Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Stephen Harper's campaign for re-election is faltering. Beset by corruption scandals, a recession, embarrassing candidate outbursts and leaks of all kinds, the Conservatives are desperately looking for a way to turn things around.
For right-wing politicians, desperate times also call for dangerous measures.
Maclean’s reported yesterday that Harper has turned to the services of high-price, foreign campaign fixer Lynton Crosby, the “evil genius” who earlier this year helped the United Kingdom’s David Cameron pull off an unexpected victory. Crosby, who was once introduced to George W. Bush as “Australia’s Karl Rove,” has also worked as a lobbyist, and his firm has done work for the oil and tobacco industries, as well as other big corporate interests.
Crosby’s methods, as described in media reports, are unscrupulous and vile. His reputation for stoking racism to win elections is such that a New Zealand refugee rights group once suggested he should be banned from entering the country to work on a right-wing political campaign. He reportedly once told a client, London mayor Boris Johnson, not to bother seeking support from “fucking Muslims.” A colleague told the Guardian newspaper, “I remember him saying that if you put a headscarf around a bus, perhaps Muslims might vote for us.” In the same Guardian report, a U.K. Labour adversary explained, “The hallmarks of the Crosby campaign are negative campaigning, often around race and immigration.”
Racism and anti-immigrant rhetoric, however disguised, have no place in Canadian public discourse. The more Harper and his foreign advisor deploy these gutter tactics, the more the Canadian electorate should punish the Conservatives.
After news of Crosby's involvement broke, spokesperson Kory Teneycke told reporters that the Australian has been advising the Conservative campaign for some time.
If that's the case, it shows. Harper has already started scraping the bottom of his electoral tactics barrel.
How else can one explain Harper's cynical pivot on the issue of refugees from Syria? Faced with an outpouring of public demands for action following publication of the heartbreaking image of a drowned child, Harper responded not with compassion but with dog-whistle xenophobia.
Against all evidence, the prime minister claimed that Canada had done more than its share to resettle people displaced from Syria. On Wednesday, Harper told Canadians that our country is “the largest per capita refugee receiver in the world,” a statement which fact checks by various news organizations found to be unequivocally false. In fact we’re 41st in the world, but the Conservatives have made many misleading and sometimes false statements on this file since the crisis erupted.
In fact, the number of new refugees Canada has committed to accept is zero. Canada has had a cap on refugee resettlements of 14,000 for the past five years. Now Harper has promised to resettle 10,000 Syrians over the next four years, but without increasing the total number of refugees (as other countries, including Australia, have done) all that means is that many of our existing resettlement spots will now be reserved for refugees from one country.
“Faced with four million Syrian refugees and 20 million refugees globally,” writes Jennifer Bond in the Toronto Star, “our government’s response has been to play tricks with statistics and claim credit for things it has not done, and has no intention of doing.”
Meanwhile, Harper and other Conservatives claimed that speeding up the process by airlifting refugees without adequate screening could result in terrorists sneaking into Canada.
At least one Conservative MP, Peter Kent, circulated a photo montage on Twitter claiming to show former ISIS fighters who had entered Europe disguised as refugees. The implication of the images was that the Syrian refugee crisis was in fact some kind of dastardly Trojan Horse; the poor, huddled masses were in fact a giant sleeper cell set to pounce on countries so naive as to open their borders to refugees.
The montage was a hoax. One Syrian in the photo had actually fought with a rebel group against ISIS. (After this was pointed out to him, Kent pulled down the image.)
Surely even some within Harper’s camp must be uncomfortable with this sort of crude xenophobia?
One thing is clear from the mid-campaign import of Crosby as fixer: Harper hasn’t resigned himself to defeat in this election, and he is willing to do whatever it takes to win.
Canadian voters should not reward his campaign for dragging our political discourse ever deeper into the gutter. Any further turn to xenophobia deserves to be soundly rejected at the polling stations on Oct. 19.