By Jason Menard
Well, that certainly didn’t take long. Not even 24 hours into the federal election campaign and Conservative leader Stephen Harper threw down the first sequined gauntlet, promising to hold an open vote on the question of legal marriage in this country.
Yet, what Harper and both capital and small-c conservatives haven’t figured out yet is that if they want to reach out to the soft middle, the gay issue has to be kept aside. Otherwise, the same ol’ fears that keep Harper out of a Sussex Drive address will continue to flourish – and a polarized left will rise to send the Conservatives to defeat.
At a time when there are so many other topics with which Harper could effectively campaign from, he chooses to bring up an issue that was cooling nicely on the back burner. What’s next? Will Harper advocate a plebiscite on the return of the death penalty? How about introducing a motion to make kids recite the Lord’s Prayer in school? Maybe a little missive on abortion laws, just to keep the conversation going?
Instead of promoting talking points that are inclusionary, he has to choose to turn the heat up on one of the most divisive issues affecting our country. And when you take one side of a polarized issue, it’s only natural that an opposing side will unite to fight back – which is exactly what the Conservatives don’t want.
The Tories best chance at unseating the Grits is to play to the soft centre of Canadian politics. They’ve already wrapped up the right-wing vote – in fact, they’re the only game in that town, so why the need to focus on those polarizing issues that cause anyone that leans a little to the left to run screaming away from his party?
Harper could run a successful campaign simply focusing on the Liberal’s lack of accountability, the need for a new voice in Parliament, and a commitment to fiscal responsibility – which was the hallmark of the Liberal party until its recent string of budgetary/campaign promises running up to the non-confidence vote.
But no, that gay issue obviously is quite the bee in his bonnet. Instead of letting sleeping dogs lie, he’s decided to grab it by the tail and wave it around. Now, he can only hope that this particular dog doesn’t come back and bite him.
There’s a reason why the Liberal’s 2004 campaign included allusions to a hidden agenda. It’s the same reason why so many left-leaning voters chose to support the Liberals instead of the NDP at the last minute. Rightly or wrongly, a significant number of people believe that the Tories actually do have a secret agenda. And it doesn’t help when lesser issues like gay marriage come to the fore at the first available opportunity.
This election is ripe for the picking. The Tories could have it easily if they just learned to be compassionate conservatives. Canadians want a viable alternative to the Liberal party but they’re also leery of losing what it means to be Canadian. Rightly or wrongly, the Conservative party has been painted as threats to our social programs and our inclusionary culture – and taking on gay marriage doesn’t soften that perception one little bit.
The Conservatives have to stop preaching to the converted and realize that they’re playing right into the Liberal’s hands. Those who lean to the right will support Harper, while those who lean way to the left are going to support Jack Layton. But it’s the majority of us who reside somewhere in the vast middle that will decide this election – and that’s the demographic that the Liberals have been able to leverage so effectively over the past couple of decades.
Harper needs to realize this and stop alienating the soft Liberal. In the end, while he may see a few former Liberal voters come into his camp, his best option is that he prevents the fear-mongering and polarizing effect an “anything-but-Conservative” campaign can produce.
If he stays away from the hot-button points – or at least stops bringing them up on his own – then voters may be lulled into a feeling of security where they feel that they can comfortably cast a vote for the NDP. That way, the Conservatives can split the left and walk up the right lane, uncontested, to assume the mantle of power.
To Harper, a vote for Layton is just as good as a vote for himself. Secure in the knowledge that the Canadian centre-to-right will support his party, as they’re really the only viable option, then his focus has to be on preventing a unified left from rising up to challenge him in this election. And to do that, he doesn’t necessarily have to appeal to left-of-centre voters, but he does have to avoid being demonized.
Unfortunately, he’s already stumbled coming out of the gates and tripping over the relative non-issue of gay marriage. The Tories have to hope that he rights himself and sticks to issues – not opinions – in order to stake their claim on a very winnable election.
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