In my post yesterday, I explained that I didn’t engage Marci McDonald’s argument about Stephen Harper’s alignment with social conservatives in my review because of a lack of space in the June issue of the paper. So I’ll do it a little bit here. First, I want to highlight a National Post column from last week by Gerry Nicholls in which the former vice president of the National Citizen’s Coalition discusses his former boss, the current Prime Minister:
I worked with Harper for five years (1997-2002) at the National Citizens Coalition. During all the time I knew him, he never displayed an ounce of zealotry. He never even talked about religion. He did, however, talk a lot about the intersection of religion and politics. And his views in those days would probably shock Marci McDonald.
Harper did not have much affinity for social conservatives. He viewed them as “culturally isolated” and a dwindling political force in Canada. That’s why he also believed a conservative political party would be successful only if it talked less about social and moral issues, and more about economic and fiscal issues. In other words, he was a libertarian.
For their part, social conservatives didn’t like Harper much, either. Recall that during the 2002 Canadian Alliance leadership race, they overwhelmingly supported Harper’s main rival, Stockwell Day.
I’ve never considered Stephen Harper a social conservative, not at any time as a Reform MP, head of the National Citizen’s Coalition, leader of the Canadian Alliance, or prime minister. In 2006 The Interim gave him the best grade among the major party leaders, but a C isn’t very impressive (and that was a generous C based on how lousy the other leaders were) and is hardly an endorsement of someone who is supposedly one of us. Since 1993, Campaign Life Coalition has rated him as “not pro-life” because he answered their questionnaire that year noting that on moral issues he would represent the views of his constituents and that having polled them he would not vote in favour of recriminalizing abortion. In the 2004 Conservative Party leadership, CLC did not endorse Harper — or anyone, in a race that included Belinda Stronach and Tony Clement.
Nicholls says that Harper may not be a religious conservatives, but as a political animal he knows his base. I interviewed Harper in 1998 when he was the head of the NCC for a story about uniting the right and the place of social conservatives and he found them a risky part of the conservative coalition:
Former Reform MP and current National Citizens’ Coalition president Stephen Harper says if moral conservatives want to be part of a united right, the right should oblige. He suggests that their common ground might be to expose the social liberals’ claim to be morally neutral.
That said, as a conservative strategist, Harper sees “moral issues as dangerous to any coalition.” He argues that the moral plank is either so strong that it defines the party narrowly and excludes many voters, or too weak to attract social conservative voters.
It’s not just the pro-life issue. On marriage, some social conservatives thought that Harper merely went through the motions of having a motion to re-open the same-sex ‘marriage’ issue in December 2007 and that he was playing politics and dealing from the bottom of the deck to ensure the issue just went away. As we reported at the time:
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.
Marci McDonald has said she just reports all the facts and letting people decide. That’s what journalists do, after all. But there has been plenty of evidence that many social conservatives either don’t trust Harper, don’t consider him one of their own, or are confused about his views on various moral issues. McDonald could have reported those facts, but doing so would have undermined her thesis that the Prime Minister is the Earthly saviour for Christian fundamentalists looking to recast Canada as a Christian nation welcoming to Jesus when he returns.