Core support keeps the PM in thrall

Posted on March 13, 2010 in Governance Debates

Source: — Authors: – Politics – The political irony for Stephen Harper: It’s the extreme conservatives who keep the party from winning a majority
Published on Friday, Mar. 12, 2010.  Last updated on Saturday, Mar. 13, 2010.   John Ibbitson

Stephen Harper’s Conservative government fled from its plans to make the national anthem gender-neutral because of “the base” – loyal conservatives who phoned, e-mailed or grabbed the lapels of MPs, furious at the idea of tampering with the lyrics to O Canada .

What is this mythical base, and why does it have the Prime Minister in thrall? Some people – especially those on the left – think of it as a fringe of angry, radical, rural conservatives.

In fact, the base could be better described as people who believe strongly in things that most of us increasingly believe as well.

Most Canadians – a whopping 65 per cent, in fact – put themselves in the centre of the political spectrum, according to a poll conducted by Allan Gregg of Harris/Decima and professor André Turcotte of Carleton University for the Manning Centre, a conservative think-tank.

But the political centre is more conservative than some might think. For example, 53 per cent of Canadians believe the government is doing “just enough” to fight global warming. (The Conservatives, as opposition politicians like to point out, are doing virtually nothing to fight global warming.) Only 33 per cent think the Tories are doing too little.

And while 31 per cent strongly agreed with the statement: “Government action is the best way to solve economic problems,” 36 per cent counted on the “private sector before government to solve economic problems.”

Mr. Turcotte points out that, as recently as 1997, centrist voters were more likely to vote Liberal. Today, according to the poll, they’re more likely to vote Conservative.

“The Liberals used to own the political centre,” he said in an interview. “But today, it’s the Conservatives who own the centre.”

It should be noted that, while both Mr. Turcotte and Mr. Gregg are respected pollsters, both also have ties to the conservative movement.

While centrist conservatives are more prominent in Alberta – 72 per cent of Albertans said they were strongly opposed to changing the words to O Canada , a number “that’s just unheard of,” according to Mario Canseco, vice-president of public affairs at Angus Reid – they can also be found in all parts of the country.

They are, generally speaking, older, with an income below $100,000 and less rather than more education. Mr. Canseco puts their numbers at between 40 and 45 per cent of the population.

But they are not necessarily rural and white. They can be urban and ethnic, too. New arrivals to Canada tend to be socially and fiscally conservative, and are no longer wedded to the Liberal Party, as in previous decades.

Within this centrist conservative consensus, says Nicholas Gafuik, managing director of the Manning Centre, are some tens of thousands of conservatives who could be called members of “the conservative movement.” They are the base. They support think-tanks and issue-based campaigns (Kill the gun registry!), contribute their time and money to conservative causes.

“They’re generally people who are prepared to speak up, write letters, make phone calls in support of conservative causes,” he observes. And because they are also the core of the Conservative fundraising base, when they speak, Tories listen. When they get angry, a Conservative government responds. In the case of the anthem, it took only 48 hours.

The great political irony for the Conservative Party is that, while it must avoid estranging core conservatives at all costs, extreme core conservatives keep the party from winning a majority. They are the social Darwins.

Eight per cent of those polled by Mr. Turcotte and Mr. Gregg strongly agreed with the statements: “I believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” and “people who are poor have no one to blame but themselves.”

Most of the time, these right-wing nuts are ignored. But whenever Mr. Harper appears to have enough support to form a majority government, the base starts to get excited and aggressive, and social Darwins “bare their teeth and embrace things that the majority of Canadians don’t want to see,” says Mr. Turcotte. This frightens enough centrists to keep the Liberals in the game and the Conservatives confined to minority governments.

Mr. Gafuik doubts the anthem flap is likely to estrange the Prime Minister from his base. After all, he says, Stephen Harper “came up on the movement side of conservative politics,” as an early adopter of the Reform Party and the onetime head of the National Citizens Coalition. Stephen Harper “is one of our own.”

But the Prime Minister needs to remember where he came from. The Stephen Harper of old would never have tried to change the wording of O Canada . And if someone else had tried, he’d have got on the phone.

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