Joseph Goebbels famously said that if you repeat a lie often enough, people will begin to believe it. When it comes to the media narrative of the 2004 federal election, it has been repeated so often that despite obvious errors of fact and interpretation, it has become a truism that social conservatives cost the Conservative party its chance to form the government.
Blame for the Conservatives’ disappointing showing of 99 seats is often placed squarely on the shoulders of three MPs: Cheryl Gallant, Rob Merrifield, and Randy White, who all allegedly said impolitic things about abortion, homosexuality and the Charter of Rights.
As anyone who has read any post-election story on the fate of the Conservative party knows, Gallant compared abortion to a beheading; Merrifield came out in favour of third-party counselling; and White questioned the wisdom of judge-made law and the supremacy of the Charter, while outlining his support for using the notwithstanding clause to protect marriage from judicial redefinition. What is not well known is the circumstances in which these comments were made.
Every media account The Interim is aware of indicated that Gallant and White made their comments during the election campaign and that Merrifield was “freelancing” – a term used to describe seemingly only conservative politicians who deviate from the party’s official line and talking points.
The truth is somewhat different, but hardly so complex that the average reporter wouldn’t understand.
Gallant’s comments were made on May 13 at the March for Life in Ottawa, more than two weeks before the election was called. Funny how the media couldn’t find the time to cover the march when it happened and later found a most inflammatory comment made at the event. Although the initial news report, quoting a Western Catholic Reporter story, did make note of the timing of Gallant’s comments, later renderings of the story did not make note of when Gallant spoke out about abortion. The Canadian Press stated in September, “Cheryl Gallant, re-elected in an Eastern Ontario riding, made damaging headlines when she compared abortion to the beheading of an American contractor in Iraq.” She didn’t make headlines “when” she compared abortion to the beheading, but nearly a month after that. It took the media that long to dig up that particular piece of “dirt.”
The same thing happened with White. Just three days before the June 28 election, White’s controversial anti-Charter remarks were made public. However, they were drawn from a documentary shot in mid-May, before the election was called, and leaked to the press. But the media coverage implied that White spoke out against the Charter in the final week of the campaign. The implication was more damning, considering that the Paul Martin Liberals hammered away at the Conservatives for not prostrating themselves before Trudeau’s hallowed document.
Lastly, there is Merrifield’s case. During the second week of the campaign, Merrifield was asked by Globe and Mail reporter Jill Mahoney several questions about abortion, which he effectively dodged; defunding, for example, was a provincial matter, he said. But Mahoney effectively baited the Alberta MP on the question of third-party counselling. Merrifield was hardly “freelancing,” but answering the repeated questions of a a reporter. The next day, the Globe ran the story on the front page, without any indication that Merrifield supported this moderately pro-life position in response to one of the paper’s own reporter’s questions. Furthermore, Paul Martin was asked the same question the day before at a Catholic high school in neighbouring Saskatchewan. Martin, too, supported third-party counselling. However, in the case of the Liberal leader, there was no front-page or national coverage.
In each of these cases, the media were less than fully honest about the circumstances of the comments, leaving a misleading impression; namely, that the Conservative Party was obsessed with the abortion issue. In doing so, they could link Stephen Harper’s position of letting MPs have freedom on this issue (and vowing not to pass abortion-related legislation in his first term) to the supposedly frightening possibility that Parliament would re-open the abortion debate. The media narrative, as it was, led to the conclusion that social conservative outspokenness led to the defeat of the Conservatives.
But this analysis is simply not true. First, there is no data to support such a conclusion. Unlike in the United States, there is no exit polling or substantial and sophisticated pre- or post-election polling on party preferences and specific policy positions. We simply do not know if voters were turned off the Conservatives because of an alleged deep socially conservative streak. Second, without such data, we do not know how many votes the Conservatives won because of this same impression. Lastly, the limited data we do have indicate that being outspokenly socially conservative was an electoral asset. All three supposedly controversial figures gained votes compared to their 2000 showing, and all won sizeable majorities. Furthermore, approximately two-thirds of the Conservative caucus is identifiably pro-life. How many of these MPs owe their jobs to the support they received from socially conservative voters?
Indeed, considering that a majority of Canadians support the traditioanl definition of marriage, it is quite likely that the Conservatives lost votes because Harper and other Tory deep thinkers were unable or refused to capitalize on the public opposition to redefining marriage. If the party made a principled stand on marriage, they might be the government today.
Despite the inability to prove the “social-conservatives-cost-the-Conservatives-the-election” thesis, it is repeated even today by the media and accepted by political operatives in all parties as fundamentally true. The Canadian Press reported that Stephen Harper has threatened to be “more severe” with MPs whose views are judged to be damaging to the party. CP reported that Harper “spent much precious time between stump speeches dousing political brushfires set by his own candidates.” Those brushfires were the endless same questions about how he would handle the abortion and same-sex “marriage” issues – questions he always answered: with a free vote. But the media latched onto the statements of pro-life MPs to hint that the party might have a secret agenda. Social conservatives are worried that Harper might clamp down on MPs’ and candidates’ freedom to speak their minds on what are usually referred to as “controversial issues.” It would be a tragedy if the party buys into the media’s interpretation of the 2004 federal election and undertakes a strategy that alienates or marginalizes social conservatives – both within caucus and the electorate at large.
The media narrative needs refuting, but where are the pro-life MPs who should be setting the record straight? More important, where are the independent-minded and honest journalists willing to question the media herd on this story? Both our politicians and journalists need to do a better job than they have demonstrated thus far in determining the meaning of the 2004 election, before this misinterpretation becomes the conventional wisdom and eventually the official history.