Catholic vote turns tide Conservative way

  • February 3, 2011
Stephen HarperOTTAWA - As the Conservative Party celebrates its fifth anniversary in power, it is recognizing a major reason for the success: a swing in the Catholic and the ethnic vote away from the Liberals.

It’s quite a change. It wasn’t so long ago that the Liberals could count on the Catholic and ethnic vote overwhelmingly going its way. In fact, a 2005 study by André Blais of the Canadian Political Science Association found that in the preceding 40 years, Catholics in English Canada were 18 per cent more likely than non-Catholics to vote Liberal.

But that changed when Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives were elected in 2006 to a minority government, and returned two years later.

With talk of a spring election in the air, it remains to be seen whether those swing voters will remain with the Conservatives or return to their traditional home in the Liberals.

At a packed Ottawa hotel ballroom Jan. 23 to celebrate five years in power, Harper outlined his party’s accomplishments: highlighting its management of the economy, public safety, shoring up the military and the Universal Child Care Benefit and the Child Tax Credit, supporting families with children among them.

The Prime Minister also took note of how his party is now the first choice of Catholics and new Canadians.

“The Catholic vote is a key swing vote in the electorate,” said Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who attended the event. “There is obviously an important overlay between Catholic voters and ethnic voters — immigrants and second- and third-generation new Canadians.”

Kenney, a Catholic himself, led his party’s campaign to woo these voters away from the Liberals. He described the swing to the Conservatives as “huge” and “unprecedented.”

“The Liberal Party dramatically abandoned its historic Catholic base and for a while seemed to almost go out of its way to insult Catholic voters and their values,” Kenney said.

The Tories are “conveying a respect for the family, the role and responsibility of parents and general respect for faith, not a hostility towards faith communities. I think a lot of people woke up and realized that is no longer the case with the Liberal Party. It has become in many respects militantly secularist and inhospitable to people of faith.”

Toronto Liberal MP John McKay, Kenney’s counterpart in wooing Catholic and other faith communities back to the Liberals, agrees his party has done things that have turned religious voters off. But he sees signs his efforts to re-engage faith groups is meeting with some success.

McKay had the support of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace and a range of other environmentally conscious NGOs for his mining accountability Bill C-300 that went down to defeat late last year. He also has been outspoken on cuts to KAIROS, an ecumenical social justice organization supported by the Catholic Church.

“We have, the political class generally, has turned its back on faith communities speaking in the public forum of ideas and yet we still expect them to pick up the fall-out, particularly in social justice areas, after not consulting them in the first place,” McKay said.

He called Kenney’s public dismissal of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ letter criticizing his anti-human smuggling Bill C-49 an example.

“It was pretty high-handed to tell the bishops they don’t know what they’re talking about,” McKay said. The bishops had every right to express themselves, “so they did and they got the back of the hand.”

Kenney said he has not received a single negative letter, phone call or e-mail on his criticism of the bishops. 

“All I have had is some people from Catholic officialdom in Canada quietly saying ‘good on you.’ ”

McKay said Liberal MPs such as Justin Trudeau, Andrew Kania and Frank Valeriote have joined him in his outreach efforts, with the blessing of Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. 

“A number of our caucus members really get it. I think there’s a sense of more of an open door policy with the Liberals.”

Despite resonating with Catholic voters, Harper has been a disappointment to many in the pro-life movement, said Mary Ellen Douglas, national organizer for Campaign Life Coalition.

“We have been telling people from the very first day that Prime Minister Harper is pro-abortion,” she said.

“Some don’t believe us. They think he may do something if he gets a majority. If he gets a majority, he will not do anything.” 

She commended Harper, however, for his stand against funding abortions in the maternal health care initiative he led as host of the G8 last year.

REAL Women of Canada national vice president Gwen Landolt said a number of socially conservative issues other than abortion where the Conservatives and Liberals differ: the Liberals have spoken about decriminalizing marijuana and Ignatieff has also talked about a national day care program that would cost $15 billion annually.

Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) executive director Joe Gunn, a Catholic who worked as the director of the social affairs secretariat at the Canadian bishops, said despite their disappointment, more traditional or conservative Catholics “wouldn’t be drawn by anything the other parties have done or said they would do.”

Gunn hopes any election debate, however, will include “some of the issues near and dear to the Church’s heart in terms of the social justice agenda.” He is concerned about cuts to NGOs  like KAIROS doing social justice work, the freeze on international development assistance, the lack of a national strategy on poverty reduction and the neglected climate change agenda.

While many assume the loss to the Liberals of Catholic voters was driven by socially conservative issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, McGill University political scientist Elisabeth Gidengil and the co-authors of Dominance and Decline, a book under contract for publication with University of Toronto Press, argue the sponsorship scandal played a much bigger role in the loss of the Catholic vote than “issue disagreement.” Nor did one’s level of religious commitment play that much of a role either.

“Religious Catholics were no more likely than secular Catholics to desert the party,” said Gidengil et al in an extract provided to CCN. In fact, their data shows that religious Catholics still tended to vote Liberal more than non-religious Catholics. 

Young Catholics are most likely to support the Conservatives. 

“In 2000, 55 per cent of Catholics aged 18-34 voted Liberal; by 2008, that figure had dropped to a mere 16 per cent,” says the extract.

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