Social issues sank Wildrose during campaign, experts say
NationalPost.com – news/Canada
Apr 24, 2012. Kathryn Blaze Carlson
The rise and fall of the Wildrose Party confirms a truth about Canadian politics, political strategists say: Social conservatism has become an “electorally toxic” Pandora’s box that parties should actively avoid on the campaign trail.
“It’s the social conservatism that does them in,” said Faron Ellis, a Lethbridge College political scientist who authored a book on the rise of the Reform party. “Until you draw a clear line in the sand over which you’re not going to let social conservatives drag your party, it becomes electorally toxic.”
The sort of social conservatism that believes in traditional marriage and condemns abortion, among other issues, obviously still has a place in Canadian politics — social conservatives make up the ruling federal Conservative party’s base, even though Prime Minister Stephen Harper has vowed not to legislate controversial moral values. But political strategists say lobbing those issues to the fore of an electoral campaign is a risky, and oftentimes losing, proposition.
A series of polls suggested Danielle Smith’s fledgling party was poised to topple the Progressive Conservatives’ 41-year dynasty, but her Wildrose fell flat after what became known as “bozo eruptions” by inexperienced candidates that suggested the party would wage culture wars.
“The lesson here is that the Alberta voter, and certainly I think the Canadian voter, has decided that issues that have already been settled are best left alone, particularly social issues,” said Goldy Hyder, a senior vice-president with Hill+Knowlton Strategies who knows both Ms. Smith and Premier Alison Redford from his 25 years living in Alberta.
“You’re not going to get a [far-right, socially conservative] Tea Party president in the United States, are you? There’s probably a realization here that if you couldn’t elect one in Alberta, where could you elect one?”
Prof. Ellis said the Wildrose Party was doomed the moment it tread into social conservatism without assuring voters it had limits. Ms. Smith chose not to draw a “clear line in the sand” and instead espoused free speech and freedom of religion, refusing to condemn candidates for making bigoted and racially charged comments: One pastor wrote in his blog that gays would burn in a “lake of fire,” while another MLA-hopeful said he had an advantage as a white candidate in an ethnically diverse Calgary constituency.
“Once you get started talking about [morally divisive issues], you’re just one set of loose-lips away from a disaster like ‘lake of fire,’ ” said Geoff Norquay, a public policy and communications specialist with Earnscliffe Strategy Group. “Once you start linking lakes of fire with public policy, you’re lost. Gone. It’s over. I can’t look into the future, but I think parties would be well-advised to stay away from those issues.”
When Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives last fall found themselves answering questions on the campaign trail about a Christian political website that called leader Tim Hudak “solidly pro-life,” the party chose to emphatically declare it would not reopen the abortion debate. His attacks on a proposed Liberal tax break for businesses who hired immigrants — Mr. Hudak called such newcomers “foreign workers” — was seen as contributing to the Ontario PCs’ defeat.
Link Byfield, a longtime social conservative activist who lost his bid as a Wildrose candidate on Monday, said it is “too early to tell” whether most Canadian voters are turned off by social conservatism on the hustings, but said the so-called bozo comments “won’t have helped” his untested party in the quest for its first mandate.
A year ago, Mr. Byfield said Mr. Harper’s promise not to open the debate on abortion or gay marriage made social conservatives appear “eccentric” and conceded that politicians today tend to avoid “whatever makes people angry.”
Conservative strategist Tim Powers said Monday’s election confirmed for Mr. Harper’s Conservatives that politicians “can’t split hairs” on socially divisive issues, and that parties have to take definitive positions on matters that could cause social outrage. “There can’t be any wiggle room,” said Mr. Powers, vice-president at Summa Strategies. “There can’t be any doubt. People want to have a level of comfort the person they’re going to elect is a competent, fair individual and they’re not going to do any great social engineering.”
Mr. Powers said that is especially true for a new party such as the Wildrose, which has never governed and therefore has no track record proving it will not wage culture wars in Alberta. Mr. Powers said took Mr. Harper four elections to win a majority, but not before his party stumbled in 2004 when former Tory MP Randy White suggested using the “notwithstanding” clause in Canada’s Constitution to protect the traditional definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
“I think the Alberta election says a lot to politicians in general: People want them to focus on economics and government services,” Mr. Hyder said.
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