So a few days ago, I wrote a post about Conservative Party member Stephen Woodworth and his roundabout plan to reopen the debate about abortion access in Canada. I had mentioned that this was happening as a private member’s motion, rather than as a Conservative Party one, because Mr. Harper evidently wanted nothing to do with this topic. And it appears that I was right: Mr. Woodworth’s motion was slapped down hard in the Commons today – by his own party. So what happened?
Well, a number of things happened, evidently. It was apparent even before the debate began that Mr. Harper was unequivocally opposed to Mr. Woodworth’s motion. In fact, he straight up stated that he would be voting against it. And he wasn’t alone. Other members of the Conservative Party voiced, not only their opposition to the motion, but their disappointment with Mr. Woodworth’s underhanded attempt to force a debate about abortion rights in Canada.
But the other thing that happened was that Mr. Woodworth severely misread or misunderstood his own party’s position on the issue and he absolutely illustrated that he has no real understanding of how electoral politics work in Canada. Allow me to explain, briefly.
Unlike the Republicans to the South, the Canadian Conservative Party is not explicitly socially conservative. “But… but!” I hear you say, “The Conservatives are social conservatives!” True, Conservative MPs are largely social conservative in their outlook, but the party is not; its hold on Ontario is too tenuous, and its need to make serious inroads into Quebec too strong for it to declare its SoCon credentials right now.
Electoral politics in Canada are largely determined by region – at least at this point in our history. For the Conservatives, maintaining a stronghold in the West is not difficult; a history of ‘Western Alienation‘ coupled with a surprisingly conservative attitude about social issues (with the exception of parts of Calgary and the Metropolitan areas of British Columbia’s lower mainland and Gulf Islands) means that it is rare that Mr. Harper will ever have to spend political capital by pandering to the West. All he has to do is declare “vote for me, I’m not a Liberal, and I’m not a socialist like those NDPers” and he’s set. In Central Canada however (Ontario and Quebec), Harper has to be a bit more nuanced. He must show that in addition to being fiscally conservative – even pragmatic – in outlook, he also has a short leash on the more radical SoCon members of his party. In other words, he’s attractive enough (fiscally) to woo disenchanted ‘Blue’ Liberals* to his party, but not so visibly SoCon so as to stampede Liberals the other way, into the arms of the NDP. In the East, Mr. Harper has to convince the Maritime Provinces that he will protect transfer payments and federal employment subsidies (not to mention a promise that he will continue to support off-shore oil and gas exploration).
Mr. Harper has a tightrope to walk, and he doesn’t need some backbencher with a serious hang-up about women’s lady-bits to make walking it more difficult. So long as Mr. Woodworth’s ridiculously dishonest motion exists, Mr. Harper has to worry about being painted as a SoCon with plans to radically redesign Canadian abortion laws.
Debate over the motion has been suspended for now – the Motion now sits at the bottom of the legislative agenda – and it is likely to remain so for a long time. The Conservatives simply don’t have the time for debates like this until they have consolidated their power in central Canada; here’s hoping that never happens.
*The term ‘Blue Liberal’ refers to those members of the historically centrist Liberal Party of Canada who sit on the conservative side of the spectrum.