is leading an effort to block Congresswoman Ilhan Omar from serving on the chamber’s Foreign Affairs Committee over her past criticism of Israel.

On Wednesday, the Republican majority in the House advanced a resolution to remove Omar from the panel. Democrats opposed the move, accusing McCarthy of bigotry for targeting the politician – a former refugee of Somali descent who is one of only two Muslim women serving in the US Congress.

A few Republicans initially opposed McCarthy’s effort, casting doubt over his ability to pass the resolution against Omar, given the GOP’s narrow majority.

But on Wednesday, all 218 House Republicans present voted to move forward with the measure, as Democrats remained united in support of Omar with 209 votes. A final vote is expected on Thursday as progressives rally around Omar.

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The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) defended Omar, calling her an “esteemed and invaluable” legislator.

“You cannot remove a Member of Congress from a committee simply because you do not agree with their views. This is both ludicrous and dangerous,” CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal said in a statement on Monday.

The resolution

The resolution aimed at Omar, introduced by Ohio Republican Max Miller on Tuesday, cites numerous controversies involving the congresswoman’s criticism of Israel and US foreign policy.

“Congresswoman Omar clearly cannot be an objective decision-maker on the Foreign Affairs Committee given her biases against Israel and against the Jewish people,” Miller said in a statement.

Omar retorted by saying there was nothing “objectively true” about the resolution, adding that “if not being objective is a reason to not serve on committees, no one would be on committees”.

While the Republican resolution accuses Omar of anti-Semitism, it only invokes remarks relating to Israel, not the Jewish people.

For example, the measure calls out the congresswoman for describing Israel as an “apartheid state”, although leading human rights groups – including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – have also accused Israel of imposing a system of apartheid on Palestinians.

Early in her congressional career in 2019, Omar faced a firestorm of criticism when she suggested that political donations from pro-Israel lobby groups – including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – drive support for Israel in Washington.

Omar later apologised for that remark but Palestinian rights advocates say accusations of anti-Semitism against Israel’s critics aim to stifle the debate around Israeli government policies.

In the past two years, AIPAC and other pro-Israel organisations spent millions of dollars in congressional elections to defeat progressives who support Palestinian human rights, including Michigan’s Andy Levin, a left-leaning, Jewish former House member.

‘Different standards’

Although the Democratic Party is standing behind Omar now, the Republican resolution prominently features previous criticism against the congresswoman by top Democrats.

Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, an advocacy and research group, said Republicans are trying to validate their talking points against Omar by using the statements and actions of Democrats.

“They own this,” she said of Democrats who previously attacked Omar. “They made a decision in the last few years to jump on board and score political points at Ilhan’s expense … And that decision is now the basis for the resolution that is being used to throw her off the committee.”

Friedman added that Omar and her fellow Muslim-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib are held to “different standards” when it comes to addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Both legislators were the subject of racist attacks by former President Donald Trump who in 2019 tweeted that they, along with other progressive congresswomen of colour, “should go back to the broken and crime-infested places from which they came”.

Omar in particular became a frequent target of Trump’s anti-refugee rhetoric in the lead-up to the 2020 elections. At one rally in 2019, Trump failed to intervene as his supporters chanted “send her back” in reference to Omar.

Friedman said attacks on Omar appeal to the Republican base and play well for the party politically.

“It’s a really handy way to embarrass and corner Democrats because when Democrats vote against this tomorrow, the Republican argument is going to be: ‘I don’t get it. You said all these things [against Omar]. Why are you not holding her accountable?’ Politically, this is just fantastic for them.”

For her part, Omar has remained defiant, calling McCarthy’s effort to remove her from the committee, against initial opposition from his own caucus, “pathetic”.

Yasmine Taeb, legislative and political director at MPower Change Action Fund, a Muslim-American advocacy group, praised Omar’s commitment to a “human rights-centered foreign policy”.

“Rep. Omar speaks truth to power – a rarity in Congress. And House Republican leadership would rather waste time by attacking a progressive Black Muslim woman and pushing a far-right agenda than working on addressing the needs of the American people,” Taeb told Al Jazeera in an email.

Omar has been a vocal proponent of human rights and diplomacy in Congress. While her comments about Israel often make headlines, she criticises other countries too – including those in the Middle East – for human rights violations.

Still, critics accuse her of perpetuating anti-Semitic tropes in her criticism of Israel and even allies have described some of her comments as “sloppy”, if not malicious.

On Thursday, Win Without War, a group that promotes diplomacy in US foreign policy, decried the Republican push against Omar as an attempt to strip the House Foreign Affairs Committee of a “progressive champion and skilled legislator who challenges the political status quo”.

“Rep. Omar has helped raise the bar for progressive foreign policy in Congress. She has steadfastly advocated for cuts to the Pentagon budget, held US allies accountable for human rights abuses, and confronted the racism and Islamophobia present in US foreign policy,” Win Without War executive director Sara Haghdoosti said in a statement.

Committee wars

Congressional committees serve as specialised microcosms of Congress. The panels advance legislation, conduct oversight and hold immense power over the legislative process.

Usually, the party in power appoints the chairs and majority members of committees, while the opposition party names its own legislators to the panels.

But back in 2021, Democrats voted to remove Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene from her assigned committees for past conspiratorial, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic comments.

That same year, the Democratic House majority also formally rebuked Paul Gosar, another far-right Republican, for sharing an animated video that depicted him killing Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Now, Greene is an outspoken proponent of removing Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee.

“No one should be on that committee with that stance towards Israel,” Greene said earlier this week. “In my opinion, I think it’s the wrong stance for any member of Congress of the United States – having that type of attitude towards our great ally, Israel.”

After Greene was stripped of her committee assignments, McCarthy had openly promised payback against the Democrats if they became the minority in the House, an event that came to pass in the 2022 midterm elections.

“You’ll regret this. And you may regret this a lot sooner than you think,” McCarthy said at that time.

The newly elected speaker has also blocked Democrats Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell from joining the intelligence committee. Schiff was the former chair of the panel.

Meanwhile, Republican Congressman George Santos, who is facing calls to step down for lying about his heritage and professional and personal history, “temporarily recused” himself from committee assignments as he is being investigated over his campaign conduct.

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Former interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen steps down as MP

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Member of Parliament and former interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen has resigned her seat in the House of Commons.

Bergen, 58, has represented the Manitoba riding of Portage—Lisgar since 2008. She served as interim leader of the Conservatives and leader of the Opposition from February to September 2022. Prior to that, she served as deputy leader of the Conservatives.

In a video posted to Twitter Wednesday, Bergen said she has submitted a letter of resignation, “ending an incredible and very fulfilling 14 years.”

Bergen thanked her constituents, family, volunteers, staff and political colleagues “on both sides of the aisle, regardless of your political stripe.”

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Bergen announced in September of last year that she would not seek reelection. Pierre Poilievre replaced her as Conservative leader that month.

Bergen did not give a specific reason for her resignation and did not mention any future plans.

“I’m choosing to leave now not because I’m tired or I’ve run out of steam. In fact, it’s the exact opposite,” she said in the video.

“I feel hopeful and re-energized. Hopeful for our strong and united Conservative Party, and our caucus, under the courageous and principled leadership of my friend, Pierre Poilievre.”

Bergen ended her goodbye message on a hopeful note.

“With God’s grace and God’s help, I believe that the best is yet to come. Thank you so much Portage—Lisgar, and thank you Canada.”

The Toronto Star was the first to report the story.

“On behalf of the Conservative Party of Canada, thank you Candice for your leadership, your devotion to our Conservative movement and your service to the people of Portage—Lisgar, and all Canadians,” Poilievre said in a tweet Wednesday.

The news means there will be a byelection in Portage—Lisgar to replace Bergen.

Manitoba Finance Minister Cameron Friesen announced last week that he’d step down as an MLA to seek the federal Conservative nomination in the riding.

The death of MP Jim Carr late last year set up a byelection in another Manitoba riding — Winnipeg South Centre. The Alberta riding of Calgary Heritage and the Ontario riding of Oxford are also up for byelections later this year.

“I thank her for her many years of service,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said of Bergen in a media scrum Wednesday.

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