Did Harper really want to win it or was he playing politics?

On Dec. 7, the Conservative government’s motion to re-open the debate on same-sex “marriage” was defeated in the House of Commons by a vote of 175-123. If you believe the pundits and the politicians, on Dec. 7, Canadians debated the issue of same-sex “marriage” for the last time and the issue is settled. Stephen Harper never wanted to win the vote, anyway. He was only keeping his campaign promise, a sop to socially conservative voters, who are an important, but cheaply bought, part of the Conservative party’s base.

As always with conventional wisdom, there is a kernel of truth in this analysis. It now seems Harper somewhat cynically promised to revisit the SSM issue during the last federal campaign. He knew it would energize the social conservative grassroots supporters of the party. And it appears he was only doing the minimum – bringing forth a problematic motion that asked Parliament to re-open the marriage issue – without expending any energy on it.
But, elite opinion is wrong if it thinks same-sex “marriage” is going to just “go away.”

A flawed motion

When the government released the wording of the motion, it was immediately evident there were huge problems. The motion read: “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.’”

Pro-marriage groups, as well as several socially conservative Liberal MPs who voted against the motion, publicly stated they did not like the fact the motion legitimated homosexual relationships by effectively endorsing civil unions for homosexual couples and keeping in place an estimated 12,000 same-sex “marriages” performed in Canada since the act was first permitted by the courts in 2003.

The margin of defeat (52 votes) was larger than many expected, in part because of the motion’s wording. Only a dozen Liberal MPs voted to re-open the issue, whereas more than 30 Liberals opposed redefining marriage in June 2005.

Zed and Szabo vote against the motion

Liberal MPs Paul Zed (Saint John) and Paul Szabo (Mississauga South), both of whom opposed their own government’s redefinition of marriage 18 months ago, voted against the motion to revisit the issue.

Zed, a lawyer who has taught law at the University of Ottawa, told The Interim he wrestled with the issue both intellectually and morally, consulted with clergy and bishops and examined his conscience as a Catholic and a legislator. But, in the final analysis, he voted against the motion for several reasons.

He explained that, “in a nutshell,” he voted against the motion because of its “vague, misleading nature.” He said the debate during C-38 in 2005 was about homosexual marriage. “For me,” he explained, “marriage is defined as between a man and a woman.” But 18 months and a convoluted motion later, the debate was quite different.

The motion did not provide “a clear question,” said Zed. Harper muddied the waters by including same-sex civil unions – an arrangement that was not defined in the motion – and creating two classes of homosexual couples by permitting existing same-sex “marriages” to remain valid, while denying equal rights to homosexual couples in the future. It was constitutionally dubious, Zed said.

The New Brunswick MP described the motion as “political trickery” and charged that Harper was more interested in scoring political points than in restoring the traditional definition of marriage.

Zed raised one other issue – his responsibility as a legislator to uphold the equality rights of all Canadians. He said if SSM was rolled back, it would certainly be deemed unconstitutional by the courts, so any attempt to do so must explicitly endorse the invocation of the notwithstanding clause of the Constitution.

Zed said if Harper was seriously interested in restoring marriage, the prime minister should have shown some political leadership. As an example, Zed offered, “he could have whipped his (caucus) vote.”

Asked if voters might punish him for seeming to abandon his pro-marriage stand, Zed said that they will, like everyone else he’s talked to, understand his actions and motivations, once he explains it to them.

Paul Szabo was another pro-marriage Liberal who voted against the motion because he thought it was politically motivated, poorly worded and manifestly unconstitutional.

In an interview with The Interim, Szabo charged the prime minister with introducing a motion that was substantially different than the one he promised during the campaign, noting that Harper never said he would introduce the concept of civil unions in his motion. He said the legislation was unconstitutional, because under the current circumstances, doing so would violate the equality rights of homosexuals. “No piece of legislation (restoring traditional marriage) would be constitutional after C-38,” Szabo said. The only away around it, he said in citing a letter signed by 137 legal experts, is to invoke the notwithstanding clause. And, Szabo added, a legislator “cannot vote for something that is unconstitutional.”

But apart from the constitutionality of it all, Szabo refused to be used as part of Harper’s political gamesmanship. He said Harper was more interested in paying back his base support and dividing the Liberal caucus than in doing anything about the status of marriage. Szabo said three Conservative MPs told him the prime minister wanted to lose the vote so the issue would go away.

Szabo called the motion a disingenuous tactic and charged the prime minister with “providing false hope” to Canadians opposed to same-sex “marriage” with his political charade. he added that Harper was “playing politics with a very serious issue. I wasn’t going to help; it wasn’t going to happen.”

If the prime minister really wanted to do something about marriage, said the Liberal MP, he would have proposed legislation and not hidden behind a motion having Parliament ask the government to propose legislation. Both Zed and Szabo said Harper has never asked Parliament to ask the government to introduce any other legislation, so why start now?

Motion was about marriage: Wappel

Scarborough West Liberal MP Tom Wappel told The Interimhe voted for the motion because “this is the last time on this issue.” He said there might be procedural concerns, “but the bottom line is about marriage.” He said he never struggled with how to vote, because he wanted to once again stand firmly in favour of traditional marriage. Wappel said the motion was merely the government asking Parliament for “a little direction.”

Wappel admitted to not being excited about the parts of the motion that mentioned civil unions, which he and Zed and Szabo agreed is a matter of provincial jurisdiction. Nor was he excited about entrenching the “marriages” of homosexual couples who took advantage of the redefined concept of marriage. Ultimately, Wappel said, the issue purely came down to doing what one could to restore the traditional definition of marriage and the way to do that was to vote to revisit the issue. He said MPs in both parties who voted against C-38 in 2005, but voted against the motion last month, will have to answer to their constituents.

A superficial debate

Stephen Harper promised a free vote, but he never promised a free debate. Numerous journalists noted that despite the truncated schedule for speeches – just two days – the speakers’ list was exhausted with a half-hour left in the allotted time for debate. What the media didn’t report was that the Conservative caucus was told only those MPs who had not spoken in Parliament about the issue before – mostly MPs elected last January – would be allowed to address the issue. That meant numerous knowledgeable MPs were prevented from contributing to the debate. It also partially explains why, at times, only some 20 MPs out of 308 were present in the House during the debates, contributing to the impression that the government and Parliament were just going through the motions in an attempt to hurry the motion through before the Christmas break.

It is curious that Harper himself was not present for the debates. In 2005, according to the National Post, he spoke 7,500 words against the Paul Martin government’s plan to redefine marriage during various speeches and questions in the House. In 2006,he said nothing.

Almost every reporter and columnist in Ottawa reported Harper wanted the issue dead and buried long enough before the federal election, widely presumed to be coming this spring. Conservative hopes for a majority rest in Quebec and the 905 belt of suburban Toronto, regions that are assumed to be more socially liberal. (It is interesting to note that seven of 10 Tory MPs from Quebec voted to revisit the issue, demonstrating that a good number of Conservatives do not believe the hype that social conservatism is a big election loser in that province.) It was conventional wisdom in Ottawa that Harper wanted the vote on the motion to fail (one Globe and Mail headline screamed: “A vote Harper doesn’t want to win”) so the party could deflect charges of being extremist on social issues.

Another problem with the government’s fast shepherding of the motion through Parliament was that amendments were prohibited, preventing MPs from addressing the mixed signals the motion sent. There were MPs who wanted to remove references to civil unions and maintaining existing homosexual “marriages,” but that wasn’t allowed.

As the National Post’s Don Martin wrote, “These were not the actions of a government that considered the defence of traditional marital values a signature value.”

And, but for a few exceptions, the level of debate was pitiful. Janice Tibbets of the Ottawa Citizen reported that Conservatives spent “little time arguing why the gay ‘marriage’ law should be revoked, focusing instead on the fact that the government made an election promise to revive the issue.” In essence, the government patted itself on the back for keeping its campaign promise, but had not made the case for why it should have done so in the first place.

When asked by Liberal MP Hedy Fry if the government had any evidence of the harm done to society by allowing homosexuals to marry, government House leader Rob Nicholson replied, “We have evidence that members of the Liberal party have changed their position on this many times.” Pressed on why the government would keep its promise on revisiting the issue when it broke its promise on income trusts, Nicholson said, “What the prime minister is clear on is that the Liberal party should not be governing the country.”

Brian Rushfeldt, executive director of the Canada Family Action Coalition, chastized the Tories for not making a more spirited defence of traditional marriage. “The lack of genuine defence of marriage or proposed solution in this week’s parliamentary debate,” Rushfeldt said, “signals the abandonment of conservative values.”

Some good interventions

The quality of debate was generally low – Liberal York Centre, Ont. MP Ken Dryden said he supported SSM because he remembers the hurtful names young boys called each other in the schoolyard to question each other’s masculinity – but there were some highlights. Conservative Kitchener-Conestoga, Ont. MP Harold Albrecht noted that the report resulting from cross-country hearings of the committee on justice and human rights was never completed. “It would seem to me that it would be in the best interest of democracy to allow that report to be tabled so that the members of the House would be more fully informed.”

Conservative MP Pierre Lemieux (Glengarry-Prescott-Russell) argued against SSM, “a radical social experiment,” the consequences of which are unknown, during which he unabashedly referenced Catholic teaching. He quoted the Catechism of the Catholic Church in stating that the “intimate community of life and love which constitutes the married state has been established by the Creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws.” He said that the Catholic church teaches “unchangingly, that marriage is a covenant in which husband and wife express their mutual love and join with God in the creation of a new human person, destined for eternal life.” Reminding his Christian colleagues that their tenure as parliamentarians is short and eternity long,  he called upon them to consider the matter with a view to the welfare of their immortal souls. “When we cease to be MPs, sadly we will likely be forgotten by our fellow man — but not by God, who knows each of us intimately. If God himself is truly the author of marriage, then let us be able to give a good account of ourselves when we stand before Him, as we all must stand before Him.” Lemieux concluded his remarks with a prayer: “Almighty God, protector of all families, guide us in our efforts to defend the holy sacrament of marriage as the union between a man and a woman. I ask you this, in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ.”

Far from settled, the issue is not going away

After the motion was defeated, Prime Minister Harper signaled defeat on the whole issue of marriage. “I don’t see reopening the issue in the future,” he told reporters when asked if the Conservatives would seek to revisit the issue if the party won a majority.

The media mantra has been: now that the motion was defeated, debate over the issue will disappear and social conservatives should go home and shut up. Perhaps that is less an analysis than a wish, but it is not likely to be granted any time soon. As Father Tony van Hee, a Catholic priest who has been holding a pro-life vigil on Parliament Hill for 18 years, told the Globe and Mail, the issue “won’t die. Like abortion, it won’t die.”

Groups such as Campaign Life Coalition, the Canada Family Action Coalition, REAL Women, the Catholic Civil Rights League and Focus on the Family have all vowed to continue to fight to restore traditional marriage.

CLC national president Jim Hughes said, “The battle for the right of the traditional family, like the battle for the rights of the unborn Canadian children, will continue.” He added: “Contrary to the wishful thinking of the political and media elite, the issue is far from decided.” Some had a special warning for the Conservatives. CFAC’s Rushfeldt warned the Tories not to neglect their social conservative base. He said the party cannot count on simply being perceived as less dangerous than the Liberals to earn the vote of pro-life and pro-family Canadians. He suggested that if the Harper Conservatives ignore the views of social conservatives, many voters will stay home and cost the Tories their longed-after majority status.

“We believe the Conservatives’ only hope for a majority government is to appeal to the majority of Canadians and the majority of their core support base.”

CLC’s Hughes believes Harper already missed his chance to use the marriage issue to propel the Tories to majority status. In 2004, Hughes explained, it would have been more viable to energize voters to oppose the idea of SSM before it became a reality in Canadian law than it will be to get rid of SSM now that it has been imposed. Hughes explained that over time, resistance to SSM weakens, as polls show there has been a slight slippage in opposition to SSM since 2004. “If Harper had run on a platform of vigorously defending marriage in 2004, we’d be halfway through his first majority government, rather than on the cusp of Canada’s third inconclusive election in less than three years.”

What now

The issue is not just going to go away. Although Harper has repeatedly denied the government has any plans to introduce a Defence of Religion Act to protect the conscience rights of those morally opposed to homosexuality, he does say he would reconsider if circumstances arose that required such legislation to protect religious officials or even civil employees who conscientiously object to SSM. That threat is here now – witness the use of  human rights tribunals to persecute people who hold traditional values – but it is possible that something might occur in the future that will convince political leaders DORA is urgently needed.

Paul Szabo said there are several options to keep the issue alive, including efforts to invoke the notwithstanding clause, getting government out of the marriage business or enshrining sections 3:1 and 7:1 of the UN’s Convention on Children, which explicitly recognize the right of children to a mother and a father. This could reframe the legal question of SSM around the rights of children, rather than adult homosexuals.

Wappel said the strategy doesn’t change even if the individual legislative tactics might – elect pro-life and pro-marriage MPs, regardless of party. He urges Canadians to “speak with individual MPs and inquire how they voted and why they voted the way they did.” And lastly, Wappel says, “Vote only for candidates who best represent your views.” While he is slightly fatalistic in believing we won’t see Parliament revisit the issue, Wappel added there is one way to get it back on the agenda: elect a pro- marriage majority government.