Saturday, March 03, 2007

Keeping the so-cons in Harper's tent

A topic of discussion in blogland recently has been is Stephane Dion taking the Liberals to the left, and is that good or bad. I don't quite agree with the premise, and think it's more of a Conservative talking point than reality, but that's a discussion for another day. Today, I'd like to look at Steve Harper, and where he's taking the Conservative Party.

We know that since the 2004 election Steve has been trying to moderate himself and his party to appeal more to centrist voters, a necessary step if he's going to broaden his support enough to gain a majority. So he's clamped down his caucus and his ministers to an unprecedented degree, and pleaded with the social conservative wing of his party to just shut-up and keep quiet until he gets his majority. He's tossed them the odd bone here and there, with favourable judicial and board appointments, but for the most part he hasn't been advancing their causes at all legislatively.

As I've said before, I don't think Harper is a scary social conservative. He's a decentralizing fiscal conservative, which I also find a tad scary, but that's another story. But while he's no so-con, a lot of his supporters are, and without their organization and votes he wouldn't be here today, on the edge of the majority. And he needs them to stay on board.

So, the question for Harper is, can he keep his right-wing base satisfied and on the team while also building support on his left-wing from centrist voters? If he just ends up trading righties for centrists he's only treading water.

It's a delicate balancing act, and how well Harper handles it may well be more important to his electoral success than anything the Liberals can do. And how is he doing? It appears some cracks may be forming in his social conservative coalition.

I came across a copy of the January newsletter of Campaign Life Coalition Canada on the subway recently, and it actually offered some interesting reading. A rather large lobby group, the CLC describes itself as the political wing of the pro-life movement in Canada and it has strong ties to the Conservative Party.

They're starting to sour on Harper though. They weren't at all impressed with his half-hearted attempt at re-opening same sex marriage, seeing through Harper's attempt to placate, them knowing Harper had no intention of using the notwithstanding clause, the only way SSM could be overturned:

It was clear that Stephen Harper and his advisors wanted this issue to disappear; get it over with early enough so that most voters wouldn’t have the ‘divisive’ debate fresh in their minds going into the next election, but late enough for social conservatives to remember that he had kept his promise to try to re-open debate on it.
The prime minister himself was not present during the debate that preceded the vote and only a relative handful of MPs from all parties, including the Conservatives, were present during the actual debate. Many pundits took that as confirmation that the Harper government was merely going through the motions of fulfilling its promise - a bone thrown to social conservative voters – rather than a serious attempt to restore traditional marriage. Most journalists reported that Harper desperately wants the issue to go away.
Unfortunately, Harper also said he had no plans to introduce a defence of religion act saying that it was not necessary at this time. This contradicts his previous, emphatic statements that C-38 did not actually protect those who hold religious beliefs opposed to same-sex ‘marriage’ – but what has changed since June 2005?
Once again, the prime minister has taken the easy route and failed to show leadership on vital moral issues, preferring to play politics with them.

So, clearly they're pissed with Harper over the SSM vote. Basically, they're saying he flip-flopped and he showed weak leadership and played politics. No where have we heard rhetoric like that before?

It seems their disappointment goes beyond just SSM though. A separate article in the newsletter is devoted solely to Harper and social conservatives:
It is quite obvious that Harper wants this issue to go away. It is also obvious that he is counting on the gratitude of traditional values voters in the next election. In January 2006, weekly church-going Christians tipped the balance of power to the Conservatives and Harper needs to keep them in his big tent to win the next election.
Pro-life and pro-family Canadians must not lose sight of the bigger picture and blindly follow Harper or his party. They must continue to pressure the party, and continue the battle for the rights of the traditional family, along with the battle for the rights of unborn Canadian children. The issue will not just go away. It can’t, since the current situation defies nature, defies reason and will inevitably lead to great harm to our nation. The issue is far from decided.

More Canadians who value life and family will make these issues priorities in their voting, and nominate or support candidates, regardless of party affiliation, who will uphold the sanctity of human life and family in all its aspects, and restore the uniqueness of traditional marriage.

So, they're not leaving the party yet, although I wouldn't be surprised to see many stay at home in election day, depending on the local candidate. It does look like they are going to flex their muscle to get more socially-Conservative MPs nominated, and hopefully elected.

This poses some interesting scenarios. First, if the so-cons stay home that's a big chunk of votes lost to Harper. Second, if they get lots of so-con Con nominees selected then no matter what moderate messaging Harper is doing nationally, they will face a tough battle locally being called-out on their so-con views and less will be elected. And third, if they do get more so-con Con Mps elected, then Harper will have an extremely hard time running a moderate government while trying to tame a wild so-con caucus demanding action.

Anyway, while the Liberal Party are facing some challenges, clearly the Conservatives are not without difficult challenges to overcome as well.

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Olaf said...


A couple of things worth noting:

First, so-cons are more often then not people in the upper age brackets, who vote religiously. I suppose some could stay home, however, that would assume they not only see Harper as the ideal candidate of social conservatives, but also that they don't think he'd be their best bet (eg. they don't think that Dion or Layton would be worse).

Furthermore, most so-cons aren't necessarily single-minded: while they might be against SSM and abortion, they're also more likely to support the abolishment of the long gun registry, or the governments child care "plan", for example. I think for those so-con voters, especially the older group who wait around just dieing for an election so they can vote, Harper may not be a saviour, but there's no doubt he's better than signing the country over to the devil completely.

Until some sort of Reform party alternative develops, I can't really see Harper losing his so-con support, since they really have no where else to go. Most realize that a return to a country that is pro-life and anti-SSM aint gonna happen, and that any bulwark however shaky against a full blown Amsterdamization of Canada is better than nothing. Harper is the only person at least throwing some bones, which is better than no bones at all.

Mushroom said...

I agree somewhat with Olaf's comments.

For the so-cons, Harper is the only alternative. Dion and the Liberals will naturally cede the centre right to Harper while trying to re-define the Party.

As a Liberal, this is not a bad thing but necessary. It is retreating, dig a trench, and fight another day. At the same time, right wing Liberals such as Roy Cullen, Tom Wappel, and Derek Lee will have to retired or discharged for not staying on message. Harper will gain the support of right-wing Liberal voters and possibly win a majority government. Yet, this scenario is not that bad for the Liberals.

Olaf has pointed out some of the issues that the so-cons may not agree with Harper. At the same time, there are issues that the Liberals can tie with Harper, forcing the Prime Minister into a knot that he will have to extricate himself from. It is this crafty strategy the Liberals will need to fight the Conservatives on. The sooner Dion knows the intracacies of this, the more success he will have.

In_The_Centre said...

As a Liberal, this is not a bad thing but necessary. It is retreating, dig a trench, and fight another day. At the same time, right wing Liberals such as Roy Cullen, Tom Wappel, and Derek Lee will have to retired or discharged for not staying on message.

Disagree strongly. Countries without so called "big-tent" centralist parties often face a slow political change process. As well, clear left-right choices tend to cause divisiveness in the population (look at the U.S and France for examples)

The Liberal Party of Canada only needs to look at Labour in Britain so see what a strong central party with a strong leader can accomplish.

Koby said...

I strongly disagree with you this one Jeff. The question is not will Harper be able to count on the support of the social cons. As Olaf and Mushroom have pointed out, they have nowhere else to turn. The question is how can the Liberal party get the social conservatives talking.

Jason Hickman said...

Well, I can certainly see why you'd sooner change the channel from how Dion is doing to the Tories, but I don't think this will go very far.

First, the evangelical-political presence in Canada is not as strong as it is in the United States. So you're talking about fewer votes in play to begin with.

Second, As Olaf & others have pointed out, not everyone who is a "so-con" is going to stay home or vote for someone else just because the Tories aren't agreeing with them on every item. That may change, especially if we ever get a proportional-rep style system, but that isn't happening now.

Third, to the extent that the Libs try to paint the Tories as being beholden to the social conservatives, it could backfire. The Libs have been driving that message for the past few elections, with diminishing results. It's also possible that you could force some traditional Liberal-leaning voters out of the formerly big tent of the LPC, although as I said above, I think the #'s in that regard are somewhat inflated.

The problem with Mushroom's analogy is that the "trench" to which the LPC would be retreating is already filled with NDPers, Greens, and some BQers. Whether or not Jeff rejects the premise of the question, if the image of Dion hauling the LPC to the left takes hold, there'll just be more room for the Tories.

ottlib said...

I have no problems with Conservatives taking the social conservative vote for granted. These folks really believe they can turn back the clock in this country and they will not support anyone that does not share that belief and desire. So Jeff is correct. Mr. Harper needs to be careful otherwise they will stay home and then organize to get someone more willing to act on their behalf to take over Mr. Harper's job when he loses the election. They will still support the Conservative Party because they have no other choice but that does not mean they will support Mr. Harper. Please make the distinction. On second thought don't make the distinction it will facilitate Mr. Harper's departure from Canadian politics.

As for mushrooms strategy for the Liberal Party I can only assume that you have been consuming the magic variety of your blog name. Yikes.

A BCer in Toronto said...

As much as I'd like to, I don't see that many of them staying home either. I agree, they have little other options to exercise.

The question, then, is what do they do? Do they give up their fight on those issues so important to them and be happy with what Harper is doing, or do they try to change the CPC from the inside. It would seem they're opting for the later option.

I think what we'll see, and are seeing, is the so-cons being more active at the riding level, using their numbers and organizational heft to get believers nominated CPC candidates. There were a number of such high profile candidates in the last election, some were successful and some weren't. They've also shown themselves willing to target the nominations of sitting CPC MPs that don't share their views, remember the talk of Garth Turner being challenged when he was still in the CPC caucus.

I agree painting Harper as scary is a played, dated, failing strategy. But at the riding level, if the so-cons succeed in getting their own nominated as candidates it's another story. At the riding level, running against the so-con creds of the local candidate can be a winning strategy.

And if they do get a slew of so-con candidates in place, despite Harper' moderate messaging at the national level it becomes easier to defeat those candidates locally, since their own records won't match the Harper messaging.

So, at this point, I think the interesting thing will be to watch the CPC nominations process, and see who they're electing as candidates.

A BCer in Toronto said...

I meant to add that the other thing to watch is what additional bones, if any, Harper will feel it necessary to toss to his so-con wing to keep them placated.

Tomm said...


Interesting post.

Harper has the social conservatives. He has the fiscal conservatives. Since the election of Dion he is starting to get the uneasy centrist too.

His support has been stuck on 36% but if he softens his image and starts acting like the guy two houses down that always invites you to his barbeques, he is set.

Dion has to quit trying to be the bastard child of May and Layton, or else we will see a majority Tory government and new leader at the helm of the LPC before we see one at the helm of the NDP.

I'm good with this, but LPCers shouldn't be.


Mushroom said...

itc: You cite the Labour Party of Britain as a strong centrist party. The Party is in debt with declining membership (thanks to the Iraq war) and is suffering from its own sponsorship scandal. Donations to the Labour party for seats in the House of Lords. Good example?

At the same time, the Socialist Party of France has more party members and money to fight the French presidency. Segolene Royal may not win, but the battle for the Presidency will be tight. Royal is running on a left agenda which calls for increased welfare spending, re-nationalization of the public utilities, and increasing the minimum wage.

Jason: The Grits can retreat to the left. But is Jack Layton's NDP truly a social democratic party or a post-modernist left party that stands for nothing? Gary Doer and Lorne Calvert probably thinks Layton has consumed some of the stuff I have in my garden patch. They are much closer to Dion's Liberals than Layton's Dippers.

With regards to Elizabeth May, her policies are very market friendly to the point that Garth flirted with joining them. The Canadian Greens have yet to make nuclear disarmament and banning the seal hunt major policy platforms. I consider them to be the right of Dion's Liberals, the remnants of the Red Tory wing of Joe Clark's PCs.

Ottlib: Alice has eaten some of the magic mushrooms and she has been restored to size. I smoke the same stuff the caterpillar is on!!!!

Dauphin said...

As a "so-con", I can tell you that the first few posters are correct. Most of us will simply vote for the party which is most likely to "turn back the clock", and we do indeed vote on the basis of other issues as well.

I'd like to point out to Jason Hickman that not all social conservatives are evangelical Christians. Many are Catholics (like myself), or members of minority religious communities (Muslim, Sikh, Hindu) in the GTA which are highly coveted by both parties.

Most of us aren't delusional either. We realize it is extremely unlikely that we'll get what we want within our lifetimes. That's a poor reason, however, not to make some progress today.

rockfish said...

The meme that a few so-cons I know have from the Harpor apparatus is that, ok, you won't get much of what you want during this minority but give us time and help us get to the majority and Bam! then you'll see some good ol' so-con policy. Whether this is actually being told to them by people in the circle, I don't know, but they believe it.
They believe that a majority means a reopening of SSM; that 3-strikes will be definitely put in place and that churches will be given greater latitude in providing social services, as opposed to gov't agencies. They say their check list also includes capital punishment and of course something that tackles abortion. Of the two, major changes to abortion law is unlikely but then again, what is actually on paper in that instance is very limited and is open to gov't tinkering -- if you could squeeze it past the courts. Which puts us to today where Harpor has begun planting changes in the judiciary which could pay off say somewhere down the line in majority country.
So-cons have no other option, the Cons are their team. But it is interesting that despite a brief honeymoon for Dion, right now we are almost back where we started. In fact, if there has been major gains made at least by recent polls, its on the backside of the left. Greens are going up -- could the align themselves with harpor's so-con/neo-con Ubermen, or to the squish left-centre backpackers of Dion's squadron?

Jason Hickman said...

Dauphin: The point you made re my last post is a very fair one and you can consider it taken.

I noted that the Libs' shrink-the-tent strategy may result in some of its traditional voters supporting the CPC, and I would include a # of the persons you mentioned in that post in that number.

But I still think that most socially conservative folks won't make the perfect the enemy of the good - they may see the CPC as being too neutral to their issues, but that beats the hostility that the Libs will be showing if they follow Mushroom's agenda, or even Jeff's, if the laundry-checking he suggests at the local level goes too far.

Still and all, at the end of the day, the social conservative movement in Canada seems an awfully lot smaller in #'s, resources and influence than in the States. That's not a value judgment on my part - it's what (appears to be) the facts. So I think this may prove to be too much about too little, electorally-speaking.

Mushroom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mushroom said...


So-cons in Canada used to vote in class lines. As the groups you identified become more affluent, their votes have moved to more conservative parties. This is how the Republicans in the US have thrived since 1968. Harper knows the demographics and is shrewdly swinging his message towards them.

Dion is facing the prospect of having the Jewish and Catholic vote swinging away from him in the next election. The CPC is making good inroads with the Chinese and Ismailia Muslim community. All these will add to the 43 to 45 per cent Harper needs for the majority.

What does this leave the Liberals? The good thing is that most ethnic groups still vote based on class lines. There is very little influence that Harper is truly interested in targeting the 416 region. He may put forth a so-con there and let the candidate sound the clarion for the party. The so-con candidate may win but that is more based on Liberal targeted voters staying at home than Harper gaining Mulroney and Diefenbaker momentum. Dion's first task is to ensure that his core voters do vote, thus the leftward shift in his message.

tjeerd said...

Good article. I agree with you about Harper not being a Social Conservative. He understands them, and shows them respect. That is in contrast to the Liberals who use them as a verbal whipping board. The Socon's do not forget, they will vote Harper on mass.

Koby said...

SSM was the only issue that worked for the Liberals last election. Yet despite the obvious success of SSM, the Liberal have repeatedly failed to provide social liberals with that opportunity to do battle with social conservatives. In the past they have tired to paint the Conservatives as beholden to the social cons but outside of SSM they have never forced the issue by introducing legislation or promising to do so. Instead they continue to come up with middle of the road, offend no one, please no one, interest no one, policies that are utterly incoherent at their core because they are designed to appeal to both sides of any political divide. In other words, they act as if it was 2000 and not 2007. Not rocking the boat is a sound strategy when one is in power and ahead in the polls. However, it makes no sense whatsoever when one is behind in the polls and in opposition. Indeed, what made such a strategy so appealing before, viz., the lack of attention such policies garnered, is what makes them so unappealing now. Naturally enough being the party that stands for nothing, save averaging the differences between the other major parties' policies, the party’s fund raising numbers are pathetic.

The advantage of letting loose the cultural dogs of war from a political point of view that the Liberals can not fight their own battles; they need someone else to do it. Hell they can not fight their way out a paper bag. Harper flat out lied about Robillard and Jennings and all the geniuses in the Liberal war room could come up with was that his behavior was “un-prime-ministerial". Needless to say, no one in the public noticed.

The media love hot button issues. The Liberals should give them what they want. Having introduced the subject, the Liberals should then sit back like any good therapist and let the dialectic play itself out in the media and invariably the public at large. Pundits, academics and, indeed, bloggers are far better positioned to take over championing the policy from there on in.



stem cell research,

marijuana legalization

(Harper is busy stacking the body, which oversees and oks stem cell research, with religious fruitcakes.)