Commentary by Paul Tuns
The Interim

Many social conservatives have long complained about Conservative leader Stephen Harper and his lack of social conservative credentials. At best, he too easily compromised on same-sex “marriage” by accepting the idea of civil unions. Furthermore, the life issues do not show up on his radar screen at all. At the Conservative convention in March, he urged delegates to pass a resolution that commits a Conservative government to not support legislation restricting abortion. Whether this illustrates crass political opportunism or a hidden anti-life agenda (or both) is open to debate. Whatever Harper’s motives, it is clear that he is completely unwilling to take a socially conservative stand out of fear of losing votes.

But increasingly, we see that Harper is completely unwilling to take any sort of conservative stand in scaring away potential voters. Over the past six months, fiscal and small-government conservatives have joined the chorus of those criticizing the Conservative leader and their displeasure at his willingness to jettison principles in his bid to win power.

Earlier this year, the National Citizens Coalition, a lobby group committed to small government, launched a campaign best summed up by its button, which featured a left-turn signal with a diagonal red stripe through it. The warning from the NCC to not move further to the centre was significant, considering that Harper was the organization’s president before returning to politics in 2002. One staffer from the Office of the Leader of the Opposition told me that they were not pleased with the buttons.

The No Left Turn buttons were apparently very popular at the Conservative convention in Montreal, a signal that grassroots supporters are, at the very least, aware of the perception that Harper and backroom strategists are subtly moving the direction of the party leftward. The buttons’ popularity should serve as a warning to Harper and his advisers not to take grassroots conservatives for granted, because they are none-too-pleased with a party looking a lot like “Paul Martin Lite.”

Such impressions are reinforced by the illogical Conservative criticism of Paul Martin’s spring spending spree, which the Tories estimated will cost more than $20 billion, but which they also committed themselves to respect if elected. In other words, the billions for daycare, environmental spending and other liberal pet projects will remain in place if Harper is elected prime minister.

This has led John Williams, president of the the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, to wonder: “Does Canada have an official opposition?” Williams said that Canadians want “a clear voice,” not “an echo,” to “challenge the status quo in Ottawa.

Williams noted five policy areas in which the Conservatives have abandoned conservative, small-government principles: gas taxes (on which the Tories were silent until the price of a litre of gas hit $1 in Ontario), efficient government (the Tories criticized the government’s plan to reduce the size of the public sector in order to save at least $2 billion), daycare (the party has not yet unveiled its policy to provide parents with more choice), corporate welfare (the Conservatives no longer oppose handing out tax dollars to businesses and regional “economic development” schemes), and the growing surplus (the party criticizes the government for its accounting methods, rather than Ottawa’s over-taxation of Canadians).

This is not to say that social conservatives agree with Williams’ critique, although many do. It does, however, highlight the lack of leadership on Harper’s part. Again and again, he has demonstrated that he is willing to be an echo to the Martin Liberals – and that’s not the job of the leader of the official opposition.

Harper has gone out of his way to disassociate himself with conservative ideas and even other conservatives. Last year, he did not attend the 30th anniversary celebration of the Fraser Institute, a libertarian think tank, and blamed last minute House of Commons scheduling changes, although more than a half-dozen other MPs were able to attend the event.

All this leads to one logical conclusion with dire political consequences for Conservatives: if Harper seems afraid of conservative policies, then it is understandable why Canadians might be. His inclination to abandon conservative policies, of either the fiscal or social variety, reinforces the media-manufactured notion that conservatism is scary. Either that, or Harper is not being forthright about his views and, therefore, is giving credence to the charge that the Tories have a hidden agenda.

The move to the centre is a losing strategy for Conservatives. The most successful conservative politicians of the past 25 years – Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich and Mike Harris – pulled the political centre to them. As Mark Steyn has noted, when conservative politicians move to the centre, it only moves the centre leftward.

Worse yet, it is the abrogation of leadership. While it is not practical to replace Harper as leader with an election expected to be called within 30 days of the release of the report by the Gomery Commission of Inquiry, Canada – and conservatives – deserve better leadership than with which it is currently stuck.