POLITICS

Harper Conservatives Take Eye Off Ball With Rhetoric On Sex And Drugs

07/18/2014 09:00 EDT | Updated 07/18/2014 09:00 EDT
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It is a trite and mostly meaningless talking point, but the Conservatives do best when they are "focusing on the economy." But that focus seems to be drifting, and Tories could well suffer as a result.

One of the reasons the Conservatives failed to win the 2004 federal election was that Canadians weren't sure they could trust Stephen Harper, formerly of the Reform Party and Canadian Alliance. The Liberals did all they could to foment the perception Harper had a hidden agenda that would only be revealed when his party took over.

Since then, the Conservatives have won three consecutive elections by sticking to pocketbook issues and the economy, emphasizing the need for responsible fiscal management in troubled times. It is a message that could still resonate when Canadians consider whether or not they want to hand the reins of power to the untested Justin Trudeau or the NDP's Thomas Mulcair next year.

But instead the Conservatives are failing to keep their eyes on the ball. They jumped on Trudeau's pledge to ensure his caucus only votes pro-choice on abortion bills. While that did allow Harper to present himself as the only leader of a party willing to accept different views, it also reminded voters the Conservatives remain the only party with a large anti-abortion caucus that is continually working to chip away at abortion rights.

On this, the Tories are running against public opinion and should probably leave well enough alone. For the most part, Harper has recognized this as he has promised his government would never re-open the abortion debate. Despite Harper's personal views, he knows the damage it can do to his party and how limiting the issue can be for his electoral chances.

Next, the Conservatives moved to tackle the complicated issue of prostitution. The party has taken a hard-line approach, which has raised concerns by those who work in, with, or study the industry that it will raise the risks these women already face.

A poll the Department of Justice ordered and tried to keep under wraps demonstrated how divided Canadians are on this issue. About half the country felt that buying or selling sexual services should be illegal, with 44 to 45 per cent disagreeing. In focus groups, participants were even more uncertain, favouring an approach that would cast prostitutes as victims rather than criminals.

The moralistic approach taken by the government may not go down well with Canadians. There has been some criticism of the over-representation of evangelical groups on the government's witness list in the committee which studied the proposed bill. Anything that smacks of the religion-infused politics from south of the border risks alienating a significant segment of those voters who have moved over to the Conservatives in the last decade.

Lastly, the Tories have made efforts to attack Trudeau's support for marijuana legalization, a strategy that was employed with poor results in the most recent round of byelections. That same poll ordered by the Department of Justice showed Canadians overwhelmingly support the relaxing of marijuana laws: 37 per cent backed legalization and 33 per cent decriminalization (focus groups indicated Canadians are unsure what the difference is). Just 14 per cent wanted the laws to stay as they are, as the Tories do, while only 12 per cent wanted those laws to be harsher.

In attacking Trudeau on marijuana, the Conservatives are again finding themselves on the wrong side of an issue that they would be better off ignoring.

If the Conservatives want to be re-elected in 2015, the "laser-like focus" on the economy that they have been touting for years needs to be restored. Voters are unlikely to be receptive to puritanical rhetoric on drugs, sex, and abortion. Canadians like their politics blander than that.

Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers every week. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.

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