Headlines, Human Rights, North America, Religion

CANADA: Harper Courts Religious Right, But Quietly

Paul Weinberg

TORONTO, Oct 12 2009 (IPS) - Stephen Harper’s ruling Conservative government has managed to muddy the ideological right-wing aspects of his political agenda to stay in power in Canada without alienating his western and rural base of moral and social conservatives.

In the wake of the recent financial crisis originating in the U.S., Harper has been obliged to pursue a stimulus package to boost the Canadian economy, a position advocated by the major opposition party, the Liberals. The move has driven up Canada’s national deficit, which is an anathema to the prime minister’s fiscally conservative supporters.

“If you didn’t know the name of this party, and you just looked at the policies [of the Conservatives], they come across like right-wing Liberals,” said Nelson Wiseman, a University of Toronto political scientist.

He told IPS the Conservatives have backed off on a host of issues dear to their supporters, such as restrictions on abortion and same sex marriage, as well opposition – under its former incarnation as the Reform party – to immigration and multiculturalism.

Harper has also abandoned his original vow “not to cut and run” regarding the contribution of close to 3,000 Canadian soldiers to the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

Instead, Wiseman said, the Conservatives and Liberals are on the same page in terms of supporting a Canadian combat presence in Afghanistan until a planned pullout date in 2011.

With 40 percent of the electorate staying home in recent national elections, Canadians appear more and more disengaged from their politicians, Wiseman added.

The Liberals’ effort to force an election through a non-confidence motion in the House of Commons was stymied, ironically by the smaller social democratic New Democrats, which has chosen temporarily to keep a right-wing minority government in power until new measures expanding the scope of unemployment insurance payments for workers in economically hard-hit communities have been implemented.

Not all members of Canada’s religious right are happy – even though a 2006 poll indicated that 64 percent of weekly-attending Protestants in Canada voted Conservative, up 24 percent from their poll two years earlier.

“My feeling is that most religious conservatives will stick with Harper, [even though he] has been very disappointing to religious conservatives and many have experienced a sense of frustration with him,” said the Alberta-based Michel Wagner, author of “Standing on Guard for Thee: The Past, Present and Future of Canada’s Christian Right”.

“The top priorities for the Christian Right would be placing some restrictions on abortion and restricting marriage to heterosexual couples, but Harper has clearly stated he is not interested in addressing these issues. There are, however, members of the Conservative caucus who would like to deal with these issues; at this point, it seems Harper won’t let them,” he told IPS.

But it may be too late for pro-lifers and so-called advocates of the traditional family. Canada’s constitutionally entrenched and widely popular charter of rights represented the catalyst that led the country’s judges to strike down laws restricting access to hospital abortions two decades ago, and more recently regulatory barriers for same sex marriage.

A quiet evangelical Christian who rarely speaks about his personal religious faith, Harper has been loath to raise moral issues publicly.

“If he is looking at governing for a long term even in a majority parliament situation, [Harper] would be unwise to be a champion and a leader that speaks disproportionally to the social conservative movement,” said Bob Plamondon, a former Conservative party insider and the author of “Blue Thunder: The Truth about Conservatives from Macdonald to Harper”.

With the exception of the Jewish community, which is appreciative of Harper’s strong pro-Israel stance, the Conservative party has been less successful in drawing support from the growing numbers of religious conservatives in non-Christian faiths, such as Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims, he told IPS.

Canadian privacy laws make it difficult to discover the identities of Conservative party donors.

Nevertheless, Plamondon says that Harper would be foolish to completely ignore a constituency that probably provides a lot of small cash donations and volunteers in election time for the Conservatives, especially in western Canada.

“It matters in activism, as people are prepared to get out the vote. So, it is a constituency that has nowhere else to go. But it is important to keep it content, some way,” he said.

Plamondon noted that in a number of areas, the Harper government has kept its religious right supporters onside through various “family” based politics. He cited the decision by the Conservative minority government after its election in 2006 to have small amounts of money mailed to parents rather than pursue a publicly-funded child care system, as advocated by the more centrist and centre-left opposition parties.

Feminist scholar Sylvia Bashevkin notes that a number of decisions including the Conservatives’ gutting of the court challenges programme – which subsidised the funding of legal challenges of onerous laws and regulations by disadvantaged groups, including the poor, women and minorities – is a sign that the religious right has considerable influence in Ottawa.

In a recent videotaped speech to supporters in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario in September that was inadvertently released to the media, Harper touted the elimination of the court challenges programme, which he charged has been largely used by “left-wing fringe groups”.

As one of his government’s major achievements, he also talked about how the Conservatives have improved the process of appointments in contrast to his Liberal predecessors.

“Imagine how many left-wing ideologues they would be putting in the courts, federal institutions, agencies, the Senate,” Harper said.

Bashevkin predicts that a lengthy stay in power for the Conservatives will result in the selection of less progressive people to the judicial bench, which she fears could potentially reverse the advances achieved by women and others legally.

“It is early to say that there are no affects. I am arguing that the power to make appointments offers the government, minority or majority, long-term ripple affect possibilities,” she said.

Author of “Women, Power, Politics – The Hidden Story of Canada’s Unfinished Democracy”, Bashevkin adds there is a convergence of social and anti-state fiscal conservatives within the Conservative coalition in their joint opposition to expensive social programmes such as child care.

David Rayside, a gay activist and University of Toronto professor, abhors the animus that Harper and his party have displayed towards same sex marriage in the past, and more recently in curtailing federal financial support for municipal gay pride events.

However, he told IPS that he still regards the core aspects of the Conservative party philosophy – such as curtailing the role of the Canadian national government, and cutting government services and reducing taxes – to be more threatening from his centre-left perspective.

“[The religious right] is highly constrained. Yes, they might do stuff that I would be deeply offended at and scared of, but in terms of the larger picture, it is more they will do things economically, fiscally [in] social spending that would really shift Canadian politics” if they had a majority government in Parliament, Rayside told IPS.

The smaller number of Protestants of both liberal and evangelical persuasions in Canada, at 29 percent, compared to the larger group of Roman Catholics at 43 percent (the latter have historically voted Liberal) ensures the limitation of the political clout of Conservative Protestants generally in Canada, added Rayside, relying on the most up to date polling.

He contrasted that with the United States, where approximately 25 percent of the population is Catholic versus 50 percent who are Protestants. In both countries, the majority of Protestants involve various strains of evangelicalism.

“There is a conservative Protestant constituency in [Canada] but by any measure, it is at most half of the proportion that conservative Protestants constitute in the U.S.,” he said.

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