Commentary by Paul Tuns
On July 8, Canadian Alliance (CA) members elected former Alberta Treasurer Stockwell Day as their new leader, giving hope to pro-life, pro-family conservatives that a national leader might finally represent their views in Ottawa. Day beat his competitor, party founder Preston Manning, by almost two to one.
The four-month campaign was relatively quiet until late May when the media noticed a Campaign Life Coalition analysis of the leadership candidates, after which there was a lengthy and often nasty debate over abortion and homosexuality.
The media harped on what they perceived as Day’s “extremism” on moral issues and repeated the claim that speaking up on moral issues is politically dangerous.
It was strange then to see the first round of voting on June 24, when Day pulled off a surprise victory, garnering 44 per cent of the vote to Preston Manning’s 36 per cent and Tom Long’s 18 per cent. Day and Manning, moral conservatives both, took more than four fifths of the vote.
The media turned against Day and held Manning up as a moderate, who relished the approval of the media, which for more than a decade has attacked him for his lack of “moderation.” Manning claimed Day was “too divisive” and “unelectable,” and that only he was “a coalition builder.” These are code words attacking Day’s moral stands – ironic considering Manning has long held the same views. In the closing days of the leadership race in a town hall meeting in Nepean, Ont., both candidates reiterated their position on how they would handle moral issues through citizens’ initiatives and referenda.
The National Post’s Sheldon Alberts said “In the media’s rush to scrutinize Mr. Day, it is often overlooked that Mr. Manning’s views … are essentially identical.” Alberts, however, has been one of Day’s most vocal critics.
Day’s opponents and the media say he is preoccupied with abortion and homosexuality. He isn’t. During the debates it was two pro-abortion candidates – Long and MP Keith Martin – who raised moral issues, clearly trying to use them as a wedge; afterwards they would spin the debate saying it was Day who was divisive.
Likewise, it was the media who was obsessed with moral issues as they often asked Day the same questions about abortion and same-sex rights. Day dutifully answered them, falling back on the CA’s commitment to referenda and reiterating he has a right to his own views “which I will not impose on the country.” Manning insinuated that only he supported the referendum process and by extension that Day would “impose” his views, but Day has repeatedly said he wants this issue dealt with “by a majority vote.”
Edmonton Journal columnist Lorne Gunter said it is not Day’s style to impose his views. What he will do, however, is “argue forcefully for what he believes.” “But providing a long-lost voice in a robust democratic debate is hardly the same as claiming to be Archbishop of Parliament Hill.”
Day’s latest tactic is to defend his right to discuss such issues in terms of free speech and open debate. But the fact is, while the media relishes dredging up abortion and homosexuality in an attempt to tar and feather moral conservatives, they don’t actually want the public to debate these issues. A Globe and Mail headline encapsulated the media’s view perfectly: “Why re-stage the battles?” To which Vancouver Sun columnist Trevor Lautens retorted (echoing a Vancouver lawyer), there were “115,000 compelling reasons last year alone” (referring to the number of abortions in Canada last year).
A Maclean’s cover story featured Day with the headline, “How Scary?” But by reporter John Geddes’ own reporting, the Day message is on parliamentary reform, lowering taxes, paying down the debt, more health funding and tackling crime. “No mention in that list of abortion or homosexuality,” Geddes says. And the Ottawa Citizen says Day doesn’t see the public clamouring for major changes in the abortion law.
Day’s traditional values, however, have attracted moral conservatives. Groups such as Campaign Life Coalition and Families for Day, and members of the Sikh, Muslim, and Orthodox Jewish communities signed up thousands of new members to vote for Day.
Campaign Life Coalition (CLC) national president Jim Hughes told The Interim endorsing Day and mobilizing pro-life support for him was “not an easy decision,” in part because “it was an unusual step for us to endorse one pro-life candidate over another pro-life candidate.” Preston Manning has been classified consistently in the past as pro-life.
Hughes said CLC waited to see which Stockwell Day would emerge during the race: “The outstanding pro-life MLA who initiated pro-life and pro-family legislation and supported pro-life principles, or one who would succumb to the spin doctors who advise candidates not to address these issues.”
As MLA and Alberta cabinet minister Day pressed the government to invoke the constitution’s notwithstanding clause to prevent the inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected class under the province’s human rights law. He also fought to have abortion defunded.
Once Day demonstrated during the Alliance leadership race that he would not shy away from his principles, CLC endorsed him and worked hard to identify CA supporters and urged them to vote. Hughes said, “All our efforts to get people to join the party, get involved and get out and vote were well worth it. We were very effective in mobilizing pro-life supporters to support Stockwell Day.” Hughes said Day was open to working with the pro-life grassroots across the country, unlike Manning who has consistently rebuffed such meetings, and this was a significant factor in the decision to support Day.
Critics said Day’s moral views would be a hinderance in Ontario. Echoing the media’s mantra, Manning supporter and CA Ontario organizer Nancy Branscombe said Day can’t win in Ontario because “his views are too strident.” On July 8, he won Ontario with almost 70 per cent of the vote, slightly above the two-thirds majority CA members across the country gave him. He also finished first in Ontario in the five candidate field on the first ballot.
A National Post/Compass poll showed 54 per cent of Canadians “would welcome a political leader who was a social conservative.” As the July 8 National Post reported, moral conservatism “has been depicted as Mr. Day’s Achilles’ heel, but the poll findings turn some of this received wisdom on its head.” It is funny how the media is always astonished to find the public doesn’t agree with them on moral issues.
But CLC’s Hughes is not surprised by the poll results. He said the pundits and politicians who say Ontario will never accept morally conservative candidates “don’t know the people of Ontario very well.” Prime Minister Jean Chretien and Tory leader Joe Clark have stated they look forward to doing battle with Day, saying Canadians will reject his alleged extremism.
The fact is, the country is deeply divided over abortion but few voters make their decision on this issue alone. Yet among those voters for whom abortion is the defining issue, the overwhelming majority is pro-life. The media ignores this and does its utmost to stop a debate on such issues even before it begins, lest the truth about the national consensus on moral issues be exposed: there is no consensus. That is why Day resonates with so many people; he is a lone voice among the mainstream parties.