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Unsettling Canada

by Raymond J. De Souza

For Canada’s social conservatives, the recent federal election offered cause for encouragement, cause for anxiety, and cause for alarm. That one election could produce such unsettled and unsettling results is evidence of what a tumultuous year it has been in Canadian politics.

Since 1993, the Liberal Party of Canada has dominated the federal scene, winning large majority governments in 1993, 1997, and 2000. Liberal dominance under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was owing to several factors: Chrétien’s personal popularity, a prosperous economy, record budgetary surpluses, and an opposition that was fractured between two political parties on the center-right–the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives. The former was a new, self-consciously conservative party with a strong base in western Canada. The latter was the rump of a one-hundred-fifty-year-old party that had given Canada prime ministers such as Sir John A. MacDonald and Brian Mulroney but that had been reduced to a shrinking base in Atlantic Canada. It was decidedly more progressive than conservative.

With the continued failure of efforts to “unite the right” and with the replacement of Jean Chrétien by the even more popular Paul Martin, formerly finance minister, it was thought as recently as a year ago that the Liberals would take another majority in the next election and perhaps would even take more than two hundred out of 308 seats.

Instead, on June 28, 2004, Paul Martin managed to squeeze out only a minority government, claiming just 135 seats–a significant setback. The Liberals will now have to rely on the votes of one or more of the other parties to pass any legislation. But they were relieved to have survived in power at all. What happened between the summers of 2003 and 2004?

One important development was the unification of the right. Through skillful diplomacy, Stephen Harper, the leader of the Canadian Alliance, managed to pull off a merger of his party with the Progressive Conservative remnants to create, in December 2003, a new “Conservative Party” (the “Progressive” part of the old name being cast aside). In March 2004, Mr. Harper won the leadership of this new party, which offered Canadians a leader who was unapologetically conservative on fiscal and economic issues, committed to a more pro-American foreign policy, and open to social conservatism–he was against same-sex marriage and amenable to a debate about trimming Canada’s unlimited abortion license.

Meanwhile, a major corruption scandal erupted beneath the Liberal government when it was revealed that as much as one hundred million Canadian dollars in advertising commissions had been paid to firms with connections to the Liberal Party for doing little or no work. The scandal rocked the Liberal Party, especially in Quebec, where the corrupt deals had been done.

The results of June 28 reflected both developments. The Conservative Party, no longer plagued by vote-splitting between two parties, increased its seat total to ninety-nine and the Liberal Party was trounced in Quebec by the Bloc Québécois, as angry voters shifted to Quebec’s nationalist/separatist party.

The Liberal Party of Canada ruled Canada for seventy years in the twentieth century. It even came to be known as the Natural Governing Party for its string of successes. In the 1990s, the fractured opposition made it not only likely but practically inevitable that the Liberals would govern. Now functioning democracy has returned to Canada and real choices are available to Canadians, which is cause for encouragement. While the Liberals are self-consciously pragmatic and claim to eschew ideology of any kind, Mr. Harper is a true conservative who is philosophically committed to smaller government, a more entrepreneurial economy, and a state that does not impose social innovations on the culture.

Nevertheless, despite their gains, Canada’s conservatives still had cause for anxiety after election night. In the early weeks of the election campaign the Conservatives had surged, and many of their supporters had gone to the polls hoping to elect a minority government of their own. That the Liberals clung to power was a bitter disappointment.

In the face of this Conservative surge, the Liberals had employed a favorite tactic of the aggressively secularist Jean Chrétien, who liked to paint his conservative opponents as threats to what he called the “social peace” achieved on the abortion license and other controversial social issues. The Liberals attacked Mr. Harper as a “threat to a woman’s right to choose” and a man who wanted to re-ignite divisive issues. The Conservatives played down the whole issue, saying that while the party had no plans to introduce legislation on abortion, individual members of Parliament would be free to do so if they wished. Mr. Martin raised the stakes, saying in effect that he would not permit Liberal MPs to touch the abortion license in any way.

Interestingly, though, these Liberal charges regarding abortion and similar ones about same-sex marriage did not reverse the Conservative surge. Seeing this, the Liberals began to frame the issue differently, claiming that the Conservatives would weaken the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (Part of the constitutional reforms of 1982, the Charter is analogous to the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights.) Under Canada’s adventurous judiciary, the Charter has become the primary vehicle for imposing social liberalism. It enjoys stratospheric levels of support in Canadian public opinion (as would the Bill of Rights among Americans), so these attacks were damaging. At the same time, a similar attack was launched with respect to health care–another sacred cow of Canadian politics–with Liberals suggesting that the Conservatives would privatize parts of the publicly funded health system.

While the winning campaign strategy of the Liberals was itself a cause for anxiety among social conservatives, the post-election analysis was more so. Pundit after pundit argued that it was social conservatism that caused the Conservative campaign to stall. The generally conservative National Post even offered an unconditional surrender on these issues: “The fact is that Canada is a socially liberal nation: if he hopes to win in the future, Mr. Harper will need to leave no doubt about his party’s positions on issues such as abortion and gay rights–perhaps even going so far as embracing gay marriage as a means to take the bigot card away from the Liberals.”

A consensus quickly emerged across the commentariat that social conservatism is a sure loser in federal politics. While the survey data say otherwise–polls do not show a majority of Canadians in favor of same-sex marriage or the unlimited abortion license–this consensus in the media will make it difficult to raise such issues without immediately encountering the charge of extremism. Canada’s major national media are smaller, more ideologically leftist, and more homogeneous than the U.S. media, and if they have agreed that socially conservative statements constitute an ipso facto campaign gaffe, then it is undeniable that a major obstacle has been established.

Also worrisome is the effectiveness of the “Charter strategy” that the Liberals employed. While survey data need to be further examined, it appears that the popularity of the Charter itself is readily transferred to all the decisions of the Supreme Court, even if they fly in the face of public opinion on the particular issue in dispute. Same-sex marriage, for example, does not enjoy majority support in Canada, but it appears that doing what is necessary to protect traditional marriage–namely, reining in the courts in some fashion–can be conveniently portrayed as an attack on the Charter itself, which has come to occupy a central place in Canada’s search for national identity. As Justice Ian Binnie of the Supreme Court said last April in a breathtaking analysis of the Charter’s place in Canadian public life: “There was slow recognition that the Charter really would change the way society functions. It’s the glue that holds the country together. We have no common origins, we have no common language; we now associate who we are with the rights we have as Canadians.”

To hear the principal warrant for social engineering by the judiciary called the country’s “glue” is disturbing enough. Beyond that, however, there is cause for genuine alarm in the Liberal Party’s new forthrightness under Mr. Martin, whose support of both unlimited abortion and same-sex marriage in his campaign against the Conservatives was a departure from the norm. Heretofore, both the Liberals and Conservatives had adopted a neutral stance on contested “moral” issues, leaving individual MPs free to vote as they wished. Mr. Chrétien had moved the Liberals toward a more pro-abortion position in the 2000 election campaign, but it was not a central theme, and he dropped it after the election. Mr. Martin had previously fostered an image of himself as a devout Catholic who was more reticent than Mr. Chrétien about the liberal social agenda. During the 2004 campaign, however, he came out so clearly for the abortion license and same-sex marriage that he earned a public rebuke from several Catholic bishops.

The Liberal Party includes a large proportion of voters who vote Liberal for economic reasons, but who are rather traditional on social matters. The Liberals themselves voted in 1999 in favor of traditional marriage–a vote that included Messrs. Chrétien and Martin. In 2003, the Liberal cabinet reversed itself and declared support for same-sex marriage, but more than fifty Liberal backbenchers refused to toe the new party line. Many Liberal MPs also refused to support a recent Liberal bill that allows embryonic stem cell research while banning cloning and the creation of embryos for research purposes (the bill passed anyway).

The Liberal Party is not monolithic and has, up to now, left room for pro-life, pro-family MPs. The recent campaign suggests that this may no longer be the case. What that will mean for the Liberal Party remains to be seen, but it would be an alarming development if Canada’s Natural Governing Party declared itself squarely in support of the libertarian orthodoxy on social issues and refused to allow its pro-life members a significant role in the Party.

The upshot may be that social conservatives in Canada will slowly be purged from the Liberal Party and will ultimately survive in the Conservative Party only if they agree not to press their issues too forcefully, if at all. But it is difficult to say at this moment exactly how bleak the outlook really is. Since the election, Mr. Martin appears to be devoting his attention to other issues, with health care being first among them. There remain many Liberal Party backbenchers whose social conservatism did not prevent them from being re-elected, even though it may be keeping them out of Mr. Martin’s inner circle. Mr. Martin will not want to alienate them irretrievably, given his party’s unstable minority in Parliament. On the Conservative side, many of the brightest and most politically savvy MPs are stalwarts of social conservatism–and many of them are young–so it is unlikely that they will be completely silenced or pushed out, media preferences notwithstanding.

With the Liberals’ minority government now vulnerable to the combined opposition of Canada’s other parties, it will likely be only another year or two before Canadians head back to the polls. It is also likely that the next campaign will clarify the status of social conservatism in Canada. After the next election, the mix of encouragement, anxiety, and alarm that social conservatives now feel may give way to a less ambiguous result.

Raymond J. de Souza, a prominent commentator on Canadian affairs, is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.

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