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6 min

Big changes a-coming

Conservatives are extremists on a moral crusade

TORY TRANSFORMED. On Jan 11 Conservative leader Stephen Harper announced that he'd "evolved" and is open to being more flexible on individual issues. Credit: (SUZY MALIK)

What would Canada look like if a Stephen Harper government were elected Mon, Jan 23? What changes can queers and other minorities seeking social justice expect to experience? How do we prepare, how do we react, how do we keep momentum on our issues?

As election day nears, a kind of panic has set in among members of queer e-mail list serves I monitor. One noted with sadness that Paul Martin is simply not a leader. Neither is Stephen Harper, he wrote; the Conservative leader is “just a garden variety bigot who’s gotten lucky.”

A board member of Egale Canada, our largest national gay lobby group, sent out a clipping from the website. “ACT NOW,” it screamed. “EQUALITY IS THREATENED! Opponents of equality are mobilizing in this election to defeat candidates who voted for equal marriage and to elect religious rightwing candidates who want to roll back equal marriage and other advances. Take action to elect MPs who support LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans] equality and to defeat MPs who want to roll back our rights.”

But really, would a Stephen Harper government be so bad for queers or, for that matter, progressives of all kinds? After all, we survived the Mulroney years without the severe setbacks experienced by US citizens under Ronald Reagan and Great Britain under Margaret Thatcher — or for that matter, by Ontario residents under Mike Harris.

The short answer is yes, it will be that bad. This guy is no Brian Mulroney, no “progressive” conservative. The long answer deserves more detail.

First, there’s the matter of Harper himself. This is a guy who grew up in Toronto, but chose to live in Alberta, a politico who felt more comfortable in the Reform Party than with the Progressive Conservatives. A man who, as Paul Martin noted in the second English-language debate, made a speech to hardcore rightwingers in the US, telling them Canada has something to learn from them. A Canadian party leader who wanted us to fight beside the US in Iraq. His personal choices speak volumes.

Second, there’s the slate of far-right candidates running under Harper. In a special report for Xtra.ca, contributor Tom Sandborn took a look at a group of BC Conservative candidates, in winnable ridings, with ties to US-based lobby group Focus On The Family or with strong views on First Nations and other minority rights.

“Like the US model, Focus On The Family in Canada is dedicated to promoting a conservative, religiously inflected view of acceptable family structure, limiting women’s access to abortion and strengthening legal barriers against pornography and prostitution, all in the name of Biblical ‘family values,'” wrote Sandborn. “Focus Canada operates out of Langley BC, and has opened Canada’s largest social conservative lobbying office in Ottawa, the nine-member Institute For Marriage And The Family.

“Focus On The Family Canada runs a sophisticated operation that includes its own radio shows, Christian counselling, frequent press releases and lobbying efforts, extensive ‘pro-family’ publications and interventions in court cases. In the US, Focus president James Dobson has been viewed as a Republican kingmaker, helping to deliver a bloc of evangelical voters who made up close to one-third of US President George W Bush’s popular vote in 2004. While nowhere near as influential as its counterpart in the US, Focus Canada clearly has an agenda to steer Canadian public policy to the hard right on matters touching on family and sexuality.”

Why is the Conservative Party, a party that claims it has become more moderate, running candidates with ties to Focus On The Family?

And if they get power, what can we expect from these very focussed Conservatives? One Conservative candidate, commenting on CPAC channel in early January said the most pressing issues facing the country were to increase the age of sexual consent to 18, repeal same-sex marriage legislation, change the laws to reverse last December’s Supreme Court of Canada decision legalizing swinger’s clubs and gay bathhouses, and increase the penalty for bestiality to 10 years.

New morality laws. Every Canadian’s top priority, I’m sure. Such a high priority for Canadians that no party leader made a point of discussing any of the above list during the election, with the exception of same-sex marriage. Of course, we all remember that Stephen Harper’s first policy announcement out of the election gates had to do with holding a vote of Parliament to decide whether to hold another vote of Parliament to reconsider Bill C-38’s legalization of civic gay marriage. No doubt he did it to send a sideways message to the party’s social conservatives that he hasn’t forgotten about them, so they can shut up for the rest of the campaign lest they scare off voters with what they say.

But then Harper did say, in the first set of TV debates, that he would not use the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to shoot down same-sex marriage. Or did he? According to professors Jerome Black and Bruce Hicks writing Jan 5 in the Toronto Star, Harper merely promised not to invoke the notwithstanding clause at this time, but may manipulate the debate so that the clause is invoked to protect Parliament’s right to make a decision on same-sex marriage after a future Supreme Court decision strikes down any legislation repealing Bill C-38. It’s worth noting that Harper has not clarified his position since the Star story and a subsequent demand by Egale Canada that he clarify the matter.

A wee peek at the policies passed by the party at its Montreal convention last March is instructive. The policy convention happened a year after the Reform/Canadian Alliance merged with the Progressive Conservatives, prompting many longtime PCs to exit. The convention was hailed even by the Toronto Star as having moved to the middle of the political spectrum after they ditched the previous Reform Party policy to recriminalize abortion. But the new Conservative abortion policy does not prevent Conservative MPs from voting in favour of a private member’s bill to outlaw reproductive choice. And it also would allow provinces to delist abortion procedures from coverage under health plans. Small progress.

At that same policy convention, delegates endorsed a radical set of rightwing policies, including:

* Reaffirming use of the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to overturn court decisions they disagree with;
* Raising the age of sexual consent to 16 from 14;
* Eliminating all defences against child porn, something that would radically curtail freedom of speech and art and probably ultimately require the use of the notwithstanding clause;
* Politicizing the appointment of Supreme Court Of Canada judicial appointments;
* Increasing private sector health care;
* Opposing universal child-care, transferring fiscal spending power to the provinces, curtailing the role of the federal government in social policy;
* “Three strikes and you’re out” criminal sentencing;
* Negotiating with the US for a missile-defence agreement;
* Taking Canada out of the Kyoto accord on global warning;
* A massive increase in defence spending; and
* Adding property rights to the Constitution, a move that would forever undermine the ability of government to protect the environment and make social policy.

These are policies more in keeping with the Reform Party than the Progressive Conservatives, and reflect the fact that many Reformers stuck with the merged party while many former PCs left. Even some members of the Canadian Senate chose to remain with the now-dead party of Sir John A Macdonald, John Diefenbaker and Joe Clark. Harper has kept his Reform friends, mostly from the Prairies, Alberta and BC, close to him and in positions of genuine power in the party. I come from BC, and spent more than a decade reporting on the Reform Party and Canadian Alliance, their MPs, policies and worldview. I know these people.

If the Harperites attain power, they will act a lot more like the Reform Party than the Progressive Conservatives. Get ready to hold on tight while they voluntarily transfer to the provinces powers that the federal government has incrementally acquired over the past century; Reformers want to return to the limited federal powers of the original British North America Act — and they don’t need a round of Constitutional negotiations to give up the kind of powers that have made possible our federal social safety net and environmental policies. And recent progress on human rights. Radical decentralization is what Harper is all about — and where he could bridge the gap between the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois in the event of minority government — and if he’s successful, it will leave in its wake the programs that centre-left Canadians so admire.

That leaves us with two things. First, to vote, every one of us — and to talk to our neighbours, colleagues, lovers and friends about what this guy is really about. Second, to prepare for the post-election period. No doubt, he’s learned the lessons of Mike Harris’s first months in power — blitzkrieg the enemy with rapid-fire changes before they get a chance to fight back. We are that enemy. And we need to build alliances fast, get ready to take the hill, to demonstrate, work the media, pour into the streets as he prepares to re-outlaw bathhouses, raise the age of consent, undo same-sex marriage, privatize health care, move us closer to the US, etc. This guy means business.

So must we.