Months after he was chosen to lead the federal Conservative Party, MP and Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Scheer, has created controversy with his pick to run his campaign. Scheer has chosen Hamish Marshall, a former corporate director of the media website The Rebel Media. The Rebel, as it is commonly known, has come under intense scrutiny in recent months following a number of controversial actions from the company.
The Rebel was founded in February 2015 by Ezra Levant, who has formerly worked for the Western Standard and Sun News Network. Levant himself has had a colourful history in Canadian media, having been threatened to be, and successfully, sued by numerous individuals for libel over the course of his career, as well as being censored by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council for ‘offensive comments’. The Rebel was founded by Levant as a far-right news network, which describes itself as a “counter-jihad” organization. VICE News and Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes is a contributor to The Rebel, who has also generated controversy for alleged transphobic and sexist statements. Faith Goldy, another contributor for The Rebel, drew enormous controversy for her coverage of the demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017. Many believed her reporting from Charlottesville was sympathetic to the cause of the white nationalist and Neo-Nazi demonstrators.
Due to the site’s stated views (including their denial of climate science and anti-Muslim beliefs) and involvement in various controversies, more than 30 advertisers have withdrawn from the corporation, notably General Motors Canada, the Royal Canadian Mint, Volkswagen Canada, and Penguin Books. The site and its contributors have frequently been denounced and denied press privileges by Conservative politicians, including former leadership contender MP Michael Chong. In fact, following the coverage of the white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, Scheer himself has also promised not to conduct interviews with The Rebel.
However, last week Scheer announced that Hamish Marshall would join the Conservative Party as the campaign manager for the 2019 general election, in which Scheer will compete with Liberal Party leader and current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. While Scheer has pleaded ignorance of Marshall’s previous media work, the Conservative Party has made an official statement to the Globe & Mail claiming Scheer did in fact have knowledge of Marshall’s work with The Rebel.
During his time as corporate director with The Rebel, Marshall helped with editorial decisions, made fundraising and petitioning efforts on behalf of causes The Rebel supported, and has assisted Levant with political projects outside of work in media.
Matthew Hennigar, an associate professor in the faculty of Political Science at Brock, spoke about the recent appointment of Marshall to lead the campaign. Professor Hennigar, whose research focuses in Canadian politics and comparative politics as well as public law, spoke of Marshall’s qualifications run a federal campaign.
“[Marshall] certainly has experience designing media strategy and conducting polls, through his company Torch, and previously for Angus Reid, The Rebel, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and for Scheer during his leadership campaign. That last point, and his recent appointment, helps explain why Scheer appeared reluctant to distance the Conservative Party from Rebel, even after its shockingly offensive coverage of the white supremacist rally in Charlotte”, Professor Hennigar stated. Professor Hennigar also noted the implications the appointment has for the Conservative Party.
“If nothing else, I think it’s telling that the current Conservative leader looks to that part of the broader conservative community, and not more-moderate or traditional conservatives, to recruit his top campaign official.” Hennigar explained. “It’s even more notable that Scheer made the choice when he appears to understand that the optics of the appointment are poor, downplaying Marshall’s connection to Rebel, and walking out of a press conference when pressed on the issue.”
As far as the possible electoral effects of this appointment, Hennigar offered a few more thoughts.
“I suspect this signals that the Conservative campaign will have a negative tone with heavy use of attack ads. Whether that will be effective, or backfire as it did in 2015, only time will tell”, Hennigar theorized. “Secondly, it makes me wonder if the Conservatives are planning to follow in the footsteps of Bannon and Trump and intensify their nativist appeals, presumably through the anti-Islamic rhetoric for which Rebel Media is infamous. Could such a strategy work? That’s even harder to predict. That strategy would shore up support amongst many in the Conservative base, but seems unlikely to broaden the party’s appeal to the more-moderate voters its needs to topple the Liberals.”