Canadian Conservative ties to Hungary and Orbán are cause for concern

OPINION: The Danube Institute treated a group of Conservatives to a lavish trip, part of what could be a slippery ideological slope

One particular story has been lurking under the surface for the past couple of months, which was how a group of Conservatives took a fairly lavish trip to London courtesy of the Danube Institute. While the Liberals, in particular, enjoy pointing out just what kinds of bills these MPs racked up courtesy of the Institute, particularly because there is some value in pointing out the hypocrisy of the same party that makes hay out of things like the cost of doing business for a G7 government, the real concern here is the Institute and what it represents.

The Danube Institute is funded by the Hungarian government, and claims to be dedicated to “a respectful conservatism in cultural, religious and social life, the broad classical liberal tradition in economics and a realistic Atlanticism in national security policy,” with a recently added fourth commitment of “exploring and extending the related concepts of democracy and patriotism.” This may seem blandly high-minded, but the talk about conservatism in cultural, religious and social life manifests itself in a far less high-minded way as it plays out in Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Hungary.

Orbán has been in the business of demonizing refugees and migrants, especially Muslims, with some particularly distasteful remarks about racial purity, and has leaned heavily into antisemitic conspiracy theories, whether it’s around the so-called “Great Replacement Theory” or other conspiracies related to George Soros. (Orbán waged a particular war against the Soros-funded Central European University, which was run by Canadian academic and former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, ultimately forcing the institution out of the country.) And true to form, Orbán has also been targeting the queer and trans communities in Hungary, with laws against so-called “gay propaganda” that mirror those seen in places like Russia, along with other laws restricting queer families or gender recognition.

As an example of this kind of repression, the director of the national museum in Budapest was recently fired because the institution hosted the World Press Photo exhibition—which included five photos that depict elderly queer and trans people in the Philippines, some of whom are in drag. This violates Hungary’s 2021 “child protection law,” which is as censorious as it sounds. Earlier this summer, a Hungarian bookstore was fined for selling the graphic novel Heartstopper, which is about as wholesome a depiction of queer teen romance as possible, but even that is too much for these repressive laws.

 

If the “child protection law” sounds familiar, it’s because it inspired Ron DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” law in Florida. In fact, Republicans in the United States have been enamoured of Orbán and have been falling all over themselves to take his lessons, going so far as to host the Conservative Political Action Conference in Budapest. MAGA Republicans have been particularly interested in Orbán’s promotion of “illiberal democracy,” which he claims is a more “eastern” approach. Whereas “western” democracy is based on liberal values and accountability, Orbán’s approach is based on a strong state, a weak opposition and inadequate checks and balances. He restricted the judiciary thanks to constitutional changes he pushed through, which then allowed him to gerrymander voting districts. All of this sounds terribly appealing to MAGA Republicans, as well as a number of other far-right European leaders who are chafing under the human rights rules of the European Union—rules that Hungary is increasingly flouting.

These are all things that the Danube Institute is promoting under the guise of “respectful conservatism,” as they engage across the western world. For example, the Institute recently co-sponsored an event that hosted “Freedom Convoy” leader Tamara Lich, along with other far-right European Leaders and MAGA Republicans. In April, the executive director of the Institute was invited to speak at the Tennessee state senate, which has been called an attempt to import Orbánism to the United States. This is the same state that has banned drag performances, passed an abortion law without exceptions, has been working to ban gender-affirming care for trans youth and is trying to ban all mention of queer and trans people in school curriculums.

For another Canadian connection, former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper has been cozying up to Orbán through his chairmanship of the International Democracy Union (which is not some kind of Bond-villain-esque organization as some like to claim, but is merely a social club for terrible people). Harper likes to insist that Orbán leads a “centre-right party” (which he also says about Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, whose party has literal fascist roots), which serves to both sanitize what Orbán and Meloni are doing, but also creates a “permission structure” on the political right that helps to shift the Overton window of acceptable speech, and makes it easier for actual centre-right parties to get pulled further to the right, such as what has been happening to the Conservatives in Canada.

This is why it matters that the Danube Institute has been treating Canadian MPs to lavish trips—because it’s the kind of influence that we should be extremely wary of. As the moral panics around trans youth in Canada manifests itself as so-called “parental rights,” or provincial governments restricting sex-ed in ways that specifically disadvantage queer and trans youth, we seem to be inching ever closer to these kinds of “child protection laws” that Orbán is promoting, which are then excused by leaders like Pierre Poilievre as demanding to let parents raise children without the influence of “radical gender ideology.” The slope is very slippery, and we can’t pretend that these toxic influences are seeping into the political discourse in this country—because it’s already here. We need our leaders to do more to push back than simply recite platitudes that “hate has no place in Canada.” That’s no longer enough to the scale of the dangers facing our democracy and our rights.

Dale Smith is a freelance journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery and author of The Unbroken Machine: Canada's Democracy in Action.

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