Canada's conservatives shift right

Ontario's Tories hope to capitalize on a backlash against liberal court rulings before an Oct. 2 election.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Garfield Dunlop is busy on the hustings, giving the same spiel at every door in his suburban Ontario district.

"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.

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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.

At the federal level, the Liberals, who are expected to face voters next year, are keeping a watchful eye on whether the Tory's bold, new stance will strike it big at the ballot box. Last week, the reigning Liberals narrowly defeated an opposition motion in Parliament that would have stopped the government from legalizing same-sex marriage. Following Saturday's delegate selection, Finance Minister Paul Martin, who supports gay marriage, is poised to become Canada's next prime minister on Nov. 15.

Some political watchers say that the Tories have badly miscalculated voter attitudes. David Docherty, chairman of the political science department at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, says at the very least, the two parties have laid out distinct choices for voters.

"It does provide this beautiful kind of contrast," Mr. Docherty says. "But I think the Tories are running a real risk that the voters in 905 [an area code of suburban, middle-class voters who have typically supported the party's fiscal conservatism] have these social conservative values."

Docherty hasn't ruled out a Progressive Conservative minority government this time around. However, he warns that if the Tories do form the government next month, they will be beholden to this new hard right, and foster even greater culture fissures.

Ontario isn't unique with these social cleavages. According to an NFOCF Group poll, on the issue of same-sex marriage, the country is split by generation, as well as regionally. Most over 50 are opposed to same-sex marriage, while younger people support it. In French-speaking Quebec, 60 percent support same-sex marriage. However, out west in Alberta, only 20 percent want the practice to be legal.

One thing is certain: social issues appear to be galvanizing voters in the heart of the Tory's traditional stronghold. George Finn, a 53-year-old resident of Mississauga, a Toronto suburb, says he will vote for a Conservative candidate this time around because of his stand on same-sex marriage. "I am a Liberal,'' Mr. Finn explains. "But same-sex marriage is wrong.... It is the only issue that matters to me in this election.''

Meanwhile, Alisa Exelby, 21, says she feels compelled to voice her opinion. "I feel so strongly about same-sex marriage that I'm going to vote for the first time in my life,'' says Ms. Exelby. ''And I can tell you, I won't be voting for the Progressive Conservative Party."

Still, some observers say that despite the flap being made over loosening laws on marijuana use and gay marriage, this election will come down to pocketbook issues. Long-time Progressive Conservative Hugh Segal says that Ontario voters are more concerned about maintaining their vaunted social safety net.

"I think this could be a watershed election, in that it will determine whether the movement to cut taxes is going to continue in the mainstream," Mr. Segal says. "If the Tories should lose here, I think that means there probably has to be a modernization of their message. That there needs to be a better balance between the public and private sectors."

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