Friday, June 04, 2004

Where Have All the Soccons Gone?

With Liberal fortunes falling in the run-up to the June 28 Canadian election, Canada’s “natural governing party” is starting to get nasty. But what they’re doing is nothing new. Just as Jean Chretien did four years ago, the current Liberals are attempting to discredit the Conservatives by attacking them on social issues.

The game plan is simple: portray the Conservatives and their leader as an extreme conservative on social issues, especially on abortion, gay rights and women’s issues. That this was always more or less the Liberal strategy was expected, but to their surprise, during the first week of the campaign, it seems the attacks backfired as Stephen Harper and the Conservatives put on a moderate face.

So, seeing that their tactics weren’t working, the Liberals, oddly enough, decided to increase the aggressiveness of the attacks. This week, two Liberal cabinet ministers showed up at a Conservative rally to heckle and berate Harper. It showed a Liberal party increasingly desperate. But will it work?

In the last few days, Canada’s eternally Liberal-loving media has taken the bait and is beginning to talk about Conservative social policies using the charged rhetoric of the Liberal spin doctors. As of yet, however, there isn’t much sign that it’s impacting voters who are more upset with the Liberals than distrustful of Harper.

Still, it is worth considering whether or not the Conservatives are basically Soccons, i.e. social conservatives. I think the answer to this is a qualified, no. Certainly there is an attempt by the Conservatives to appear more moderate on social issues than were the Reform or Alliance parties. The Liberals, however, believe that this is just appearance, and should the Conservatives win the election, Canada would suddenly become a hotbed of right-wing Christian fundamentalist oppression. In other words, there’s a hidden agenda behind all this Conservative moderation.

Before answering this Liberal charge, I think we should remember a few key points. The first is that the Conservatives have little or no chance of ever gaining a majority, which means they will have to rely on other parties to form a government, and all the other parties are more liberal than the Conservatives when it comes to social issues in general. The most likely ally for the Conservatives will be the Bloc Quebecois, which, for the most part, is not a socially conservative group.

In addition, we have to remember what happened when the old Progressive Conservatives and Alliance parties merged to form the new Conservative Party. There was a fear that the Soccons would dominate the party, pushing the more socially liberal “Red Tories” to the side. Thus far, there’s no real sign this has occurred. In fact, I think exactly the opposite is happening – it’s the Soccons who are in retreat in the party. This isn’t to say they are non-existent, or that their ideas won’t have some influence. Rather, it seems that the Conservative Party is, in reality and not just appearance, more moderate than the Liberals would like us to believe.

And why do I say this? Well, I’ve been working as a volunteer for one of the Conservative candidates in a relatively rural Alberta riding, and what I’ve found is a rather simple fact: the Soccons, so influential in the Reform Party, are dying off. Again and again I hear how happy the party is to have younger people coming along in rural ridings since so many of the volunteers from past campaigns are either dead of too aged to take on the burden of volunteering. The rural Soccons are fading out of the picture, and increasingly the face of the Conservative Party is more that of libertarian Calgary than traditional rural Alberta.

I suspect the Liberals will continue their attacks and increase the intensity, believing in their heart of hearts that the Conservatives are operating with a secret agenda in mind. But the changing reality of the Conservative Party just doesn’t seem to bear that out. And if that’s true, then the Liberals may find themselves fighting today’s election using yesterday’s strategy – not the best spot to be in.

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