This is an excellent commentary. Too bad it will fall on the deaf, dumb, and blind….
The Ottawa Citizen – 2008.10.29 Stronger minority a qualified victory
By Rebecca Walberg
While it is clear that the 2008 general election was a disaster for the federal Liberals and a limited success for the NDP and the Greens, an increased minority government is at best a qualified victory for the Conservative Party of Canada and not in any way a triumph. The CPC is judged by Canadians to be the most stable party on economic issues, and yet, during the worst financial turmoil in a generation, with the left-of-centre vote split three ways (four in Quebec), and an opposition led by Stéphane Dion, Harper’s Conservatives managed only an enlarged minority. Under what circumstances, then, could they win a decisive mandate and a majority?
Some of the problems that were forecast never materialized during the campaign. Harper’s personal image, held by the conventional wisdom to be a liability to the party, was in fact an asset, with many campaigns featuring him as prominently as local candidates in their literature. Afghanistan proved not to be too contentious an issue. Fiscal conservatives were mollified by a solid track record of tax cuts and limited spending and promises of a similar second term.
Completely missing from the discussion were social issues. During his first government, Harper discouraged caucus from raising abortion or same-sex marriage, going so far as to do an end-run around the private Bill C-484, which sought to criminalize harm done to an unborn child in the course of an assault on its mother, just before calling this election. During the election itself, public debate about abortion and other hot-button issues was off-limits for candidates. It is unacceptable that a party built upon a merger of different strands of conservatism, including a strong populist movement, should muzzle its candidates and MPs this way. The reasoning behind this strategy is straightforward. Based on the assumption that small-government values voters will never vote Liberal, NDP or Green, the CPC believes that staying as close to the centre as possible will yield the best results, since such a course will gain moderate voters, while those to the right of the party have no alternative. According to this logic, social conservatives can’t win since they will gain few votes for their stance, while losing many to other parties.
Rod Bruinooge, the Conservative MP for Winnipeg South, clearly never learned this lesson. In 2006, he ran against Reg Alcock, the Liberal stalwart who had held the seat for more than a decade. Very few expected Bruinooge to win, since not only was he running in a riding considered safe for the Liberals, but he was also open about his conservative position on social issues, including abortion and same-sex marriage. He managed the surprise of the election then, winning by 111 votes. This year, he won by 4,000 votes against the best the Liberals could throw at him and proved the CPC’s conventional wisdom wrong.
Another problem with silencing social conservatives is that, as both parties in the United States have found, the base won’t keep voting for a party that moves away from them. When voters feel disenfranchised by a lack of candidates whose values they share, they tend to stay home, and this is part of the story of the 2008 election. Overall voter turnout was 59%, an unprecedented low for a federal election. The CPC lost 11 ridings by fewer than 1,500 votes, six of which had turnout below even this year’s dismal average. Potential Conservative voters who stayed home rather than support a party that does not support them played a decisive role in these ridings, and doubtless in many others.
In a perfect world, parties would let their MPs and candidates express themselves freely as a matter of principle. An increasingly informed electorate expects to engage its potential representatives on all issues, not only those pre-approved by the federal government. Since, in our parliamentary system, legislators are, at least in theory, answerable to their constituents, we should inculcate the habit of honest dialogue during campaigns, rather than wondering after the fact why politicians are out of touch with those who elected them. If principle won’t sway the Conservative party to adopt this philosophy next election season, perhaps the “Bruinooge effect” will. There is largely untapped support among Canadian voters for social conservatism and for politicians who defend traditional morality and aren’t ashamed to say so. If the CPC won’t court their vote, they will stay home until someone else does.
Rebecca Walberg is a Winnipeg-based policy analyst for the Frontier Institute for Public Policy. In this article, she is expressing her personal views; she is not speaking on behalf of the Frontier Institute.