Throughout the course of the winter campaign, then-prime minister Paul Martin frequently taunted Stephen Harper about his supposed “hidden agenda.” Such rhetoric jeopardizes deliberative debate – it prefers innuendo and suspicion to facts and arguments, it is used to scare voters and it panders to their misplaced sympathies and irrational fears. But it is also shrewd.
Martin’s rhetorical campaign against the Conservatives was not only a scathing insult to pro-life members of every political party but, by implying that such policies and positions were beyond the pale of civilized discussion, the soon-to-be-defeated prime minister delivered a devastating parting shot to Canadian democracy.
Yet, what should have been a last-ditch, desperate effort on the part of a flailing and flagging Liberal campaign turned out to be rather successful. The familiar allegations of a “hidden agenda” stemmed the incipient blue tide and the performance of the Conservative party was well below expectations. This same tactic was used to similar effect in the last election. And, were it not for a host of other problems plaguing the beleaguered governing party, it might have worked again.
It is not surprising that when his prospects looked grim, Martin stooped to these cheap, cynical barbs. What is surprising is that they were so very effective.
Before asking why being pro-life is considered a “smear,” we must wonder: why does the very possibility of a pro-life government scare some voters? And why are such obvious misstatements so frequently believed?
It certainly has nothing to do with the Conservative platform: in 2005, the party’s delegates established that a “Conservative government will not support any legislation to regulate abortion.” Instead, fears about a “hidden agenda” are really fears about abortion itself. It is not that pro-life MPs might win the debate, but the fact that there might be any debate at all. Indeed, what is scary is not the possible change of the status quo, but that a sober discussion about “social issues” would bring to light something that should remain hidden.
For some Canadian voters, it is truly scary to be reminded about abortion. They need to ignore it, to avoid that dimly perceived fear that the heart which beats on the ultrasound screen is like their own, to deny the possibility that what is euphemistically concealed by the phrase “right to choose” might, in fact, be infanticide. The frenetic zeal and hysterical pronouncements are not from those who seek to debate this issue, but from those who would avoid it at all costs.
Abortion is scary and, therefore, hidden. The threat to some Canadian voters is not that it will be stopped, but that it will be examined. Extreme and undemocratic rhetoric is a heavy price for silence, but it is one that some Canadians seem willing to pay.
What was the response to Martin’s attacks? Nothing. Harper answered Martin’s toxic rhetoric with corrosive silence. And while Martin’s strategy was cynical but shrewd, Harper’s response was both intellectually evasive and politically disastrous.
Just before the election, abortionist Henry Morgentaler indulged in hysterical rhetoric at press conferences in Toronto and Montreal, repeating many of the unfounded charges that Martin had made throughout the campaign; namely, that the Tories had a hidden agenda to ban or, at the very least, restrict abortion. And the Tory reaction to these attacks? A press release from Edmonton MP Rona Ambrose, assuring voters that Harper would uphold the status quo: “Stephen Harper has said on many different occasions that there will be no legislation to regulate abortion under his watch.”
So what was gained by Harper’s decision to ignore the pro-abortion legacy of recent governments and Paul Martin’s radical policy on same-sex “marriage”? The Conservatives still had to face a media which assumed the worst (in their minds, at least) about them anyway, and which would have misrepresented whatever position they took on abortion. In most major cities, they still had to face the irrational, unjustified and immature fears of pro-abortion voters who didn’t believe them and would not support them, even if they did. By distancing himself from the pro-life members of his own party, Harper undermined his colleagues and insulted grassroots voters and volunteers.
The fact is that Stephen Harper made abortion an issue when he decided to avoid it. He made the notwithstanding clause an issue when he said he would not use it. His response to Martin’s rhetoric was that the charges were unfounded because he agreed with Martin on abortion.
Harper could have campaigned against late-term abortions, about which even Morgentaler has “concerns.” Harper could have seized upon a government-commissioned report recommending that polygamy be legalized. Instead, in what was a low point of a bad campaign, the Conservative Party issued a string of odious press releases quoting Liberals making “socially conservative” statements.
Harper’s response to these “attacks” on his party was to repeat them about the Liberals, thereby marginalizing the pro-life position even further, and causing possible fissures in the Conservative Party he had worked so hard to unify. Throughout the campaign, Harper argued that the Liberals lacked the “moral authority” to govern, but, on social issues, he was unwilling to demonstrate any moral leadership whatsoever.
The leaders of both parties showed contempt for the countless pro-life Canadians who have been so active in public life for so long. Canadians who believe in the sanctity of life and marriage – both Liberals and Conservatives – should feel betrayed.
But, for all this, a Conservative minority provides new challenges – and opportunities – for pro-life Canadians. The defeat of Paul Martin raises the possibility of a new direction in Canadian politics: one of true clarity and of honest dialogue. It now falls to pro-life MPs of all parties to propose a new, moral vision of Canadian society, to show that Canadian values have nothing to do with the culture of death. This is a debate that Canada needs to have.
At a press conference at the very outset of the campaign, Mr. Harper was asked if he loved Canada. Now, as the prime minister of the country, he has an opportunity to answer the question.
Mr. Harper, if you love Canada, defend the family. And defend human life