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Hate is an all-too powerful motivator

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Stephen Harper has five priorities. He listed those five key priorities during the election campaign and, just in case you’d forgotten them, he listed them again in his government’s twenty minute Throne Speech. He’s going to pass the Federal Accountability Act; he’s going to knock a percentage point of the GST; he’s going to “crack down on crime”; he’s going to give parents $3.28 per day (less taxes and other adjustments) to “help them with the cost of raising their children”; and, lastly, he’s going to establish a “wait times guarantee” for health care.

If you’re a Conservative Party supporter and don’t see your own pet issue on that list, consider yourself out of luck (this applies even to members of Harpers caucus, who have expressed a desire to do everything from imprisoning non-compliant journalists to outlawing abortion). There are several reasons for this narrow focus, all of which have to do with Harper’s all-consuming desire to turn a fragile minority government into a majority government.

Harper understands that it was mainly anger at the Liberals, not overwhelming support for Conservative ideology, that allowed him to come out ahead on election night. Indeed, he knows that Canadians are still very wary of the Conservatives, so this term in office is all about proving that they are both fit to govern and, more importantly, “not scary”. To meet the capability test, he’s set a manageable number of goals that are both specific and measurable. This is in stark contrast to Paul Martin, who never met a promise he wouldn’t make (usually in the most grandiose manner possible).

Even if the proposed cheques for children will do nothing to create the quality, affordable child care that parents need, he can argue that he’s kept his promise. And, even if there are huge holes (some them that are the size and shape of David Emerson, and others that seem to bear a startling resemblance to Gordon O’Connor) in his proposed Accountability Act, he can claim to have done something to improve on the way Liberals ran the government.

The effort to reduce the Conservatives’ scariness quotient is a little more difficult, as many people who ran for or voted for the Conservatives did so specificially because they wanted to impose their own narrow version of morality on the country. What’s the point of changing from a Liberal to a Conservative government, they would argue, if you can’t change the abortion law, stack the Supreme with right wing judges, or eliminate Status of Women Canada? Harper knows that the social conservatives in his party aren’t going to be placated by small steps – such as attempts to drive more women back to the kitchen or lock up a few more young offenders – nor are they going to want to be patient.

That’s why the one exception to the Reformatories’ five key priorities (that’s right, they actually have six key priorities, but they would really rather that we talk about only five of them) is that they will try to re-open the issue of same-sex marriage. As Harper indicated in his first press conference of the election campaign and confirmed after being elected, the Conservatives will put forward a motion in the House of Commons calling for marriage rights to be taken away from same-sex couples. If the motion passes, then legislation would be brought forward to roll back the human rights of lesbians and gay men (although no attempt would be made to eliminate existing same-sex marriages).

Looking at the composition of the House of Commons, it appears unlikely that the motion will garner enough support to pass. The Conservatives say that they will allow their MPs a free vote (meaning that most of them will vote against equality) and, unlike the NDP – which considers support for human rights to be a fundamental principal – the Liberals (with only about two-thirds in favour of equality) and Bloc (about ninety per cent pro-equality) may do so as well. The record from previous parliamentary votes and, in the case of new MPs, the record of their public statements on the matter indicate that the vote count won’t be all that different than it was in 2005. Of course, even if the motion does pass, getting legislation through that would withstand a court challenge would be next to impossible.

So, given these odds, why would Harper even bother to stir up this debate? He’s doing what the Republicans like to call “exciting the base” (a term used in internal party memos circulated during the Terri Schaivo debate). By throwing a bone to the social conservatives in the party, Harper is showing them that they can count on the Conservatives to advance their interests – or at least make a symbolic effort at doing so. Brian Mulroney did the same thing at the start of his term when he allowed a free vote on reinstating the death penalty (knowing that the vote would fail).

The sad reality is that hate is a powerful motivator in politics, and there’s no hotter button for social conservatives than same-sex marriage (which, in spite of evidence to the contrary, they equate with the downfall of civilization). Bigots are always going to exist, but a national leader really should be above pandering to them. Especially when promoting hatred against gays is not supposed to be one of his five priorities.
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