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Will Harper abandon the Conservatives?

The Globe's view

An editorial in the Globe and Mail for December 8, 2003 congratulated the Conservatives on being united again but said their hope to succeed the Paul Martin Liberals would depend on what kind of party it was. What Canada has lacked all these years, it said, was a credible party of the moderate centre-right: Canada is a moderate country, and Canadians are a moderate people. If the new party is to succeed, it must land in between--smack in the centre right: "That is the only spot where it can hope to hit political pay dirt."

The first job, the paper continued, is to put the jacks back in the box. "A winning modern conservative party must be fiscally conservative but socially tolerant. If the new party clings to the social conservatism of many of its Alliance forebears, voters will see it as merely a re-labelled Alliance party, which in turn would be political poison. There is plenty of fertile turf for the new conservative party to roam without venturing into the quicksand of social conservatism. Leaner government, lower taxes, freer trade, a stronger military, more efficient social programs--these can be its rallying cries."

What is Conservatism?

Is a series of economic measures the best the Conservative Party can do to stir up support from Canadians? Many people would argue that if you avoid the "quicksand of social conservatism" you are avoiding conservatism entirely. As Ian Hunter has written ("Liberal, Tory, same old story," C.I., September 2004, p. 12), since the election of June 28, 2004, those twin bastions of acceptable orthodoxy, the Star and the Globe, have been incessantly demanding that the Conservative Party cease trying to offer anything conservative and become instead another liberal party.

In his book The Politics of Prudence, the late Russell Kirk, a major American conservative thinker, sets down ten conservative principles, and it is not until he gets to the seventh that he brings in leaner government, freer trade, and the other practical matters that the Globe considers the essentials of conservatism. First, he says, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. Second, he writes, the conservative adheres to custom, convention and continuity. The Post chimes in

Many of those offering advice to the Conservatives basically agreed with Jean Chretien that Canada has social peace because a very divisive issue, the abortion question, is regarded as settled; it is not even being discussed. Better leave it that way, was the advice given by John Ivison in the Post for June 4, because "Social issues could derail (the) Harper train" (see Paul Tuns, "Social peace," C.L, June 2004, p. 10). Ivison thought that Harper's refusal to clarify his stance on abortion might cost him the election; he ought to "unequivocally state that he and his Cabinet will face down any proposed anti-abortion legislation of risk taking a wander into the wilderness." Like many others, Ivison referred to "current abortion rights" which the Conservatives might infringe. But no such rights exist. In the Morgentaler case of January 1988 Supreme Court, Justice McIntyre gave a summary of abortion law in Canada and pointed out to his colleagues that they could not fashion a right out of whole cloth.

Ivison also observed that" ... Paul Martin, despite his own strong Catholic faith, has said that he supports a woman's right to choose." But, in fact, Martin is one of a succession of Catholic prime ministers--starting with Pierre Trudeau--who have defied Catholic teaching on abortion. They put political expediency before their faith.

Father Raymond de Souza, in his Post column for July 16, ridiculed his own paper for adding its voice to the free advice given to the Conservatives by other papers. "I would have thought the Post would be wary of singing from the same song sheet as the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail, both of which advise the same thing, and neither of which wish the Conservatives well."

"The fact is that Canada is a socially liberal nation," the editorial board declares. "What does that mean?" Father de Souza asks. 'It can't mean that most Canadians support our nation's extreme abortion licence--abortions at any time, for any reason and paid for with tax dollars," "It can't mean that most Canadians support the same-sex redefinition of marriage. They don't ... It can't even mean that Canadians support embryonic research and cloning.

The last Parliament banned cloning, and only got the embryonic research provisions through by hitching them to the cloning ban."

In the same editorial, de Souza points out, the Post calls for "greater empowerment of the rank-and-file MPs." More democracy means more voices will be heard; and socially conservative viewpoints are in the mainstream of Canadian opinion. "They may not dominate, but opinion surveys reveal that large pluralities, if not a majority, of Canadians do support some limitations of the abortion licence and oppose gay marriage imposed by the courts."

Let us have a discussion

Social conservatives are not arguing, however, for approval of specific Conservative policies, but for open discussion. To quote Fr. de Souza once more, "The Post's prescription is to further constrain the bounds of acceptable political debate in Canada by pre-emptively proscribing a broad swath of issues. Canadian democracy is not so robust as to be able to suffer a further removal from the electorate it purports to serve. In a healthy democracy, the solution to losing arguments is to make better arguments. It is not to stop arguing altogether."

Will Stephen Harper's Conservatives settle for mediocrity, or will they encourage the kind of debate on right-to-life issues which this country so badly needs? The omens are not good. A news story of August 25 reports Harper saying in his first major address since the federal election that "As a party, we will be more experienced and it is evident that we will need to become more professional, more inclusive and more disciplined" (CBC). Those, I think, are three code words for "toe the line" and "let's have no more social conservatism." If that's the case, the Conservatives should find a leader.

David Dooley is an associate editor of Catholic Insight. He is English Professor Emeritus of St. Michael's College of the University of Toronto.
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Author:Dooley, David
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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