Canada's conservatives shift right
Ontario's Tories hope to capitalize on a backlash against liberal court rulings before an Oct. 2 election.
Garfield Dunlop is busy on the hustings, giving the same spiel at every door in his suburban Ontario district.Skip to next paragraph
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"I've got some literature here on same-sex marriage," says the avuncular politician, pressing a pamphlet into the palm of a white-haired woman who smiles and motions him into her home. "It's a sin," he continues, climbing into the foyer. "And it could tear apart the fabric of our society."
For a man in for the political fight of his life, an incumbent running for a seat in the provincial parliament, Mr. Dunlop's rhetoric could read like a death wish. After all, this is Ontario, which hardly seems poised to move further to the right. Polls show that voters in the Oct. 2 election are ready to oust the Progressive Conservatives, whose tax-and service-cutting measures have fallen out of favor after seven years in power.
But in the first election since a June court ruling legalized gay marriage here, Dunlop is testing a new strategy. Increasingly, conservatives are trying to capitalize on a backlash by Canada's "silent majority" - those who think that the country has lurched too far to the left. If successful, it's a political calculus that could play out well beyond Ontario's borders.
"We're not a hippie nation," says Brian O'Riordan, an analyst with the independent political consulting firm, G.P. Murray Ltd. in Toronto. "Consistently, polls have shown that Canadians are deeply divided on social issues such as same-sex marriage. I think there's a recognition that there is some hay to be made on these issues on the campaign trail."
The shift to the right is a stunning departure for the Conservatives here, who have reigned over one of the most tumultuous political periods in Ontario's history - seven years of often violent protests and strikes in reaction to an agenda of deep tax cuts and smaller government. While the Conservatives, or Tories, have looked south to the Republicans in the United States for help in building their Common Sense Revolution, they have consistently governed as fiscal rather than social conservatives.
Since seizing the party leadership last year, Premier Ernie Eves portrayed himself as a centrist. However, with this election call, Mr. Eves has emerged as a born-again Anglican who can no longer countenance gay marriage.
Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, says that Eves's shift to the right may help to mobilize the party's core constituency - those in the vote-rich suburbs surrounding Toronto and in rural Ontario. "The Tories see themselves losing their campaign," Mr. Wiseman says. "Obviously, by pushing hot-button issues, they're trying to speak to their core supporters - many of those in rural Ontario who are social conservatives."
But the Progressive Conservatives got grim news last week. The latest poll from Ipsos-Reid Canada showed them trailing badly. Six in 10 voters - including 14 percent of Tory supporters - said it was time for a change in government.