Paul Tuns, Analysis:
After a five-week campaign and $610 million election, the makeup of Parliament returns appearing to resemble the previous one, except in one important respect: there are about a dozen fewer pro-life MPs.
When The Interim went to press, the Liberals were elected or leading in 158 seats, up one compared to 2019, while the Conservatives were elected or leading in 119, down two seats. The Bloc Quebecois is sending 34 MPs to Ottawa (two more than last time) and the NDP 25, representing a gain of one. The Green Party elected one less MP. There are no independents going to Ottawa this time.
In some ways the similar seat count belies greater change that did occur as the parties traded a number of seats. In total, 24 ridings changed colour. The Conservatives won seven seats formerly held by the Liberals, including five in Atlantic Canada. The Liberals won seven seats formerly held by the Tories, while picking up two from the NDP, one from the Green, regaining the seat held by independent Jody Wilson-Raybould, and trading two seats with the Bloc. The NDP picked up two seats from the Conservatives and one from the Greens.
This is not the place for a fulsome analysis of the election results. What matters is how the new composition of the 44th Parliament will affect life and family issues, and there is little reason for optimism.
Campaign Life Coalition gave a green light to 136 candidates running for the Christian Heritage Party, Conservative Party of Canada, People’s Party of Canada, or as independents, indicating they were pro-life and pro-family based on voting records, answers to questionnaires, public pronouncements, and interviews with CLC supporters. That number is down from 148 in 2019. Only 38 were successful at the ballot box, down from 46 in 2019.
Several pro-life MPs chose not run again: Tom Lukiwski in Saskatchewan and Phil McColeman and David Sweet in Ontario.
All the successful pro-life candidates ran under the Conservative banner. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, running as a socially conservative Tory does not harm the chances of being elected. Nearly 70 per cent of the 56 pro-life Conservatives were elected to Parliament. To some extent, this reflects the power of incumbency as many of the pro-life Conservatives were already MPs and others won in traditionally Conservative ridings. Still, the fact is that pro-life Conservative candidates were more than twice as successful than candidates who were not pro-life.
Three incumbent pro-life MPs lost, all in the Greater Vancouver Area: Nelly Shin (Port Moody-Coquitlam), Tamara Jansen (Cloverdale-Langley City), and Alice Wong (Richmond Centre).
A yellow-light Conservative incumbent, Kerry Diotte, lost in Edmonton-Greisbach. He had a good voting record except for his support of Bill C-6, the conversion therapy ban, and Bill C-16, which added gender identity and gender expression as specially protected classes of people under Canada’s Human Rights Act.
In all four ridings, the combined Conservative-People’s Party vote would have beaten their Liberal or NDP opponent.
The split on the Right
In the week before the election, Conservatives and their media allies such as Brian Lilley (Toronto Sun) and Michael Taube (National Post) claimed that a vote for Bernier’s PPC was a vote for Justin Trudeau. The assumption was that if they did not vote for the People’s Party, they would be voting Conservative.
While the combined CPC-PPC vote would have exceeded the left-wing victor’s vote in 23 ridings, such arithmetic is lousy analysis in explaining why Conservatives lost. There is no guarantee that all of the People’s Party of Canada’s support — more than 833,000 voters across the country — would have voted Conservative. But if you assume that 60 per cent of the People’s Party vote came from the Conservatives, then the vote split on the right resulted in 13 lost seats for the Tories; if you assume just 50 per cent would have voted Conservative, the split resulted in 12 fewer Conservative victories.
The Interim has seen internal party polling that shows that the People’s Party of Canada won considerable support from former Conservative voters but also tapped into the large reservoir of people who have not voted in recent elections and a not insignificant number of erstwhile anti-establishment Green Party voters. The story of the rise of the PPC — which gained more than 500,000 voters compared to 2019 — is more complex than simply noting the decline in Conservative voters compared to two years ago (about 600,000 fewer voters).
Yet it cannot be denied that Erin O’Toole’s attempt to plant the Conservative Party firmly in the political center was a gambit that not only failed to pay dividends in picking up a critical mass of former Liberal supporters, but pushed a significant portion of right-leaning voters outside the party. It seemed that the strategy of Erin O’Toole’s brain trust was to willingly push away some embarrassing fringe on the right in exchange for a larger number of supposedly moderate voters. If there was a gain in moderate voters, it seems that it was more than offset by the number who decided to either stay home or vote for another right-of-center party, whether it was the People’s Party, the Free Party, the Maverick Party, the Libertarian Party, or Christian Heritage Party.
The Christian Heritage Party is the only federal party committed to pro-life and pro-family principles. The CHP had 25 candidates in eight provinces that combined for about 8800 votes, down from more than 18,000 in 2019 when they had 51 candidates. On their website, the CHP said “we would like to thank all those who supported our candidates by voting for them in the 44th general election.”
O’Toole’s tacking to the political center was most manifestly demonstrated in his proud proclamations of being “pro-choice” and “welcoming” to LGBQT+ individuals. He promised to protect conscience rights for healthcare workers when he ran for the leadership of the Conservatives last year, but capitulated in the early days of the campaign when he said that healthcare workers opposed to euthanasia or abortion would be forced to refer patients to colleagues that did not object to the medicalized killing human beings. Whenever Trudeau or any number of his female cabinet ministers complained (usually online) that O’Toole tolerated “anti-choice” MPs within his caucus, the Conservative leader reiterated he was pro-choice. He said early in his leadership that reversing the country’s blood donation ban for homosexuals would be one of his top priorities.
But O’Toole upset other elements of his base, too, by offering a complicated climate change policy that may have left Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax in place and he seemed to support vaccine mandates. He charged the Trudeau government with racking up massive debt but only promised to balance the budget in a decade, and even then, doing so with budget cuts. While Conservatives advised grassroots supporters to not fixate on a single issue, many traditional Conservative voters wondered what, precisely, O’Toole was offering for any small-c conservative.
It is conventional wisdom that the People’s Party’s growth in this election was a result of anger at anti-pandemic restrictions, and there is certainly some truth to that interpretation. But Bernier actively courted social conservative voters by condemning political correctness that erases motherhood in favour of “birth parent” and attempts to criminalize psychological or spiritual counseling for people with unwanted gender confusion or same-sex attraction. Bernier was also on the record saying he welcomed a debate on abortion from when he ran for the Conservative leadership in 2017, ultimately losing to Andrew Scheer, and a party spokesman told Campaign Life Coalition that it was PPC policy that if they elected any MPs they would be free to speak and vote their conscience on moral issues. Certainly the PPC was not afraid of addressing supposedly controversial issues.
Moral issues in the campaign
Not that moral issues such as abortion or euthanasia were given much of a spotlight during the election campaign. The Liberals dusted off the old trope that the Conservatives want to take away a “woman’s right to choose” and O’Toole dutifully went in front of the cameras to declare himself, yet again, pro-choice. One is left wondering what the Conservatives might have done had they more forcefully responded to criticism that they were harbouring pro-lifers among their slate of candidates; instead of running from the attack, leaning into it.
Karina Gould, a junior minister in the Trudeau cabinet, tweeted about every one of the 56 pro-life Conservatives identified by CLC, implying that the party was in bed with the pro-life movement. Gould — or someone with the Liberals — had to sign an attestation of support for CLC’s pro-life principles and pay a modest fee to access the Campaign Life Coalition Voters’ Guide at VoteProLife.ca, which is now open to the public. According to third-party Election Canada rules, CLC is not allowed to publicize information about where candidates stand on particular issues, yet Gould was allowed, as a candidate, to use that information for partisan purposes.
There is no indication that this helped the Liberals or hurt the Conservatives. But the Conservatives are not helping themselves by trying to pretend that the abortion issue is something to be shunned. CLC’s Jack Fonseca argues that the O’Toole-led Conservatives are taking pro-life and pro-family support for granted, and that these voters, tired of being ignored (or worse), are either staying home or voting for other right-of-center parties.
There was ample opportunity to raise moral issues, or at least respond to them. The Liberal Party did not shy away from highlighting abortion. On page three of “Forward, For Everyone,” in the section titled “Finishing the Fight Against COVID-19,” the Liberal platform addresses “Protecting Your Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights.” Never mind that abortion is ludicrously part of the section about rebuilding Canada after the pandemic wrecked havoc on the economy and exposed the weaknesses of the country’s systems of health care and long-term care. The Liberal platform’s section on reproductive and sexual health and rights – which largely means abortion-on-demand — begins by asserting that “In 2021, women’s rights should not be up for debate” and “Yet the Conservatives want to roll back abortion access.” It claimed that “anti-choice organizations” spread misinformation, and threatened to strip pro-life crisis pregnancy centers of their charitable tax status. It repeated a budget promise to encode abortion access into the Canada Health Act (the only procedure that would be named in the law), with penalties for provinces that did not provide “access to publicly available sexual and reproductive health services,” including abortion. It promised money for “youth-led” groups to “respond” to the sexual and reproductive issues facing young people.
The NDP also had a paragraph about “respecting people’s rights to make decisions about their own bodies and their own lives” – at least when it came to the choice of abortion. Their platform, “Ready for Better,” lamented that only one in six hospitals commit abortions and declared that “everyone deserves safe, accessible abortion and reproductive healthcare services.” It declared that “it is not enough for elected officials to say that they won’t reopen the abortion debate – we need leaders to take action to improve access to services.” It was short of specific promises other than vowing that “a full range of prescription contraceptive and reproductive health care options are easily accessible at no cost” to patients.
The Green Party had one line about the issue, saying under the headline “increase access to high-quality health care services,” it would “devote sufficient resources for maternal and infant care, and culturally appropriate reproductive health services that uphold reproductive autonomy.”
The Conservative platform was silent on the issue of abortion, although O’Toole promised “we will protect the conscience rights of healthcare professionals” – a promise immediately rendered barren with O’Toole’s proviso that doctors would be forced to provide referrals. On moral issues, the platform was committed to free speech on campus and supporting a conversion therapy ban although it stated it would clarify that a Conservative law which would not criminalize “non-coercive conversions” which indicates that spiritual counseling might not run afoul of the law. The platform was silent on the issue of euthanasia.
It is far from clear that a majority of Canadians support Justin Trudeau’s stridently pro-abortion position that includes punishing organizations that disagree with his government’s position on the issue. (Remember the attestation the government made companies and organizations sign to access subsidies for summer students?). It is certainly possible that challenging this new pro-abortion orthodoxy could reap political rewards among voters who think that abortion is something that needs to be promoted and celebrated at every chance. The same is true for opposing Trudeau’s multi-billion-dollar commitment to fund and promote abortion globally. There is certainly a constituency in Canada that would prefer not to export abortion abroad.
Even if it were not the Conservative leader challenging Trudeau on abortion, it would have been much better if pro-life candidates were not muzzled or afraid to speak on these issues in their communities.
The Wall Street Journal editorialized about the failure of the Conservatives to make a dent in the Liberal minority government saying that O’Toole’s insipid offering of Liberal Lite was never going to excite voters. They were talking about his economic message, which only underscores the utter failure of the Conservative campaign to offer a convincing alternative to the governing party.
And despite their best efforts to make the party palatable to the politically centrist voter and coming up way short, O’Toole indicated that what the Conservatives need was even more moderation. The Conservative Party dropped the word progressive from its moniker in 2003 when the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties united, but O’Toole seemed determined to remind everyone of that tradition within the party, at the expense of the noun the Party name retained.
Erin O’Toole, like Andrew Scheer in 2019, did not immediately signal he would step aside as leader. In 2019, it took nearly two months for Scheer to come to the conclusion that he would not survive a leadership review. O’Toole said that Trudeau was intent on winning a majority, claiming that the Prime Minister would call another election within two years. “And whenever that day comes, I will be ready to lead Canada’s Conservatives to victory.” He was setting the groundwork to rebuff a leadership review: do not risk a leadership race, he was saying, lest there be another snap election call by Justin Trudeau.
O’Toole doubled down on his campaign strategy to tack to the center in search of more votes in his first public statement after the Liberals returned with a minority. “We will take stock of what worked and what didn’t and we will continue to put in the time showing more Canadians that they are welcome in the Conservative Party of Canada.” There is no reason to believe they will be taking stock of the errors of their ways; and become a more welcoming party is thinly veiled jargon for moving to the left on social issues. It is difficult to imagine the party moving further left than where O’Toole has taken them already without purging the remaining pro-life members of caucus. It is always possible that O’Toole could do what Trudeau did to Lawrence McAuley and John MacKay when he became leader and tell them its his (pro-abortion) way or the highway; get in line with the leader on abortion. McAuley and MacKay got in line.
Former Conservative MP Lisa Raitt, who finished seventh in the 2017 Conservative leadership, was a panelist on the CBC’s election coverage. She described O’Toole’s strategy since becoming leader in August 2020: “I think what Erin attempted to do at the beginning was to have Canadians get to know him. When he won the leadership, he came out very clearly and he said ‘I am pro-choice, I am an ally of the LGBTQ+ community and I’m going to have a plan.’ And that’s exactly what he did starting day one.”
The problem for the Conservatives is that it did not work.
National Council member Bert Chen began circulating a petition the day after the election calling upon O’Toole to resign. CLC called for O’Toole to resign on election night. The party’s constitution requires a leadership review after any election in which the Conservatives do not form government, but it is easy to imagine political operatives scuttling that requirement under the pretense that it is too risky to review his leadership if Trudeau is intent on calling another snap election.
Scheer held out hope for awhile that he could remain leader, too, until he saw the writing on the wall. How long until O’Toole recognizes the obvious fact that a critical mass of his own members does not want him as their leader. If he cannot convince his base that he’s the right man for the job, he will never convince Canadians in a general election.
With Justin Trudeau’s government likely to reintroduce its conversion therapy ban and attempt to strip crisis pregnancy centres of their charitable status, and a review of Canada’s euthanasia regime underway with a legislative commitment to expand euthanasia to include those suffering solely from mental health issues, it is imperative that there be a leader and party in Parliament looking not to slow down Trudeau’s left-wing social agenda – or worse, cooperate with it – but to stand firmly against it.