2004 Election – Voters, Think Long and Hard…

Someday soon Canadians will find themselves in the midst of an election campaign, the results of which could prove to have far more implications for the future of Canada and Canadian society than many people might think. Indications are the Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound riding, like others in rural, small-town Ontario could play a decisive key role in the outcome. So local voters will bear a heavy burden of responsibility. There are many things they will want to think long and hard about before casting their ballots, including integrity in government and who’s likely to do the best job of governing for the good of all Canadians, rather than the benefit of a select group of cronies. But here are a couple of other things local voters might also want to consider:

A minority government led by either the Liberals or the new Conservative Party of Canada, with the Bloc Quebecois holding the balance of power now seems likely. And the “nightmare scenario” spoken of in this space weeks ago, of a country divided politically along predominantly English-speaking and French-speaking lines, is also a distinct possibility.

Through some miracle of intuitive wisdom, Canadians until now have had a long history of electing national governments on the basis of political parties that had broad appeal to voters across the country, including Quebec. Otherwise, the country would not have survived as long as it has, let alone survived the most recent national unity crisis, the Quebec sovereignty referendum of 1995 won by the No side by the thinnest of margins. The separatist Bloc Quebecois is gaining ground in Quebec at the expense of the scandal-plagued federal Liberals. But anti-Quebec sentiment in parts of English-speaking Canada is as big a threat to the unity of the country as the Quebec sovereignty movement. The appearance of “no more Prime Ministers from Quebec” signs along some local roadsides and similar advertising by the Reform Party in the 1997 federal election was a disgrace. Stephen Harper, the newly elected bilingual leader of the new Conservative party, won’t make that mistake. He’s too smart. But he has a tremendous amount of work to do in Quebec to prove to voters there, and everywhere else in Canada for that matter, that the Conservatives are a bona fide national party worthy of governing this country.

Meanwhile, the coming election campaign could be a turning point for Canadian conservatism, away from the traditionally cautious, consensus-building approach that’s part of Canada’s parliamentary heritage, towards a more extreme brand of religious-based social conservatism that currently wields a lot of political power in the United States.

It’s important to differentiate here between so-called fiscal and social conservatives. Fiscal conservatives focus on cutting taxes, balancing budgets and generally reducing the size of government in favour of private enterprise and individual self-reliance. They may share some of the “family values” views of social conservatives. But they tend to keep a safe political distance from the more extreme attitudes toward such things as homosexuality and abortion. Opposition to both is fundamental to the social conservative movement. The recent campaign for the leadership of the new party was, as far as social conservatives were concerned, a battle between them and fiscal conservatives. Take, for example, this excerpt from an article published on the web site of REAL Women, a Canadian organization that espouses social conservative views:

“It is crucial that Ms. (Belinda) Stronach not be elected leader of the Conservative party. Consequently, it is important to look to the other two candidates, MP Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest) and Tony Clement, former Minister of Health in Ontario’s recently defeated Conservative government. Mr. Clement lost his provincial seat in that election.

Although REAL Women is non-partisan, and cannot take an outright position on any of the candidates, we can, nonetheless, bring to the attention of others, information on the candidates. None of the three candidates is pro-life. Mr. Harper and Mr. Clement are on record as supporting the traditional definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Ms. Stronach supports same-sex marriage.

There are differences in the political history of Mr. Harper and Mr. Clement, however. The difference is that Mr. Clement was a member of the Ontario Conservative Cabinet in October 1999, when it amended the 67 provincial statutes to provide “marital” benefits to homosexual/lesbian partners. He was also a part of the Cabinet which appointed homosexual, Keith Norton, as Chairman of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, despite many letters protesting the appointment. Consequently, we can take no comfort from his present position on the same-sex marriage issue. Mr. Harper, on the other hand brought in the Motion on September 16, 2003, in the House of Commons, in support of the traditional definition of marriage. If Mr. Harper is elected leader, it is likely that most of its social conservative members will remain in the party. Should Ms. Stronach obtain the leadership, then the social conservatives would probably not have a home in the party.

It is important, therefore, that social conservatives become involved in this crucial leadership campaign if we wish to have conservative social values promoted in Canada.”

The article went on to note “the key battleground in this campaign, as usual, is the province of Ontario.”

As we know, Stephen Harper won the Conservative leadership by a wide margin, wide enough perhaps that he doesn’t carry too much of that kind of social conservative baggage. Hopefully none. To his credit Harper is making efforts to moderate the polices of the new party and ferret out the sort of extremism that damaged the image of the former Reform Party of Canada and its successor the Canadian Alliance. Under Paul Martin as Finance Minister and now as Prime Minister Liberal governments co-opted much of the fiscal conservative agenda of balanced budgets, debt reduction and tax cuts. But a lot of whatever credibility the Liberals gained as a result has been squandered by the sponsorship scandal. That’s given the Harper-led Conservatives the opportunity to retake the fiscal conservative ground in the upcoming election campaign. And that may help the new party avoid the perils of the social conservative agenda.

Canada is not the United States. This finely balanced country was founded on the basis of understanding and consensus. It is still a work in progress, but it works. It is a special place with unique political and social dynamics. It is strong, but also fragile. It needs to be treated thoughtfully and with great care. It does not need the politics of intolerance, polarization, and divisiveness. Voters need to think hard about who can best govern such a country. Clearly, it’s not going to be an easy choice; nor should it be.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2004.

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