Thursday, September 09, 2004

Stephen Harper Sells Out on Social Conservatism

Harper to be 'more severe judge' of MPs whose views damage party
Wed Sep 8, 6:35 PM ET
SUE BAILEY

OTTAWA (CP) - Free speech is one thing, but Conservative Leader Stephen Harper says he'll be tougher on loose-lipped caucus members who trample party principles.

Outbursts on abortion, same-sex rights and bilingualism played into Liberal hands during the June election campaign, Harper acknowledged Wednesday in an interview. Those mistakes won't happen again, he vowed.

"In a campaign, the whole issue is about what the party's running on. You expect members, if they're going to be on the team, to be on the team. Some of what happened last time can't be repeated, and it won't be repeated."

Harper will be "a more severe judge" of those whose public musings stray from the party platform, he said. He didn't offer details.

The party - born last December of the merged Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives - also announced it will hold its first convention in March, allowing all members a hand in crafting its official policy book.

"Look, it is a fine line because the party does value the right of members of Parliament to represent their constituents, to have diverse views on some controversial public policy issues," Harper said.

He has no plans to vet MPs' speeches in the House of Commons, he said, but election campaigns demand unity and discipline.

He was angered by relentless Liberal attacks casting his party as dangerously right-wing, he said.

But Harper also spent much precious time between stump speeches dousing political brushfires set by his own candidates. Whereas the Conservative platform had carefully sidestepped touchy moral issues in an effort to broaden its appeal, some incumbent MPs couldn't help unloading.

It didn't help that the party hadn't yet held a policy convention to hammer out the finer details of its principles.

Cheryl Gallant, re-elected in an Eastern Ontario riding, made damaging headlines when she compared abortion to the beheading of an American contractor in Iraq (news - web sites). She followed that up by saying most Conservatives would like to rescind hate-crimes protections for gays and lesbians.

Harper's confidant and former language issues critic, Scott Reid, was demoted during the campaign for suggesting a review of French-language services.

But Randy White of British Columbia perhaps earned the longest stay in Harper's dog house with remarks on Conservative plans to override court judgments on same-sex marriage. The comments were made public just two days before the June 28 vote, knee-capping Harper's carefully choreographed dance around the issue.

The dream of a Conservative government collapsed, but Harper still led his party to 99 seats and an Ontario breakthrough, as the Liberals were cut to minority status.

The next step toward power will take more than defusing a few loose cannons, says Faron Ellis, a political scientist at Lethbridge Community College. A more painful shift is needed.

Social conservatives may be loud but they're a minority in the new party, he said.

"The problem is that their views tend to characterize . . . the party as something it's really not."

Pulling the Conservatives firmly on to political middle ground "won't be pretty," says Ellis, co-author of New Conservatives, Old Problems, a chapter in a book about the election to be published this fall.

"That's the test for this party."

Harper had little to say Wednesday about the election campaign outburst that was perhaps most damaging: a rhetorical missive from Alberta Premier Ralph Klein about provincial changes that could breach the Canada Health Act.

Klein's oft-repeated threat, uttered during the heat of an election campaign, was music to Liberal ears. Strategists used it to paint Harper as a willing accomplice in a Conservative conspiracy to kill medicare.

Harper was frosty Wednesday when asked about the state of his relations with Klein.

"I haven't had occasion to speak to him," he said.