Advocacy News - Harper's social agenda gets red light
January 24, 2006
Harper's social agenda gets red light
By Kevin Bourassa and Joe Varnell
A narrow victory for Canada’s Conservative Party demonstrates that Canada is unwilling to commit to Stephen Harper’s social agenda, leaving him without a mandate to impose a right-wing “revolution” on this country and its citizens. Harper won last night’s election with 124 seats in Parliament, followed by the Liberals’ 103 seats, the Bloc’s 51 seats, and the NDP’s 29 seats (an independent Member of Parliament secured the last remaining seat).
The Tories did poorly in urban areas across the country, including Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, and Halifax.
“In the city of Toronto proper, the Conservatives were shut out completely once again,” wrote Thomas Walkom (“Red Toronto Stays True to Form”) in today’s Toronto Star. “Even in the so-called 905 region around Toronto, the Conservatives picked up only two more seats. In making these choices, voters confounded the pollsters, who in the final days leading to yesterday's election, predicted Harper's Conservatives would make major gains in the most populous region of the country.”
On the east coast, voter rejection of the Conservative Party encompassed non-urban areas too.
“Atlantic Canada stayed loyal to the Liberal party last night, rejecting the call for change in favour of the status quo," reported Kelly Toughill ("Liberals Hold on in Atlantic Canada") in today's Toronto Star. "Voters in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island almost duplicated their choices from the 2004 election, sending incumbents or their political heirs back to Ottawa in all but two of the region's 32 seats.”
Narrow victory = limited power
In opposition, Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party fought equality for gays and lesbians, they attacked the rights protected by the Canadian Charter, and they attacked the Supreme Court of Canada. But while these positions played to his constituency base of social conservatives, they kept him from becoming Prime Minister, most notably in 2004, despite widespread dissatisfaction with the governing Liberal Party.
Learning from that defeat, Harper had a makeover in order to appeal to a broader spectrum of voters. The new improved Harper portrayed the Conservative party as being moderate. This time around, many of the extremist Conservative candidates were kept in the closet, successfully avoiding revealing moments like the one given by former Conservative MP Randy White during the previous campaign.
“In stage managing and scriptwriting worthy of Shakespeare, Tory candidates in the scads of swing seats in Ontario emphasized in explicit terms they were definitely not Reformers or Alliance, no disciples of Manning, Day or the unreconstructed Harper, but Conservatives, very much like the old Progressive Conservatives Ontarians elected two decades ago. Luminaries of the old PC party in Ontario rose from the political grave and vouched for Harper's centrist credentials. Right-wing candidates in the province made themselves scarce in the face of any questioning from the national press. But even all these accommodations were not enough for some souls entering the ballot box," wrote Rick Bell ("Ontario Blinks") in today's Calgary Sun.
The strategy of moving the Conservative Party towards the center of the political spectrum worked, in terms of getting Harper elected - just - but voters left Harper hobbled when it comes to implementing any extreme measures.
“Canadians streamed to the polls on an unusually mild winter day first to toss out tired and tainted Liberals and then to impose onerous conditions on Conservatives and their 46-year-old leader. They gave Liberals and the resurgent NDP the strength to defeat this minority, a dynamic that makes the Bloc Québécois the wildcard and should make Canadians breathe easier about any real or imagined neo-conservative threat to social values … But the country doesn't have to worry about the secret agenda Liberals insisted Conservatives would impose. This government's hold on power is simply too shaky to permit any wild deviations from the consensual course. That's the balance voters struck by opting for change with very little risk,” writes columnist James Travers in today's Toronto Star.
Harper, as Prime Minister, cannot operate as he has in opposition. As leader of this country, if he wishes to hold on to power, he will have to continue restraining the anti-gay faction of his rookie minority government.
A CBC/Environics poll released today confirmed that 66% of people who voted for the Conservative party say that same-sex marriage should not be brought back to vote.
“Now, more than ever, Mr. Harper will have to keep his social conservative wing happy while ensuring its members don't hijack his governing agenda with controversial notions … like the repeal of same-sex marriage or the reform of the Senate -- because the mandate he received last night is not nearly broad enough. Not only does the party lack significant representation in urban Canada, it fell short in Atlantic Canada and still maintains only a bridgehead in Quebec ... Although Mr. Harper is obligated to hold a free vote on repealing the [equal marriage] law, the timing of the vote and the ardour with which he pushes it forward is crucial. Sources said Mr. Harper does not plan to introduce a free vote until the fall parliamentary session, well after he has already passed more symbolic populist legislation like the GST cut. The fact is though, that a vote will happen, creating at least some controversial debate. The Tory strategy may well be to stay low, but they may have trouble doing so," wrote Brian Leghi ("Forget fundamentals, Harper faces pressure to show he’s evolved”) in today's Globe and Mail.
Because Harper’s hold on power is so precarious and based on his proclaimed realignment from far-right to centre, the new Prime Minister is expected to restrain the extremists in his party.
“Just as movement toward the political centre has benefited the Tories, the biggest challenge for a Harper government will be to restrain the more socially conservative elements of the party. The first test case may be the same-sex marriage issue: Harper wants to reopen the debate and have a free vote in Parliament. If the Tories turn back the clock on this human-rights issue, they may find that their newly-found popularity is short-lived indeed. Social conservatism has never played well in Canada, particularly in Quebec where Harper must make inroads to ensure any lasting political legacy. Harper should acknowledge that a critically important value for our country is the extension of equal rights and responsibilities to all Canadians, including individuals who have traditionally been marginalized by social and political institutions,” writes Arthur Cockfield in today's Toronto Star.
For now, same-sex marriage remains free from attack and merely under threat from a hobbled Conservative Party. Respect for human rights will remain a hallmark of Canada. Gay marriage remains a defining element of Canada's "brand" as long as Canada values tolerance and diversity.
An editorial in the conservative National Post advises the new government in today's editorial: “Mr. Harper has presented Canadians with the image of a party of fiscal conservative convictions, but also a party of social moderation. He must now move judiciously, with the same kind of patience and intelligence he has demonstrated as opposition leader, to fulfill these expectations. He must resist the pleadings of his more doctrinaire supporters who would seek to impose their social values on others.”
Harper's actions during his limited debut as Prime Minister will be scrutinized by friends and foe alike. We will continue to monitor the threat against same-sex marriage, but we do not view the election results as being cause for any immediate alarm. If Harper likes power, he'll keep his hands off of gay rights. And if he doesn't, early warning alarms will be triggered across this country.
CUPE, the union of government employees, has already put Mr. Harper on notice:
"CUPE will be watching Harper closely to make sure his hard-right agenda does not hurt Canadians,” said Paul Moist, national president of the Canadian Union of Public employees in a Canada News Wire press release. "Harper kept the right-wing of his party muzzled to get elected, so we'll be keeping a close eye on them to make sure they stay that way. His lukewarm minority mandate does not give him permission to privatize health care, unravel child care agreements with the provinces or cancel funding for Aboriginal communities, nor to diminish civil and labour rights."
As with the previous election, that also resulted in a minority government, the campaign for the majority of Canadian votes in the next election begins today.