Amidst the noise, chatter, and euphoria over the 41st general election on May 2, one reality sticks out: For the second time in 20 years, a historically successful establishment party has been totally annihilated by following the mantra “fiscally conservative, socially liberal”. Countless Canadians tritely regurgitate this catch phrase in the assumption that it makes them a reasonable, huggable centrist. The old Progressive Conservative Party, and the Liberals who consumed them also followed this line of thinking, believing that it would give them control of the coveted ‘middle ground’ of the Canadian spectrum and thus, electoral supremacy. While at first, the phrase implies pragmatism and balancing of interests, in practice, the result is total lack of opinion on countless subjects that matter to Canadians. And, despite what conventional wisdom will have us believe, most people think that no subject should be left undiscussed. The demise of the Liberal party shows this perfectly.
Looking at the polls, it becomes obvious that the change in allegiance of both visible minorities and Catholics, traditionally part of the Grit base, contributed significantly to the Liberal rout. While the media has predictably focused on gains made by last Parliament’s Immigration Minister, Jason Kenney, with visible minorities and ignored this historic shift in Catholic votes, both shifts can be linked to the same issues.
Freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, religious freedom, and respect for the family matter deeply to these demographics. Respect for the family isn’t empty rhetoric either. The role and the nature of the family in society affects our tax policies, spending, education, and touches on the very balance between personal rights (i.e. parents) and the responsibility of the state that defines modern ideologies. Those issues are closer to the hearts and minds of these people than the deficit, how many trees have been planted, how much the government will pay for your post secondary education, or universal child care programs that will give your children to the state at ever younger ages.
Most polls show that at least a quarter to a third of Canadians are religious enough to have their values affect their views on policy. The behaviour of the Liberal party over the last 20 years, since they benefitted from the demise of the Progressive Conservatives (who got a little too progressive and a little too Quebec focused), has seen the Grits completely turn on the people who made them dominant, and now they’ve paid the price.
Let’s start with Jean Chretien. The “little guy from Shawinigan,” who reinvigorated the Liberals to natural governing status. Chretien made it one of his first acts of policy to reverse the gains in grassroots democracy within Liberal ranks by giving himself and Liberal leadership the right to handpick candidates over local preferences. While this was specifically targeted to stop the influx of pro-life candidates led by Joe Volpe and Tom Wappel, it began more broadly the Liberal habit of essentially telling voters that they ought to put the Liberal Party’s priorities over their own, rather than the reverse. At first, the policy shift from socially pragmatic to socially liberal did not affect the loyalty of new Canadians and Catholics at the polls throughout the ‘90s. Many people thought that maybe nuanced, contentious issues like abortion, free speech, and freedom of conscience don’t belong in the political sphere after all.
However, a list of actions from the Liberals too long for this space that have occurred over the last ten years saw them cross the line from disinterest to outright hostility toward the values of new Canadians and Catholics, making it no surprise they’ve supported the Grits in smaller numbers every election since 2000.
That’s not to say that there’s a massive demand in Canada for a party that is uncompromisingly socially conservative. Indeed, the painfully slow process the Conservative Party of Canada has had to endure in order to achieve majority status illustrates how risky social values and perceptions of those values still are. But a conversation’s a nice start. If someone truly considers themselves to be a “progressive” (which often gets interplayed with the “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” line), then that implies that they are willing to have an open dialogue with which progress can be made, and thus nothing should be considered sacrosanct and beyond the realm of debate. From euthanasia and drug liberalization to gender identity being put into the Charter to abortion related bills, and court cases on polygamy and prostitution/sex trafficking, the Conservatives have carefully gone both Social Conservative and Social Liberal on a case by case basis, reflecting a back and forth between the diverse elements comprising the party.
The mixed track record of the Conservatives does two things in light of the Liberal fall. It reminds new Canadians and religious Canadians that there still is no party that wholly represents all their views, but at the same time tells them that they are welcome. Not only are they welcome, but they’re free to grapple with Libertarians, “red” tories, and everyone else to come to policies on social issues equally satisfactory or unsatisfactory to all. I call it being Socially Pragmatic. The Liberals of 1993 were Socially Pragmatic. The Liberals of 2011 were Socially Liberal, didn’t mean what they said when dealing with their base, and allowed a handful of MPs to ask all the questions in the house while appointed figures set policies. The Tories of 2011 are Socially Pragmatic. If they can stay that way and not fall into the “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” trap of non opinion and arbitrary judgement of thought and intention before a conversation has even begun, then their majority is likely to endure.