A Catholic view of Election 2008

By  Guest Contributors
  • October 16, 2008
{mosimage}On Oct. 14, Canadian voters chose to replace its minority Conservative government in Ottawa with another, slightly larger, minority Conservative government. The Catholic Register asked five Catholics from across Canada who closely observed the election campaign, for their views on how the campaign unfolded and what needs to be done now. Below we present their responses to our questions.

What was it for?

BY DR. TERRENCE DOWNEY

“Where there is no vision the nation perishes.” Proverbs

What ever else this dysfunctional election campaign was about, it was certainly not about Canada. No leader and no party offered even a dimly coherent vision for the country. In a nation that is surely among the most blessed on the planet, there were no considered deliberations of our obligations to each other as Canadians or of our Christian responsibility for the two-thirds of the planet who live in poverty. Driven by a cynical promise-a-day, niche marketing of specific policies to selected regional groups, the Gospel imperative of concern for the poor was never on the agenda — nor was abortion. In spite of the presence in the Liberal party and especially in the Conservative party of incumbent MPs who have built successful political careers on pro-life advocacy, Stephen Harper’s dictate that the abortion issue would not be raised defined the campaign: even once ardently vocal pro-life Conservative candidates were rendered silent.

A systematic plan for compassionate health care for an aging population? A coherent economic strategy to address the root causes of unemployment and income disparities? Responsible approaches to the environment that involve what the Canadian Catholic bishops define as “choices that go beyond short-term interests”? None received any measure of comprehensive consideration or engaged debate.

This campaign seemed to be much more about the future prospects of the parties and the leaders than about what really concerns Canadians — even as the economy soured during the final days. This obvious disconnect was reflected in the dreary political discourse that characterized the campaign, in the lethargic voter turnout and in the unenthusiastic endorsement of any political party. Basically, we have just gone through a $300-million-plus election that we could ill afford and the Conservatives, facing a dispirited Liberal party and enjoying enormous advantages of funding and organization at the outset, are still stuck with their irksome minority government situation that led them to call the election in the first place. Nothing much has changed except for increased levels of voter apathy and cynicism.

The new government has an obligation to terminate the obsessive secrecy, destructive partisanship and constant political manipulation that defined the Harper government’s leadership in the last Parliament. Governments are our servants not our masters, and the public business must be transacted in the overall best interests of country rather than on narrow partisan interests. The obligation to provide the inspired, visionary leadership that this majestically complex country so urgently requires extends beyond the government of the day to all members of the House of Commons. In the acutely critical economic times in which we now find ourselves, the ever widening regional and socio-economic divisions that imperil the soul of this nation can be effectively addressed only by focusing exclusively on the broad public interest. This process includes mandatory co-operation with all provinces, respectful and ongoing dialogue with the private sector and the broader public sector, thoughtful attention to those who cannot speak for themselves and compassionate acceptance of our international aid obligations. Canada’s future demands nothing less.

Dr. Terrence Downey, a political scientist, is president of St. Mary’s University College in Calgary, Alta.

New Parliament needs to focus on family

BY MICHÈLE BOULVA

The suspense is over. We now have a new reinforced minority Conservative government in Ottawa. Among the many factors which contributed to this result, one cannot be ignored. Soon enough during the recent federal election campaign, it became clear that in choosing between the Conservative Party and one of the other political formations, Canadians were also choosing between two very different sets of values. The election results mirror their preference.

Among the central themes of the recent campaign figure the economy, family, environment, health, culture, young offenders and the war in Afghanistan. These issues were of interest to Catholic citizens because they are all part of our national life. Laws designed by any government in these areas can have a direct impact on the common good.

We also heard about abortion. But, unfortunately, we were forced to realize that none of the political parties were ready to confront the unimaginable legal void which allows abortion up until birth. No word either about euthanasia and assisted suicide; as if these deadly practices were not being patiently promoted by anti-life members of our society — even inside Parliament.

And no word about freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, though we regularly witness obvious efforts by aggressive secular ideologists to exclude believers from the public square and to keep them from contributing freely to the evolution of our country by proposing a vision for the future and solutions to current problems.

Our new Parliament will have many challenges to meet with the present world economic crisis, the country’s aging population and demographic winter, the rising cost of health services, the poverty situation of too many citizens, the environment situation, etc. In one way or another, these issues are related to life and family.

Since the future belongs to countries which respect the sacredness of human life and the fundamental role of the family, we can only encourage our newly elected members of Parliament, regardless of their party, to work hand in hand to restore respect for life in Canada, from conception to natural death. They must also strive to develop policies to support married couples who are ensuring the survival of society by giving birth to new citizens and raising them in the most stable environment.

With a fertility rate of 1.5 children per woman, our country will soon be confronted with major socio-economic problems. The time has come to encourage young adults to become parents by promoting the task of raising children and the profession of parenting. Following the principle of subsidiarity, the government should respect the rights of the family and, through fiscal and social policies, help it to fulfil its duties, including the raising of children.

These, of course, are only a few challenges. Many more rest ahead. And one of them has to do with our MPs’ freedom — the freedom to vote following their conscience, especially on bills loaded with ethical consequences. Party leaders will need much courage to allow this — courage, and a true democratic spirit.

Michèle Boulva is the executive director of the Catholic Office for Life and Family, an Ottawa-based agency funded by the Canadian bishops and the Knights of Columbus.

Poor, environment need attention now

BY JOE GUNN

Election 2008 didn’t focus attention on all the issues important to faith groups, but not for lack of trying. Christians who expect election campaigns to be moments of vibrant public debate were disappointed when centrally controlled campaigns refused participation in important debates.

Groups like Citizens for Public Justice attempted to focus on the need for a national poverty reduction strategy. Importantly, several of the opposition parties did indeed promise this in their election platforms and tried to present these ideas in their campaigns. But when Make Poverty History offered to tape party leaders’ statements about poverty issues in Canada and overseas, only Stephen Harper refused to go on record and state his party’s views.

The Canadian bishops’ 2008 election guide called on Catholics to get involved in the electoral process. Their message for the next election might need to remind the parties to accept the same responsibility.

Canadians can be forgiven for expressing voter fatigue, and may have little patience for a Parliament that does not co-operate to get the nation’s business done. Another election may be upon us in a year, with or without new leaders. It seems more and more evident that electoral reform, leading to a form of proportional representation, is in order to encourage higher voter turnout, more participation of a broader range of views and to allow Canadians to feel that the electoral process produces more representative results. On Oct. 14, the highest number of Canadians in history exercised their right to refuse to exercise their right to vote.

It will be important for the new Parliament to move to develop and implement a national poverty reduction strategy. Already four parties have, or are in the process of developing, such strategies. Yet, without federal leadership, the country will not achieve the goal of reducing family poverty that all parties claim to desire.

A new Parliament should not be allowed to dodge Canada’s international commitments. It was amazing how little debate there was on Afghanistan, where Canada has spent billions of dollars and lost 97 soldiers. In the face of growing international hunger, rising food costs and economic turbulence, Canada must increase international development assistance and display the leadership necessary to keep our pledge to meet the Millennium Development Goals.

My greatest fear arising from this election is that environmental issues may now be avoided like the plague. Canada’s first election to showcase serious environmental issues may leave a legacy of fear, given the negative response to climate change action in light of the serious economic downturn. Canadians are among the very highest producers of carbon dioxide in world history, and we need what Pope John Paul II called “ecological conversion.” We also need governments that will help us “be good” by encouraging good behaviour and castigating profligate environmental waste and destruction. A carbon tax is an inevitability. It can arrive in a piecemeal fashion, implemented by the provinces, or with federal co-ordination and leadership. In any case, it should and will be done. What Canadians would do well to remember is that if current trends continue, we will not. Real ecological action, especially to reduce global warming, should be a priority for all new Parliamentarians.

Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.

Life issues don't register

BY JOANNE MCGARRY

Whatever caused Stephen Harper to call this election, the global economic crisis greatly accelerated during the campaign and was foremost in the minds of most informed voters. Severe economic turmoil often favours the challengers. With most of the turmoil originating outside of Canada, this effect is probably lessened within Canada in terms of assigning blame. However, people expect their governments to help households and businesses cope with the impact of the global crunch, so the economic crisis probably caused voters to ask themselves which of the leaders would prove most adept at managing the economy. Failure to elect a majority suggests the absence of a resounding answer. Voter turnout was also low, at 59.1 per cent (Elections Canada, Oct. 15).

Two key issues have priority for Catholics and many other faith groups. Respect for life from conception to natural death should always be a starting point in voting discernment. More recently, the use of human rights tribunals in adjudicating free speech cases, particularly free speech motivated by religious belief, is of concern. Unfortunately, few candidates gave these issues a place in their platforms.

No major political party in Canada is pro-life, though candidates with some pro-life sentiment exist in all parties. Because of this reality, most pro-life organizations recommended voting for the best candidate in a riding, rather than by party, since MPs might be inclined to vote their consciences, rather than a party line, in any motion involving euthanasia, unborn victims of violence or abortion.

Given public statements by all party leaders, there is very little chance abortion will come before Parliament in the foreseeable future. Many MPs said they oppose the admission of Henry Morgentaler to the Order of Canada. But few, if any indicated any willingness to re-open the debate. The legalization of euthanasia was the topic of two private member’s bills in the past five years, and will quite likely be proposed again. We need a strong commitment to compassionate palliative and other end-of-life care as an alternative to the so-called right-to-die movement.

Because of jurisdictional issues involving federal and provincial human rights commissions, the challenge some tribunals pose to freedom of religion cannot be solved entirely at the federal level. Parliament, however, could certainly take the lead by eliminating or significantly revising Section 13, the portion of the federal Human Rights Code restricting the electronic transmission of “hate” speech.

All faith groups hope that elected officials will develop policies in health care, education, taxation, family law and labour law, among other areas, that give priority to the needs of the disadvantaged, especially the unemployed and working poor, families with children, the elderly and others least equipped to survive downturns in the economy. Strong families are the basis of a healthy society. There are sincere and legitimate differences of opinion on the best ways to strengthen the family and protect the vulnerable, but there should be no disagreement about the goal.

Joanne McGarry, is executive director, Catholic Civil Rights League, based in Toronto.

Faith groups issues at back of queue

BY NICOLE MYSHAK

In reflecting on the federal election and the campaign that led us to it, there is both good and bad news for believers in the Good News within Canada.

For starters this whirlwind electoral process left many people of faith feeling increasingly alienated when it came to the issues that mattered to them.

Topping this list of priorities, setting Catholics apart from many others, are questions relating to the sanctity of all human life.

With a rekindling of awareness of the abortion controversy in recent months there was hope that this issue would come to the forefront in the national election. However, despite the suspiciously timed pre-Thanksgiving awarding of the Order of Canada to Henry Morgentaler, this topic, for the most part, remained a non-issue.

In fact Conservative Leader Stephen Harper went to lengths to repeatedly assure Canadians that he would not return to the abortion question. And, should there have been any doubts about his position, the prime minister solidified his stance on page 38 of the Conservative Party platform.

As economic matters took precedence in the final days of the campaign other areas of significance to faith groups found themselves in the back of the queue. This included Canada’s role and presence in Afghanistan, health care, poverty and the environment.

Herein Harper, the fiscally responsible economist, had the opportunity to make great bounds and seize his coveted majority. Yet this was perhaps where his biggest blunder occurred.

Harper’s response to the economic uncertainty, with his characteristic coolness that came across as aloofness, had a chilling effect on his campaign.

Canadians were given the impression that he was not only out of touch with their concerns but that he lacked sensitivity and even humanity. This in part was where the New Democratic Party managed to gain ground by portraying “heart” and wooing Canadians with their “kitchen table” approach.

While fumbling on the economy, the one thing he should have been sound on, Harper also failed to gain critical territory in Quebec and was shutout in Toronto and Montreal.

With the emergence of a stronger Green Party that contributed to a splitting of the left vote, as well as a weakened Liberal Party, Harper had his chance to obtain a majority and demonstrate what the Conservatives could do with both reins in hand.

However, Canadians will be stuck with another minority government, albeit a stronger one.

With nobody, except maybe those in the campaign sign printing business, wanting another election for quite some time there will be a focused effort to keep things going.

Even so, the government will need the support of other parties to do anything, which reduces the strength and productivity of Parliament while also failing to give Canadians a clear example of true Conservative governance. All the while, the morally troubling left will gain strength.

Perhaps the good news in all this is that we people of faith have more opportunity, and another reminder, that our trust — as our southern neighbours assert — is in God and we only hope in the possibility of good government.

Nicole Myshak is a young Catholic journalist based in Halifax, N.S.

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