The Conservatives have been turning the clock back on women’s rights—but you have to look closely to tell

Logo for The Walrus

Speaking in 1987, Margaret Thatcher offered the following governance tip to her fellow leaders: “To wear your heart on your sleeve isn’t a very good plan; you should wear it inside, where it functions best.” Last spring, Stephen Harper, unrolling his G-8 maternal health proposal, heeded her advice. The initiative would save “the lives of mothers and children all over the world,” he said. When public and women’s health advocates asked how, exactly, he proffered an explanation in characteristic doublespeak: “We are not closing the door to any option, and that includes contraception, but we do not want a debate, here or elsewhere, on abortion.” In the same sentence, the prime minister committed to keeping all policy options open, and categorically refused to discuss the most crucial among them—and so Canadian maternal health policy now denies funding for abortion services in the developing world.

This sly approach has, since 2006, permitted Harper and company to enact changes that set back women’s progress. As a result, gender equality stands at a dangerous crossroads. Since merging with the Canadian Alliance, the Conservative Party has included fierce social traditionalists, who favour patriarchal and heterosexual family relations, alongside fiscal Tories, who advocate a strong market, a small state, and, in many cases, a libertarian society. The prime minister often tries to keep the social conservatives under wraps, but at the end of the day he generally keeps them happy.

His covert strategy is no doubt savvy. For one thing, blending ingredients from each conservative side softens the sharper edges of both. Social traditionalism tends to humanize the cold calculus of laissez-faire conservatism, while fiscal imperatives lend an aura of rationality to religious fundamentalism; the resulting mixture calms moderate voters who might otherwise worry about ideological extremism within Harper’s ranks. Furthermore, by permitting social conservatives to achieve gradual policy gains, as quietly as possible, Harper reduces the chances that this faction of his coalition will become so disillusioned as to form a breakaway party.

The upshot is that the Tories have pushed back women’s rights while maintaining the facade of reasonable government; their spin ensures few are the wiser. In 2006, the Conservatives chopped $5 million from the $23-million budget for Status of Women Canada, explaining their decision with talk of fiscal responsibility and “efficiency savings,” as well as through the apparently sound argument that the unit’s mission had been fulfilled. To quote Status of Women Minister Bev Oda, Canada’s new government “fundamentally believe[d] that women are equal.” In reality, the Harperites hit hard at research and advocacy groups mandated to uncover and act against inequality. The same year, the Conservatives shut down a nascent national child care program initiated by Paul Martin’s Liberal government, introducing instead a $1,200 annual tax allowance payable to parents for each preschool child. Although the move was presented as a cost-cutting measure, it reinforced traditional family values by rewarding one-earner couples at the expense of mothers who work outside the home.

On issues that can’t be defused by rhetoric, social conservatives have taken to creeping through the back channels. Although Harper promised in his 2006 campaign that “the Conservative government won’t be initiating or supporting abortion legislation” (assuring voters that this most contentious of files would remain unopened), party backbenchers continued to do just that. These MPs—rather than the cabinet ministers who formally constitute the government—have introduced private members’ bills aimed at eroding freedom of choice: the 2008 Unborn Victims of Crime Act (Bill C-484), which criminalized harm to a fetus while committing a violent offence, and for which Harper voted in favour on second reading, was followed closely by legislation “to protect the conscience rights of Canada’s health care workers,” so they “will never be forced to participate against their will in procedures such as abortions.” While neither bill passed into legislation, both moves demonstrated the extent to which social conservatives had become canny pragmatists. They understood abortion could be recriminalized far more easily by chipping away incrementally at legislation than via frontal assaults on the Supreme Court’s 1988 Morgentaler decision. “It’s always important to take steps, small steps, to acknowledge the value of the unborn,” explained Winnipeg South MP Rod Bruinooge, leader of the Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus.

Harper’s approach is working. The party is holding together, and has paid a minimal electoral price for actions that defunded pro-equality women’s organizations, ended national child care, and put restrictive abortion policies back on the public agenda. The Conservatives’ approval ratings have changed little since June 2004, when the party held the support of 26 percent of Canadian women (compared with 36 percent of men). And no wonder. While Harper’s ministers and caucus perfected the art of delivering social conservative policies surreptitiously, without alarming the electorate, the opposition parties failed miserably to train a spotlight on what they were doing.

Beneath the veil of moderate government, the Tory heart beats traditionalism. If Harper continues catering in a shadowy way to party members who long for the days of the feminine mystique, he may yet win his coveted majority and effectively unravel women’s equality—both at home and abroad.

Distinctive Blend

One part middlebrow, one part upper crust makes a ghetto-fabulous drink

Sometimes a well-mixed cocktail is easier to swallow than its individual components. The makers of Alizé liqueur and Cristal champagne received a boost following the 1996 release of “Thug Passion,” a hip hop ballad by Tupac Shakur in praise of an equal-parts drink by the same name. At the time, Alizé was missing its target market of white middle-aged women; and Cristal, originally bottled in 1876 for Russia’s Czar Alexander II, was quaffed almost exclusively by bluebloods. Shakur’s hit led to a very profitable brand swap: the prestige cuvée gained some street cred, and the fruity bargain bin beverage revelled in a newfound sophistication. Since then the Alizé brand has remained urban; Cristal, however, returned to its exclusive roots after a 2006 interview with The Economist exposed its conservative heart, earning it a boycott from the hip hop community.

Jonathan Simpson

This appeared in the October 2010 issue.

Sylvia Bashevkin