Ever since bursting onto the national stage in 2004 as the newly-minted leader of Canada’s Conservative Party – itself a newly-minted marriage of convenience between the mainstream Progressive Conservative Party and the regional, hard right wing, almost fringe Reform Party born in the dust of the Canadian Prairies – Stephen Harper has insisted he had no interest in changing Canada’s liberal laws on abortion rights.
Few people believed him but ever since Harper became Prime Minister heading a minority government roughly four years ago, he deftly shadow boxed the issue to broaden his appeal to centrists, educated urbanites and women, anticipating the day when his government would fall and he’d have to face voters.
So when Harper announced his “Maternal Health Initiative” last winter, much of the country held its breath, waiting for mother’s other shoe to drop. It did, last week, when the Harper government told an international aid conference that it was refusing to have Canada fund abortion procedures and family planning options in foreign-aid projects.
He followed up that bombshell by leaking word his government would introduce regulations banning Canadian family planning centres and doctors from raising termination as an option to pregnancy. A source in the Prime Minister’s office (PMO) insists, “We’re not banning abortion, so we’re not breaking a campaign pledge. We’re simply bringing a focus to showing pregnant women they should keep their babies.”
Any American woman concerned about her reproductive rights can tell Canadians what the PMO’s assertion really means, and what is likely to come next.
Political observers in Ottawa and around the country are stunned at what Harper did.
After practising the politics of pragmatism, steering his party away from any of the polarizing, social conservatism that scares off many women, urban and centrist voters, Harper branded his government as anti-abortion.
It’s a decision that could well haunt the Conservatives into the next election campaign, depending on how Harper’s opponents handle it.
What’s even odder about his decision is that it runs directly counter to how the Prime Minister wanted to handle this hot potato when Liberals forced the question on to the national agenda earlier this year.
Harper, according to Conservative-caucus sources, was not leaning this way two months ago, and made that clear to his MPs in March.
So, to understand why Canada now stands virtually alone among its G8 partners in opposing abortion as part of family-planning projects in poor nations, take a close look at Harper’s tactics, not his ideology.
And though it’s pretty much become a cliché around Parliament Hill, you could actually blame the opposition Liberals for how this is turning out.
This potentially far-reaching foreign-policy decision has its roots in a domestic skirmish on Parliament Hill about six weeks ago, when the Liberals decided to have some sport with Conservatives and force a question on abortion in the Commons.
Ever since January, when Harper announced in the op-ed pages of the Toronto Star that Canada’s new foreign-aid priority would focus on the health of mothers and children, the Liberals had been demanding to know whether this would also include support for abortion among the family-planning initiatives.
It was a way, Liberals believed, to pry open some divisions within the Conservative caucus.
So the Liberals, too clever by half as it turned out, used an opposition day in the Commons to hold a vote on a motion that called on Canada to support the “full range” of family planning initiatives in foreign aid.
The motion also said, “the Canadian government should refrain from advancing the failed right-wing ideologies previously imposed by the George W. Bush administration in the United States which made humanitarian assistance conditional upon a ‘global gag rule’ that required all non-governmental organizations receiving federal funding to refrain from promoting medically sound family planning.”
According to Conservative insiders, Harper initially argued at a special caucus meeting on the day of the vote for his party to avoid the ideological trap and quietly vote in favour of the motion.
But the Conservative caucus, which is roughly evenly divided between pro-choice and anti-abortion sentiments, had another idea. They believed mentioning Bush gave Conservatives a way to oppose the motion: Canada’s Parliament shouldn’t be voting on policies of another government.
Harper allowed himself to be persuaded. When he closed the caucus meeting, he cited some Mahatma Gandhi wisdom about a leader needing to heed his followers, agreeing the Conservatives should oppose the motion.
What Harper didn’t know was that the Liberals were walking into their own trap, with huge consequences for Canada’s foreign-aid policies.
In the March 23 vote, three Liberal MPs voted with the Conservatives and 13 others stayed away. The Commons voted against the “full range” of options. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff later told interviewers it was “a bad day at the office.” It was more than that.
There is nothing that Harper likes more than weakness in his rivals and in March, Ignatieff’s Liberal Party handed him a gift. Harper can spot a shaky coalition at some distance and use it to build his own power base.
Moreover, there’s another element of Harper’s past that’s important in understanding why he wrapped his party in the anti-abortion mantle this week.
In fact, Harper is showing his true colors for the first time.
In the late 1980s, in a memo to then-Reform Party leader Preston Manning, Harper laid out the need for the fledgling party to build coalitions with the Christian right, which he described as a growing social force and key to the Conservative base. “I believe that the Reform Party cannot afford to lose moderate pro-life voters,” the memo explained; it was revealed in William Johnson’s biography of Harper (LINK www.chapters.indigo.ca/books/Stephen-Harper-and-Future-Canada-William-Johnson/9780771095542-item.html?ref=Search+Books%3a+%2527%22William+Johnson%22+AND+%22stephen+harper%22%2527) a few years ago.
The right wing of the Conservative Party is clearly delighted. On Lifesitenews.com recently, REAL Women vice-president Gwen Landolt is quoted saying she’s glad Canada isn’t trying to force its “elitist imperialism” of pro-choice on the Third World.
Harper hasn’t handled this very well; he just didn’t handle it as badly as the Liberals. But he did double down by letting word out about plans to ban even discussing abortion as an option in doctor-patient discussions.
The Conservatives started the maternal-health agenda to build a relationship with urban/suburban women under 50 without thinking through what would become a challenge with part of their base, namely that some funds would end up supporting choice and abortion. Since then, the Conservatives have not been trying to provoke a debate on this as much as avoid one.
Meanwhile, women who will feel the biggest effect of Harper’s decision — women in developing countries seeking abortions — don’t a vote in Canada. If they did, the past few months might have turned out differently. But Canada is now an anti-abortion nation on the world stage, for very domestic, political reasons.
The question is whether the Liberal Party and its often-ineffective leadership can take advantage of Harper’s play to his far right, fundamentalist base by getting urban, more sophisticated and educated voters, to become concerned, along with the great middle of Canada that thought abortion was some crazy nonsense only US politicians fretted about.