CCN PHOTO | DEBORAH GYAPONG
A massive swing of Catholic voters to the Conservatives helped Stephen Harper gain power.
On Jan. 23, the Conservative Party celebrated its fifth anniversary in power, thanks partly to a swing in the Catholic and the ethnic vote from the Liberals.
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 Liberal Party. From 2000 to 2008, Catholic support for the Liberals plummeted 22 points.
At a packed Ottawa hotel ballroom on the anniversary day, Prime Minister Stephen Harper outlined his party's accomplishments in power: highlighting its management of economy, public safety, shoring up of the military and the Universal Child Care Benefit and the Child Tax Credit, supporting families with children.
He noted the Conservative Party is now the first choice for new Canadians. The Tories are also the first choice among Catholic voters.
"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, who led his party's campaign to woo these voters away from the Liberals, 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.
Liberal MP John McKay (Scarborough-Guildwood), who is Kenney's counterpart in his party wooing Catholic and other faith communities, agrees his party has done things that have turned religious voters off. But he sees signs that his efforts to re-engage faith groups is meeting with success.
McKay had the support of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP) and a range of other environmentally conscious NGOs for his mining accountability bill 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 Canadian bishops.
"We have — the political class generally — turned our 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 Catholic bishops' letter criticizing his anti-human smuggling bill an example. "It was pretty high-handed to tell the bishops they don't know what they're talking about."
The bishops had every right to express themselves, "so they did and they got the back of the hand," McKay said.
Kenney said he has not received a single negative letter, phone call or email on his criticism of the bishops.
McKay said, "The Catholic community needs to know that the Liberal Party's a little more complex and multi-faceted."
The prime minister voted against Conservative MP Rod Bruinooge's Roxanne's Law that would have made it illegal to coerce an abortion, he noted.
Stephen 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," she said. "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 G-8 and G-20 last year.
Douglas stressed Campaign Life does not support any party, only pro-life candidates whatever their party affiliation.
Richard Bastien, a Catholic and former economist said most Catholics who take their faith seriously will continue to support Harper, "although they have qualms about his prolife position."
"The problem is the culture," he said. "There's a dominant culture that is anti-Christian and before we can hope to get a government that is generally in accord with natural law morality, we will have to change the culture."
REAL Women of Canada national vice president Gwen Landolt also said pro-life Catholics are unlikely to desert the Conservatives for the Liberals.
"They are a voice of the past," she said. "They are not representing Canadian women today, if they ever did."
Like Bastien, she points to 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 daycare program that would cost $15 billion annually.
Joe Gunn, executive director of Citizens for Public Justice and a Catholic who worked as social affairs director for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said despite their disappointment with the Tories, more traditional or conservative Catholics won't be drawn to the other parties.
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 doing social justice work like KAIROS; the freeze on international development assistance; the lack of a national strategy on poverty reduction and the neglected climate change agenda.
McGill University political scientist Elisabeth Gidengil and others have written Dominance and Decline, a book to be published by the University of Toronto Press.
They argue the sponsorship scandal played a much bigger role in the loss of the Catholic vote than "issue disagreement" on same-sex marriage or abortion.
Nor did the 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 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.
Catholics are still more likely to vote Liberal than are Protestants, says the extract.