5 min

Rights vs Wrong

Pleas for moderate Tory party fall on deaf ears

Credit: (Gareth Kirkby)

MONTREAL – It’s official now: If they come to power, the Conservative Party will pass a law defining marriage as being between a man and a woman.

The policy was approved by a three-to-one margin at the Mar 17-19 founding policy convention in Montreal of the party formed in 2003 from a merger of the Reform/Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives.

And that’s just one of many extreme policies adopted by the new party virtually unchanged from the original policy book of the old Reform Party.

Despite a passionate plea on the convention floor from Belinda Stronach, one of four Conservative MPs who favour same-sex marriage equality, delegates backed party leader Stephen Harper’s stand opposing gay marriage rights. Harper had set the tone for the convention in his keynote speech on Friday night, telling delegates – to wide-spread applause – he would end same-sex marriage soon after the Tories come to power.

About 50 Pink Panthers crashed the federal Conservative Party policy convention in Montreal. Atop their Sodomobile was a life-sized papier-mâché likeness of party leader Stephen Harper being fucked by a pink panther.

“It’s everything Stephen Harper doesn’t want to see,” explains spokesperson Emma Pantoufle. “It’s subversive, perversive. We’re here to protest Stephen Harper’s policies. They’re racist, sexist, homophobic – the whole lot.”
Stronach pitched an “inclusive” and moderate party to delegates in the same-sex marriage vote. Former Tory MP Elsie Wayne, a long-time foe of gay rights, spoke for a “traditional” definition of marriage – and her perspective clearly resonated with delegates.

Another opponent told the delegates, “There’s right and wrong, not right and popular.”

In the end, the majority of delegates in every province except tiny PEI voted in lockstep with Wayne and Harper.

In fact, according to Alex Munter, the co-chair of Canadians For Equal Marriage, same-sex marriage was the one issue delegates viscerally connected with.

“The only time there was real energy in the room, that people were really connected, was when they were saying, ‘Let’s kick the fags,'” says Munter.

Gay Tories are putting a positive spin on it. A predicted walkout of delegates after the same-sex vote failed to materialize. They’re choosing party over principle.

“No one can deny we’re moving in the right direction,” says Vancouver gay Conservative Gary Mitchell. He expected to get a lot less than the 25 percent of the party who voted against the traditional definition of marriage.

“I have to keep working from within,” says Mitchell, who is strongly drawn to the party for its free-enterprise economic policies. “Nobody can agree with every single policy of a party.”

Mitchell was the only out gay Conservative Party candidate in the 2004 federal election. He challenged Liberal Hedy Fry for the Vancouver Centre riding, and spoke out against anti-gay election rhetoric.

On the eve of the Montreal convention, he formed Conservatives For Equal Marriage, which shares the initials CEM with Canadians For Equal Marriage. The Conservative group has 20 steering committee members and more than 100 endorsements on its website. Mitchell says he got a lot of positive feedback from party members after forming the group. It demonstrated to Canadians that the party had diversity, he suggests.

Mitchell thinks leader Harper won’t follow through on his commitment to outlaw same-sex marriage if the Conservatives come to power.

“Canadians are not prepared to see the use of the notwithstanding clause or a constitutional amendment on this issue,” says Mitchell. Gay conservatives and their supporters will continue fighting party policy until full equality is recognized, he pledges.

A young gay Conservative echoes Mitchell.

“I’m upset at the direction, but it wasn’t unexpected,” says 17-year-old Craig Stevens, a gay delegate from Chatham/Kent-Essex. “My comfort comes from the fact [same-sex marriage equality is] the law now in this country. Legal scholars say [Stephen Harper] can’t change it without using the notwithstanding clause. I don’t think our party would get behind that.”

(The federal same-sex marriage bill is currently at second reading in Parliament. Same-sex marriage is already legal in seven provinces and one territory.)

Stevens isn’t thinking of leaving the party anytime soon. He’s a Conservative because of the party’s strong free-market orientation, he says. Besides, “We’ve shown we do have some progressive inklings in this party by passing a motion to not touch abortion. How I change things is to stay with the party.”

The Conservatives tried to spin the convention as moving the party toward the centre. And at first glance, there’s some evidence for it. The average age of delegates was more than a decade younger than previous Reform/Alliance pow-wows – and reportedly younger even than the recent Liberal convention. As well, the vitriol against gays, immigrants, bilingualism and social programs that dominated past conventions of the Reform Party was missing. And delegates were disciplined and tight-mouthed in avoiding comments to media.

One delegate that questioned French on cereal boxes was roundly booed during the policy session.

The party won the headlines it badly wanted after making it official policy to not revisit Canada’s abortion laws if it attains power. “Tories give up fight against abortion,” trumpeted the Ottawa Citizen on Sun, Mar 20. Said the pro-Liberal Toronto Star: “Party veers to middle.”

But a closer look shows that even on the abortion issue, the party’s policies continue to be dominated by the views of the largely Western Canadian former members of the Reform and Alliance parties. And Harper has surrounded himself with advisors from that faction.

The abortion policy does not prevent Conservative MPs from voting in favour of a private member’s bill to outlaw reproductive choice. And it also allows free rein for the party to encourage the delisting of abortion procedures from coverage under health plans.

And then there are the other policies. Attempts by Quebec delegates to move the party toward the middle on social and economic subsidies were rebuffed by other delegates early – at the first day’s policy workshops.

Delegates chose a radical set of rightwing policies, including:

– re-affirming 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 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;

– opposing the Kyoto accord on global warming;

– a massive increase in defence spending; and,

– adding property rights to the Constitution, a move that would undermine the ability of government to protect the environment and make social policy.

The party also voted down allowing an official youth wing. Opponents simultaneously argued that a youth group would be powerless and have nothing to do and also that it would be a threat to party values and shift the Conservatives to the political middle. (Seconds after the vote, Young Liberal observers distributed flyers. “Dear Young Conservatives,” the flyer said. “The Conservative Party Of Canada has just denied you a voice. Do not despair. You can join a party that allows you the right to be heard.”)

And on the day after the convention, Harper took another shot at gays. Breaking a 9-9 tie on the newly elected national council, the Conservative leader voted for the new party president. His choice: Don Plett, a unilingual Manitoba social conservative whose campaign literature emphasized his Christianity amid multiple photos of his wife and children. Rejected by Harper: Brian Mitchell, a bilingual Montreal gay lawyer with moderate political views.

Mitchell hinted at party dirty tricks. “I won’t even tell you the outrageous conduct I’ve had to put up with,” he told a National Post columnist. “Some pretty extraordinary things happened, but I don’t want to go negative now. I’m not going to give the Liberals anything they can use against our party.”