Contentious issues remain firmly closed for Conservatives

In the early months of 2012, abortion and same-sex marriage suddenly leaped onto the front pages of Canadian political news. In late December 2011, Conservative backbencher Steven Woodworth announced plans to propose a motion to study when human life begins, and did so in February. And in January there was a major flare-up over a government's lawyer's argument that same-sex marriages performed in Canada for non-Canadians were not legal unless accepted in their home country.

While the issues soon moved off the front pages, what's really interesting here is the reaction of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson. In both cases they leaped to shut down these issues, stressing they do not want to "reopen" debates on abortion and same-sex marriage.

Nicholson quickly responded to Woodworth's proposal by stating that the government would oppose the motion, saying, "the Prime Minister has been very clear; our government will not reopen this debate."

Similarly, after being blindsided at a press conference on the government's legal arguments, the Prime Minister ordered the government position to be reversed, saying—you guessed it—"We're not going to reopen that particular issue."

The Prime Minister has been consistent on these issues. After holding the unsuccessful 2006 vote on reversing same-sex marriage, he said he considered the issue closed. He has also said repeatedly that he will not support any legislation touching on abortion.

In 2010 Harper and other ministers voted against "Roxanne's Law", the bill by Manitoba MP Rod Bruinooge that would create extra criminal penalties for harming a pregnant woman. "As long as I am Prime Minister, we are not opening the abortion debate," said Harper. "The government will not bring forward any such legislation, and any such legislation that is brought forward will be defeated as long as I am Prime Minister."

So what's happening here? Studies show that pro-life and traditional Christians are generally strong supporters of the Conservative Party. And yet the government has avoided these issues dear to their hearts. Critics on the left argue that there's still a "hidden agenda" here, though it's harder and harder to imagine this now that the Conservatives have been in power for six years.

On the other hand, by not "reopening" the abortion debate in particular, the Conservatives have frozen the issue both ways—neither restricting abortion rights, nor extending them further. This tends to make both sides unhappy, letting the government appear to be safely in the middle.

Harper's rapid reactions show that he sees these issues as unwanted distractions from his overall vision of remaking Canada in a more conservative image. It's hard to even tell where his personal opinions lie or where the issues fit in his brand of conservatism.

But it's quite remarkable that Harper has so openly opposed the various bills and motions of his own pro-life backbenchers, doing everything he can to shut down and not "reopen" the debates. Harper is a crafty political thinker, and this strategy appears to be working well for him.

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Jonathan Malloy is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.