Mr. Harper and Social Conservatism
One thing that both Stephen Harper’s supporters and opponents probably agree on is that he is a very intelligent prime minister. He is clever, and repeatedly he has surprised the media with his political savvy.
His very cleverness, though, makes it impossible to write off the failure of his government’s marriage motion as some kind mistake due to lack of political acumen. In fact, his already demonstrated political acumen is leading an important segment of what were his supporters to suspect that the motion’s failure was actually planned, or at least welcomed by the Prime Minister.
A great many social conservatives, who were already looking askance at his stand on social questions, now feel they have been taken for a ride. Technically, he can claim he has fulfilled a promise by putting before parliament the motion worded "That this house call on the government to introduce legislation to restore the traditional definition of marriage without affecting civil unions, and while respecting existing same sex marriages.” But the fact that the motion dragged in the matter of civil unions and affirmed existing same-sex marriages gave an out to those Liberals who claimed to support traditional marriage but did not wish to vote against their party.
The fact that Conservative members failed to turn out in decent numbers for the debate on the motion, and the fact that discussion was ended so soon, suggests that the government was anything but enthusiastic about reversing the Liberals’ endorsement of same-sex unions as “marriages.”
Mr. Harper’s statement that the marriage-definition matter is now resolved permanently as far as he is concerned reminds us of his statement that the matter of abortion is not a live issue (or words to that effect).* Where has Mr. Harper been? Does he really underestimate to that extent the determination of those who would defend marriage? Perhaps he also underestimates their intelligence and thinks that they will still regard him as an ally.
The immediate political effect of failing to present and back a viable motion for the restoration of the traditional definition of marriage may be to Mr. Harper’s benefit. He can now carry on with measures of fiscal conservatism and not have to defend any highly controversial and politically-incorrect socially-conservative measure. But the long-term effects may not be so favourable to Stephen Harper. It is true that many social conservatives may feel they have nowhere else to go but the Conservative Party. But, as a Conservative Party worker remarked to me, Mr. Harper may not always be the leader of the party; and he is not the whole party. One strategy that socially-conservative members of the Party may adopt is to cut off as much as possible their financial support for the national party and direct that support towards the re-election of those Members of Parliament who have stood up for social-conservative principles. Then too, there is the option in the future of working for the nomination of Conservative-Party candidates who will support those principles which have been foundational to our society, enabling them to replace those who have ignored or undermined those principles.
Then there is the other—unfortunate—effect of people dropping out of the process altogether. This would be unfortunate for Canada, but the result may also be unfortunate for Mr. Harper. He may see a large segment of his party lose their enthusiasm for supporting a government which fails to support much of what they stand for.
There are those who will work actively for other options: for example, joining the Christian Heritage Party, which they may never have seen as a viable alternative, but which has always supported moral principles. In the long run, there may even be a split in the Conservative Party, bringing the situation full-circle to one where we have two “conservative” parties, as when we had the Progressive Conservatives and the Reform and then the Alliance.
Mr. Harper and others who have ignored the social conservatives in the party may think they have been clever, but in the end they may find that this kind of transparent cleverness has negative consequences. Those too often taken for granted may well decide that they do have options, and options which may not be to the taste of Mr. Harper and those who are supporting him in his present course.
Ted Hewlett, December 8, 2006
* See “Conservative Leader Harper Vows to Shut Down Abortion Debate in Canada's Parliament,” LifeSite, January 17, 2006, at