OTTAWA — A recent shift among Catholic voters has helped realign the Canadian political scene and bring the Conservative party its first majority in the House of Commons in nearly 20 years.
A trend that began only five years ago, when weekly Mass-attending Catholics switched from supporting the center-left Liberals to the moderately rightist Conservatives, has grown in strength. Even non-Mass-attending Catholics have now joined it for the first time, with 50% of them supporting the Conservatives, along with 59% of weekly Massgoers.
Catholics make up half the Canadian population.
“I think Catholics have just given up on the Liberals,” commented Tom Hamel, president of Redeemer Pacific College in Langley, British Columbia. “Now the Liberals seem prepared to support any group that wants to tear down what this country used to stand for.”
Redeemer Pacific College, which is Catholic, is affiliated with Trinity Western University, an evangelical school. Evangelical Christians in Canada have made the same journey from the Liberals to Conservatives, says pollster Andrew Grenville of Vancouver-based Angus Reid Public Opinion, and they made it in the same election year, 2006.
“I think it was same-sex ‘marriage,’” said Grenville. The legalization of same-sex “marriage” that year aroused the first-ever Catholic-evangelical alliance — in unsuccessful opposition. “The question,” said Grenville, “was whether the trend would last after that issue died down.”
It has, he says. Indeed, it has strengthened in favor of the Conservatives across all religions except Muslims, with weekly church-attending Protestants of all stripes climbing from 51% support for the Conservatives in 2001 to 64% in 2006 and 65% this year. Jews too have been lured away from the Liberals for the first time by the Harper government’s much stronger pro-Israel policies.
Catholics attending Mass weekly threw more support to the Conservatives than the Liberals for the first time in Canadian history in 2006 (42%); this increased to 49% in 2008 and climbed to 59% this year.
The Conservatives won both the 2006 and 2008 elections, after 13 years out of office, but in neither case did they manage to get a majority in the House of Commons. Prime Minister Stephen Harper was clearly frustrated at having to water down policies to please at least one of the other three parties in the House, all of whom are to the left of the Conservatives, and went into the May 2 election asking for a clear majority of seats.
He got it: With just 40% of the vote, the Conservatives will occupy 167 seats in the Commons; the Liberals, who historically have ruled Canada the longest, were reduced from 77 MPs to 34; the socialist New Democrats astounded all pundits not only by replacing the Liberals as the leading opposition party with 102 MPs, they also virtually wiped out the separatist Bloc Quebecois in Quebec, reducing them from 47 MPs to two. The leader of the Green Party won the remaining Commons seat.
Abortion Is Deciding Issue
During his years leading a minority government and facing three explicitly pro-abortion parties across the floor of the House, Harper, an evangelical Christian but a very cautious politician, made it clear his government would never introduce a bill restricting abortion.
Nonetheless, said college president Hamel, “Christians see the Conservatives as the closest to them in values.” The deciding issue for Catholics, he said, is abortion.
Moreover, there were a couple of issues where the Harper government was able to signal its sympathy for the pro-life cause. One was the government’s Third World aid program aimed at improving maternal and child health, which specifically excluded any assistance for abortion services. The second was the withholding of traditional funding for abortion provider Planned Parenthood.
“These were little things, but they were like a code to those who care about such matters,” said Grenville.
Harper has kept his own religious observance a private matter, even refusing to discuss it with reporters during the election campaign. The presence in his caucus of strong evangelicals, as well as such conservative Catholics as Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, has led many left-wing intellectuals in Canada to warn of a Conservative “hidden agenda,” including the banning of abortions, same-sex “marriage” and the promotion of creationism.
Last year, veteran political journalist Marci McDonald even wrote an exposé-style book, The Armageddon Factor, warning that evangelical Christians who believe that the end of the world is imminent were gaining the same kind of influence over the Harper government as they had over the U.S. Republican administration of George W. Bush. This neatly played into the undercurrent of anti-Americanism always flowing near the surface of Canadian politics, as well as a general suspicion of evangelical Christians which, paradoxically, comes almost wholly from south of the U.S.-Canada border.
Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.