Headlines, Human Rights, North America

POLITICS-CANADA: A Kinder, Gentler Conservative Party?

Paul Weinberg

TORONTO, Jan 19 2006 (IPS) - After its Jan. 23 election, Canada may be headed by a right-wing politician who has successfully sold himself as a nice, friendly and non-ideological individual in an effort to defeat the ruling Liberal party.

In a public statement reported in the local media, Stephen Harper attempted to allay the fears of normally (small “l”) liberal Canadians regarding the real possibility of the Conservative Party, which he leads, winning a majority of seats in the House of Commons in Parliament.

“The reality is that we will have, for some time to come, a Liberal Senate [upper house in the Canadian parliament], a Liberal civil service – at least senior levels have been appointed by the Liberals – and courts that have been appointed by the Liberals.”

“So, these are obviously checks on the power of a Conservative government,” Harper said.

Harper has stated that the abortion issue will not be revisited should his government come to power. However, his government would conduct a free vote in Parliament on same sex marriage and “respect the results”.

In the last Canadian federal election in 2004, Prime Minister Paul Martin and his centrist Liberals successfully campaigned against what they described as the Conservatives’ hidden right-wing agenda.

However, the Liberals were not able to win sufficient seats in the House of Commons to rule the country without the support of the social democratic New Democratic Party, in the face of opposition from a new united Conservative organisation, as well as the pro-Quebec independence party, the Bloc Quebecois.

In a crucial vote last spring, the NDP managed to push the politically vulnerable Liberals to pass a budget that included significant amounts of money for housing, urban public transit, daycare and post-secondary school education, as well as the elimination of a planned corporate tax cut.

The unofficial alliance between the Liberals and New Democrats ended in December when the latter, unhappy with its inability to gain more concessions from Prime Minister Martin’s government to stem privatisation of public health care, voted with the Conservatives and the Bloc to defeat a sitting Liberal government.

This time around, Harper is receiving the attention of a less critical Canadian media, which has helped the Conservatives make major gains in the current race to the point where they are now favoured to win at least a minority government in Ottawa, says University of Toronto political scientist Stephen Clarkson.

“I can’t prove this, but my feeling is the media establishes a [public] mood, which then affects whether [political] party advertising has traction. If people aren’t scared of Harper, then negative advertising [against the Conservatives] isn’t going to work.”

“If all my information about the election comes through the media and the media is putting a positive spin on Harper and a negative spin on Martin, the electorate is going to be influenced by that,” he told IPS.

Clarkson has also written in a recent book, “The Big Red Machine: How the Liberal Party Dominates Canadian Politics”, that the Liberal party never recovered organisationally from a deep internal rift that erupted after Martin, a former finance minister, and his followers managed to force out of office in 2003 the then sitting Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien, who had led successfully elected majority governments since 1993.

In the last days of the current campaign, Martin and his party have run a series of toughly worded television ads and made a number of speeches warning about Harper’s links with U.S. right-wing groups, his intent to renege on Canada’s commitment to the international Kyoto Protocol to curb climate change, and a social agenda that promises a new parliamentary vote to repeal legalised same sex marriage and the scrapping of the country’s new national daycare scheme.

Harper has also successfully silenced the social and religious conservatives within his party, who have been blamed for hurting his prospects during the 2004 campaign.

One supporter of a family values agenda says that the Conservatives have become more “disciplined”.

Joseph Ben Ami, executive director of the Ottawa-based Institute for Canadian Values, told IPS that a Conservative victory next week will represent the rejection of a “radical social agenda” promoted by the Liberals in areas like same sex marriage, government-supported daycare and the proposed decriminalisation of marijuana.

“It will be a repudiation of the agenda that Paul Martin and his close team have been advancing for the last 18 months,” Ben Ami said.

But feminist scholar Judy Rebick dismisses the Canadian religious right as a non-mainstream group.

“They are being quiet now because they know when Stephen Harper gets elected, they will have a voice. If they speak up now, he might not get elected,” said Rebick, the publisher of rabble.ca and a former head of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.

Rebick predicts that a bill will be introduced under the new Conservative government that attempts to ban abortion.

“I don’t think they can criminalise abortion because it is against the Supreme Court decision [which legalised it in Canada as a medical procedure]. But I think it will empower the anti-choice, who have been quite marginal in Canada for the last 15 years,” she told IPS.

Rebick disputes the Liberal’s stance as the defenders of a progressive social agenda. She states that Martin and his predecessor Chretien have had to be pushed by social activists like herself and others to support issues like choice and same sex marriage..

“The Liberals have been never been pro-choice – it is just when 80 percent of the Canadian population supported choice that that Liberals came on our side,” she said.

One prominent Canadian labour leader, Buzz Hargrove, is convinced that a Liberal minority government supported by the NDP is a better option than a country run exclusively by Stephen Harper. He does not agree with the position, expressed by some commentators, that the Liberals and Conservatives are virtually alike in terms of economic and social policy.

The head of the Canadian Auto Workers union, Hargrove is concerned that an anti-government and pro-free market Harper government would withdraw financial assistance for the ailing Canadian auto sector, which is losing sales to Asian imports.

“In my opinion, a Conservative victory would be disastrous for the auto industry, the economy in general and national unity,” he told Canadian reporters at a press conference for Ontario Liberal party candidate Belinda Stronach, a former auto parts manufacturer executive.

Both the Liberals and NDP have underestimated the ability of the Conservatives to remodel themselves as a centrist party, even though it contains former members of the right-wing Reform party within its ranks, says York University political scientist and author James Laxer.

The scenario of a decentralist Harper government reducing the role of the Canadian state in terms of social and economic programmes, in alliance with the separatist Bloc Quebecois, which has its own anti-federalist agenda, worries Laxer

In a recent opinion piece in the Globe and Mail, he wrote, “For those who have believed passionately in a Canada in which Ottawa plays a strong role in shaping the social policies of the nation, these are dispiriting days.”

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