Culturally, Canadians have left the Liberals behind

In the dying days of the 2006 federal campaign, then-prime minister Paul Martin stood in front of a gaggle of pro-life and anti-gay-marriage government MPs to proclaim that only a Liberal government could be trusted to safeguard the equality rights of Canadians.

In the dying days of the 2006 federal campaign, then-prime minister Paul Martin stood in front of a gaggle of pro-life and anti-gay-marriage government MPs to proclaim that only a Liberal government could be trusted to safeguard the equality rights of Canadians.

That dubious appeal — given Martin’s surroundings — was the last inglorious volley in a culture war originally launched by the ruling Liberals to shelter their vote from Stockwell Day’s Canadian Alliance and, subsequently, from Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

Against an unprepared adversary with activist conservative credentials such as Day, the Liberals — under Jean Chrétien — had a field day.

But when Martin turned the same guns on the more secular Harper and a born-again Conservative party, he found himself increasingly shooting blanks and — eventually — shooting himself in the foot.

By January 2006, the narrative that had initially been crafted to equate Canadian values with the Liberal party in the minds of the electorate had lost its veneer of subtlety and become a naked attempt at saving the furniture.

Like all last-ditch attempts, Martin’s appeal was based on more calculation than principle and those calculations involved cutting more than a few corners with his own party’s track record.

Canada itself was becoming culturally less centrist, and was already leaving the Liberals behind, choosing either a more right-of-centre alternative in the new Conservatives, or swinging to a left-of-centre option with the NDP.

Under Chrétien, votes on Charter issues as they related to abortion and gay rights had been treated as matters of conscience rather than party policy and a vocal social conservative faction of the Liberal caucus began to mount multiple rearguard offensives against any expansion of gay rights.

When Martin became leader, a group that had operated as a rump under Chrétien mostly found itself on the winning side of the leadership divide.

At the time of his failed leadership bid in 1990, Martin had flirted with the pro-life segment of the party.

Over his first months as prime minister a decade and a half later, some of the top progressive figures in the previous cabinet were let go.

Martin Cauchon — who had spearheaded the draft bill to legalize same-sex marriage as Chrétien’s minister of justice — was encouraged to retire.

Sheila Copps — whom many saw as the emblematic figure of the party’s left wing — lost her Hamilton riding to a messy nomination battle with a Martin loyalist.

As prime minister, Martin himself mused about finding a lower-tier alternative to full-fledged same-sex marriage. Prior to the 2006 election, his government had kept the issue at bay in Parliament by (artificially) expanding the scope of a reference to the Supreme Court.

By the time an embattled Martin presented himself to Canadians as the country’s champion of Charter rights on the eve of the 2006 election, the emperor no longer sported very much clothing.

The Liberal decision to shift the electoral fight to the battlefield of values was short-sighted.

The brains behind the strategy apparently did not notice or did not care that the country’s emerging cultural communities often had a more conservative outlook than those of the past.

Over the past decade, that has gone a long way to help the Conservatives build a solid foundation among new Canadians at the expense of the Liberals.

A stronger focus on values also contributed to the success of the NDP — a party with no government track record but with a long history of treating equality and minority rights as party policy — and of voting accordingly. On May 2, that history made it easier for many former Bloc and Liberal supporters in Quebec to find a second home with the NDP.

Today, the Liberal party is well on the way to becoming the main casualty of its own self-declared culture war.

In the future, the divided Liberal house will find it harder to win back their former central place on the federal landscape. There’s just less of the centre left to claim.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer for The Toronto Star.

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