Canada

RELIGION AND THE RIGHT

By appealing to diehard believers, Day may win the leadership battle-and cost the alliance the war

JOHN GEDDES March 18 2002
Canada

RELIGION AND THE RIGHT

By appealing to diehard believers, Day may win the leadership battle-and cost the alliance the war

JOHN GEDDES March 18 2002

RELIGION AND THE RIGHT

Canada

By appealing to diehard believers, Day may win the leadership battle-and cost the alliance the war

JOHN GEDDES

Stockwell Day brings something special when he strides into the meeting room above a suburban Ottawa curl-

ing rink. Its not his policies—although the 250 supporters gathered here on a recent Saturday night are surely primed for some low-tax, small-government, pro-family talk. Its not his style—although they must admire the way his confident, athletic bearing has held up to the sustained battering he’s taken in federal politics. And it’s certainly not his record—although Day’s solid showing in the House on anti-terrorism issues last fall went some way to dimming the memory of his bumbling election campaign a year earlier and an often comic performance as official Opposition leader in the months that followed.

No, what sets Day apart from his rivals for the Canadian Alliance leadership is even more compelling: a story. His stump speech, delivered entirely without notes, is less a platform than a personal narrative. The tale he tells, and tells well, is not about a neophyte leader who comes to Ottawa, messes up, loses the support of his own caucus, and ends up scrambling to get his old job back. It’s the uplifting account of an unapologetic social conservative, disrespected by a “national media elite” that has only “scorn” for the Alliance grassroots (a ripple of we-hear-you-Stock applause), conspired against by “backroom” types inside his own party (a murmur of ascent—this crowd has no time for such smooth operators), but who refuses to become “a quitter” (supportive cheering).

In short, Day tells his receptive audience that his struggle is theirs. “A few plotters tried to take the question of leadership into their own hands,” he says. “But you will decide who the leader will be.” While religion is mostly only a subtext in the speech, it’s telling that Day’s most overt reference to faith—when he bemoans the Liberal government’s decision not to include prayer at the official memorial for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks—gets the evening’s biggest ovation. The absence of prayer at that high-profile Parliament Hill event has come to symbolize for many evangelical Christians, and other religious conservatives, what they see as the denial of what matters most to them at the centre of Canadian public life.

If Day loses, they will take it as another

sign they’re being marginalized. He is once again mobilizing the communities that allowed him to upset Preston Manning and win the first Alliance leadership race in July, 2000: lots of evangelical Protestants, bolstered by conservative Catholics, and a smattering of right-leaning Jews, Muslims and Sikhs. Anti-abortion activists are once more rallying behind Day. And his main rival, Stephen Harper, is worried that strategy might just work. “Stockwell Day is running a clever campaign—he’s a smart guy—but it’s focused entirely on getting

the support of outside organizations to win this race,” Harper said pointedly in recent speech to about 90 Alliance members in Whitby, Ont., just east of Toronto.

Harper brings nothing to a campaign stop so emotionally charged as Day’s story. His low-key pitch is more practical than personal. An economist who was influential in the early days of the Reform party, and who served as a Reform MP from 1993-1997, before going on to head the National Citizens Coalition, Harper is associated with what is sometimes called

“secular conservatism.” Success for the party, he argues, depends on a breakthrough in Ontario. And the key to winning over Ontario voters is to look like a credible government-in-waiting focused on tax cuts and smaller government—not a protest movement preoccupied with hot-button issues like abortion. “The problem,” he says in an exasperated tone, “is that people, particularly in this province, are not confident that we are a permanent political party dedicated to professionalism and competence.”

Harper has the declared support of most Alliance MPs, and his organizers are confident their man will get the votes of most of the party’s veteran activists. But the Alliance leader is chosen by a one-member, one-vote system—so new members are as valuable as old ones. (The results of the first mail-in ballot will be announced on March 20 in Calgary; if a second ballot is needed, the outcome will be announced on April 4 in Edmonton.) Harper tacidy acknowledges he may have been surpassed by Day in the recruitment sweepstakes.

“We would make a leadership change,” he says, “if it was stricdy a matter of the longterm membership.”

That big “if” hung heavy in the air in Whitby. Alliance membership has shot up to 123,312 during the leadership race, about double where it stood when Day stepped down in December. Day’s campaign claims to have signed up more than 28,000 new members before the Feb. 28 deadline for new joiners to be eligible to vote for the leader; Harper’s says it signed up about 16,000. Day’s recruitment effort tapped into surprisingly resilient support. A recent poll by Compas Inc. found that 34 per cent of declared Alliance voters would choose him if they cast a ballot in the leadership race, compared with 22 per cent who would support Harper. (The other candidates are far behind, with MP Grant Hill polling eight per cent support among Alliance voters and five per cent leaning toward MP Diane Ablonczy.)

Many Harper supporters fear the Alliance will stall permanendy if Day wins. They see his appeal beyond his diehard loyalists as extremely limited. Compas assessed the potential for expanding the Alliance base, probing the views of those who have either cast a ballot for the party in the past or would consider doing so given the right leader—about a third of English Canadian voters. Among these “high potential Alliance voters,” 44 per cent would definitely not vote for Day, but just three per cent rule out voting for Harper. Not surprisingly, Harper is touting the Compas results. “Either we will choose the current leader and we will stay exactly where we are, or we will choose a new leader and we will have an enormous potential,” he says. “That’s what the data shows.”

Harper’s outright criticism of Day’s reliance on an evangelical Christian, antiabortion base has injected a bitter taste into this campaign. Saskatchewan MP Gerry Ritz, a strong Day supporter, is one of the few Alliance members able to joke about it. “If Stephen Harper controlled federal infrastructure money,” Ritz says, “he’d be building colosseums and importing lions.” Few others are laughing. Day demanded, but never got, an apology when Harper’s campaign manager, Tom Flanagan, said Day’s courting of religious

“special-interest groups” was “very dangerous for the party.” In a testy radio debate, Harper accused Day of trying to position himself as “the best Christian” in the race.

Yet Harper is himself a churchgoer, as are many of the Alliance MPs backing him. Their qualms about the Alliance being too closely identified with religious groups and the anti-abortion movement are more strategic than cultural. Public opinion research suggests that the U.S. Republican party’s success in harnessing the support of the religious right probably can’t be duplicated in Canada. Canadians seem far less

inclined than Americans to identify with overdy devout politicians. A poll on religious beliefs on both sides of the border in 1999 found that just 35 per cent of Canadians said God is very important in their personal lives, compared with 63 per cent of Americans.

Even among conservative Christians, there are strong political differences between the two countries. The Republican party can count on majority support from America’s evangelical Protestants, but polling by the firm Ipsos-Reid last summer found that just 22 per cent of Canadian

evangelicals back the Alliance. Political scientist Dennis Hoover, a resident fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., who has studied religion and political activism on both sides of the border, says the differences go beyond the concentration of support behind a single party. Hoover says that while Canadian evangelicals tend to hold the same positions as their American counterparts on issues like abortion and gay rights, the Canadians tend to be much less staunchly conservative on other social and economic questions. “Canadian evangelical Christians,” he says, “blend in with the background of Canadian society on issues like wealth redistribution and social policy.”

It adds up to a Canadian religious right that is smaller, less entrenched in one party, and more varied in its policy outlook than its mighty U.S. counterpart. That makes it a less potent force at election time. “It’s an advantage in the United States, if you’re trying to get to the White House, to carry a Bible on Sundays; in Canada, it’s almost a disadvantage,” says Gary Walsh, president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, a powerful umbrella group of conservative Protestant denominations.

Still, if courting a religious vote is a doubtful strategy in a Canadian general election, Day proved when he beat Manning it can work in the narrower context of an Alliance leadership race. The question is whether he can duplicate that victory against Harper. If he does, his opponents fear their party’s base will shrink—and Day’s first challenge could be to hold the Alliance together long enough to prove them wrong. If Harper wins, he will face his own tough challenge: showing that his back-to-basics brand of decidedly secular conservatism can finally extend the Alliance’s appeal beyond its western strongholds into Ontario.