New Might on the Right

Emboldened by Stockwell Day, social conservatives are on the march

John Geddes,Rima Kar September 11 2000

New Might on the Right

Emboldened by Stockwell Day, social conservatives are on the march

John Geddes,Rima Kar September 11 2000
Robin Richardson has divided his adult life between crunching the numbers and preaching the gospel. A former Bay Street bank and brokerage house economist, he turned his analytical skills to probing the evils of government debt in the 1990s, for both the Fraser Institute, the Vancouver-based right-wing think-tank, and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the rabble-rousing Regina-based lobby group. But Richardson has convictions on more than balancing budgets and cutting taxes. In the early 1980s, after serving as a Toronto MP in Joe Clark's short-lived 1979 Conservative government, he took three years off to study theology at a small Kentucky seminary, and then relocated to British Columbia, first as a financial planner in Chilliwack and later as an evangelical pastor in Victoria.

In other words, Richardson is a one-man amalgam of the influences now churning inside the Canadian Alliance. He proudly claims a personal stake in the triumphs of conservative economic policy over the past decade. He’s both a lapsed Tory and a fundamentalist Christian—two key Alliance constituencies. He knows where the Canadian right has come from and, at 58, he figures he’s got one more chance to be part of where it’s going. These days, he is plugged into a network of social conservatives, emboldened by Stockwell Day’s victory in the first Alliance leadership race, who are trying to fight their way to an even bigger voice in the new party. In some ridings, bitter nomination fights have broken out between so-cons, as they are known in the Alliance, and those who style themselves as the party’s moderates. Richardson is trying to take down a big name—Keith Martin, the incumbent in the Vancouver Island riding of Esquimalt/Juan de Fuca. “It’s a healthy thing,” Richardson says about the skirmishes. “In my view, it’s about organizational change.” Martin sees things differently. He angrily accuses Richardson of running a double campaign, a polite public one about economics and a more stinging private one attacking Martin’s pro-choice stance on abortion. “Don’t say you’re running on economic issues, which we agree on, and then slam me behind my back on moral issues,” Martin said in an interview. Richardson dismisses his rivals complaint as merely “putting spin” on the real substance of the choice local Alliance members will make at the riding’s Sept. 16 nomination meeting. “I’m certainly pro-life,” he says, “but that’s not going to be the decisive issue.” Richardson says he is running mainly on his ideas for local job creation and issues like the dangers of big native land-claim settlements.

But he also flatly accuses Martin of being disdainful of antiabortion churchgoers who are active in the Alliance. Citing a news report in which Martin was quoted as saying “some evangelical Christian groups” are behind efforts to oust sitting Alliance MPs, Richardson charges: “He’s basically attacking Christians.” Martin responds that “as a Roman Catholic who grew up in a Catholic boys’ school” he finds that allegation “personally offensive.”

Beyond the acrimony, though, Martin warns that the challenge facing him represents a larger threat to the Alliance's election chances. “I totally support the right of anybody to run,” he said. “However, there is always a danger of being taken over by special-interest groups.” Prime Minister Jean Chrétien left no doubt last week that he will portray the Alliance as a party already dominated by “backward, dangerous” social conservatives who want to deny women the right to choose on abortion. In a campaign-style speech in Winnipeg, where Liberal MPs held a caucus meeting in advance of the fall return of Parliament, Chrétien also took aim at Day for tailoring his tax policies for the wealthy. And he referred to the Alliance leader as “Blocwell Day” and called the party the “unholy alliance” after reports that Day had recruited two former Quebec separatists as candidates. Day responded by claiming the high ground. “I think you’re seeing a government in a bit of a panic,” he said, dismissing Chrétien's speech as “an old-style political rant.”

Still, some Alliance members say they are worried that internecine feuding at the riding level could give Chrétien more ammunition. The usual local rivalries and ambitions are in play, but in at least a few cases these dust-ups also illuminate something bigger. The so-cons believe that with Day in charge, the time is right to get serious about shoring up the Alliance as a political base for their values, including staunch opposition to abortion. Others inside the party fear middle-of-the-road Canadian voters—the sort Liberals view as their private preserve—will be turned off. “Our challenge is to maintain broad-based support that will represent Canadians generally,” said B.C. Alliance MP Val Meredith, who last week fended off a so-con challenger to secure the nomination in her South Surrey/White Rock/Langley riding.

Like Martin, Meredith came under fire over abortion—the litmus-test issue for many social conservatives. “I don’t believe that abortion should be used for birth control,” she told Maclean's. “But I don’t believe a 14- or 15-year-old girl should be made a criminal because she’s chosen that means to erase a mistake.” That sort of answer is not even close to the strict pro-life stand demanded by many active in the Alliance. But some savvy, younger so-con leaders insist they are taking a more measured, strategic approach than the all-or-nothing stance pro-life activists usually adopted in the past. “We’re political realists,” says Roy Beyer, 40, president of the Calgary-based Canada Family Action Coalition. “A lot of calm, new social conservatives recognize we can’t form a government on our own. We have to work with others to do that.”

Many Alliance insiders view Beyer’s CFAC as the so-con group to watch—or watch out for. Formed 3-1/2 years ago, it now claims to have close to 10,000 members. Some older groups that share the same ideological turf, such as Focus on the Family and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, are charities. To keep that status for tax purposes, they are restricted from direct political action. But CFAC is a nonprofit group, and operates freely in the political arena. Officially, it is non-partisan. But Beyer, a Pentecostal minister in Edmonton, took time off from CFAC to organize Families for Day, which threw substantial support behind the former Alberta treasurer in his winning leadership bid. Beyer estimates the organization signed up at least 6,500 new party members who voted for Day, about equal to his final margin of victory.

Beyer says CFAC is not directly involved in the current riding nomination wars, but the group’s rank-and-file members are encouraged to get active locally. Last week, the so-cons won one and lost one. While they failed to dump Meredith, they helped save Rob Anders, the red-meat Alliance MP for Calgary West who got Beyer’s personal endorsement. Anders beat back a nomination challenge from Jocelyn Burgener, a Conservative member of the Alberta legislature. Like Meredith, Burgener faced heated so-con opposition over her abortion stance. “It's a decision between a woman, her God and her doctor,” she said in defeat.

Despite the focus on abortion in some nomination battles, CFAC’s leaders are adamant that theirs is far from a single-issue movement. In fact, Brian Rushfeldt, CFAC’s executive director and co-founder with Beyers, says the coalition was created expressly as an alternative to organizations like Campaign Life Coalition that make opposing abortion their prime objective. “Were much broader than that,” Rushfeldt declares. “Pro-life is a small amount of the work that we do. Our focus is on traditional families, religious freedom and democracy.”

CFAC fought with other so-cons on the winning side on at least two skirmishes this year unrelated to abortion. The group joined forces with like-minded organizations, including the anti-feminist lobby group REAL Women of Canada, to intervene in an Ontario court case to defend the right of parents to spank their children. A judge ruled in their favor, and against a group that was trying to have spanking outlawed as child abuse. And CFAC boasts its lobbying influenced at least some of the backbench Liberal MPs who pressured federal Justice Minister Anne McLellan to drop a plan to change the legal definition of marriage to include same-sex unions. McLellan’s move left gay-rights advocates convinced that top Liberals are spooked by the Alliance. “The Liberals caved in to the perception that there would be a backlash,” said Kim Vance, president of Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere. “I certainly think they can see the writing on the wall about the support the Alliance is going to get in the next election.”

Expect that election to feature so-cons out in force. Beyer says CFAC’s model for political action is the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. The federation, founded in 1990, emerged as a tenacious voice in keeping lower-taxes, less-spending themes on federal and provincial election agendas. And between campaigns, its offices in the capitals of all four western provinces and Ottawa keep the pressure on. Beyer argues that just as the federation was on the right track when soaring deficits finally turned public opinion to the right on fiscal matters, CFAC is positioning itself to take advantage of conditions that are ripening for a similar shift on social questions. for links

Among the key issues that he contends might already have tipped the balance: last year’s ruling by a B.C. judge who struck down the law banning possession of child pornography as a violation of the right to freedom of expression. The Supreme Court of Canada heard an appeal of the case brought by the federal government last winter, and its decision is pending. Even if the top court restores the law, though, Beyer contends that the lower court ruling jolted a lot of Canadians into wondering if widely held values are under siege, especially by activist judges. “People are ready to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” he says. “It’s very similar to where things were nine or 10 years ago on deficits.”

The roots of contemporary Canadian conservatism run deeper, of course, than last year’s court controversies or even the past decade’s deficit battles. The Fraser Institute has been churning out a steady stream of reports urging freer trade, lower taxes, privatization and less government since it was founded in 1974. Michael Walker, the institute’s executive director, recalls it being dismissed in one early newspaper account as “an intellectual wing of the Ku Klux Klan.” These days, much of the Fraser Institutes economic policy outlook is accepted as conventional wisdom, and the institute now has a social affairs center mustering right-wing prescriptions on issues from welfare to education. Walker sees no reason not to approach social matters with the same market-based philosophy the institute applies to the economy. “Human action is human action,” he says.

While the Fraser Institute has made Vancouver home base for many Canadian intellectual conservatives, writer and publisher Ted Byfield has established Edmonton as the center of right-wing, populist journalism. His Alberta Report, revamped last year as a national magazine called simply the Report News-magazine, was influential in fostering early support for Preston Manning’s Reform party. True to his reputation as a reliable weather vane for conservative winds, Byfield shifted his support from Manning to Day for the Alliance leadership race. His son, Link, now editor and publisher of the Report, says Day’s appeal stems from the way he bridges economic and social conservatism. “Stockwell, for some reason, seems to be the personification of both sides,” he says. “They both come very naturally and sincerely to him.”

Day’s background does lend him undeniable credibility in both of the broad conservative camps. As a former treasurer in Alberta Premier Ralph Klein’s government, he is firmly associated with the tax-cutting, government-shrinking economic side. But Day is also a rock-ribbed social conservative, a born-again Christian and onetime preacher. He argues that those who believe in the fiscal conservatism of frugal government and lower taxes but think they can peacefully co-exist with liberal social views are fooling themselves. “While many politicians have at last grasped fiscal reality, they have not yet awakened to our disintegrating social reality—but they will,” Day said in a major speech on his brand of conservatism during the leadership contest. “The day they do, many of those fiscal-conservatives-but-social-liberals will become un-hyphenated. And when they do, they will find a ready home in the Canadian Alliance.”

DAY AND OTHER CHRISTIAN SO-CONS are also reaching out to Jews and Muslims

In the same key speech, delivered on April 28, Day also tackled head-on questions about how his religion relates to his politics. His strategists saw it as an issue he had to try to put to rest; touting the speech in advance, Days inner circle even compared it to John F. Kennedy’s famous one in Houston on Sept. 12,1960, defending the right of a Catholic to run for president. Day could hardly match Kennedy at his eloquent best, but he was unmistakably impassioned. “As a conservative, I have no intention of making my religion someone else’s law,” Day said, but went on to add that he is “opposed to any suggestion that citizens separate themselves from their beliefs in order to participate in the government of their state.”

That differs, at least in nuance and arguably much more, from the position Chrétien expressed last week. In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, Chrétien said he keeps his religion “separate from politics,” even though he still considers himself “a good Catholic” in his personal life. “Especially in a multicultural and multi-religious population like ours,” he elaborated, “the temptations of one group to impose its morality on others, it’s always dangerous and you have to be guarded against it.” Chrétien suggests that individual politicians must not allow their religious convictions to color their political judgment. Day proposes more populist controls on the possibility of a party imposing religious views. He has vowed that an Alliance government would not alter the law on the most divisive moral issues, including abortion, unless Canadians voted for change in a referendum.

Day has acknowledged that for social conservatism to widen its voter appeal it needs to broaden its base beyond conservative Christians. By advocating tax breaks for religious schools, he has succeeded in impressing at least some Jews and Muslims, appealing directly to groups like the multi-faith Ontario Parents for Equality in Education Funding. Beyer says groups like his are similarly reaching out. As a sign of things to come, he points to close co-operation between CFAC and Sikhs on keeping books that introduce the concept of same-sex couples out of a Surrey, B.C., elementary school. Not that Alliance so-cons are inclined to disguise the frankly Christian underpinning of their politics. “These views are not alien to our culture,” declares Richardson. “From my reading of history, most of the Fathers of Confederation were Christians.” And with that proud claim to represent reliable, old values—not the narrow, new threat their opponents see in them—Canada’s social conservatives are on the march.