Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Religious vote swings away from Liberals

Trudeau's comments on abortion debate turn off Catholics

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"If the Conservatives get a majority on May 2, they may thank God — and Roman Catholic voters across the country."

That's what I wrote in this newspaper in 2011, before the federal election in which the Conservatives did, in fact, win a majority.

If the Conservatives are re-elected in the next election, in 2015, they may want to thank God and Roman Catholics again -- and Justin Trudeau, for his comments about all Liberal party candidates needing to be pro-choice.

But first, some background.

Three years ago, when researching the potential impact of religion on voting in the 2011 federal election, I discovered that religious voters -- especially Catholics -- were seen by the Conservatives as important to the outcome of that election.

Jason Kenney, then immigration minister, stated bluntly that "the Catholic vote is a key swing vote in the electorate."

Kenney, who led his party's campaign to successfully capture many those voters from the Liberals, described the swing to the Conservatives as "huge" and "unprecedented."

His observation was confirmed by Andrew Grenville, chief research officer for Angus Reid, who specializes in researching Canadian religious trends.

Although Roman Catholics both inside and outside of Quebec had consistently voted Liberal since the 1950s, by the 2006 election that historic tie was fraying. By the 2008 election, the Roman Catholic vote outside Quebec for the Liberals fell from 54 per cent in 2000 to 31 per cent; inside Quebec, it fell from 56 per cent in 2004 to 22 per cent.

Many of those former Liberal voters ended up voting for the Conservatives; in 2008, 49 per cent of Catholics outside Quebec who attended church weekly voted Conservative, Grenville said.

Something similar was happening among mainline Protestants outside Quebec, he added, with support for the Liberals in that group falling from 28 per cent in 2004 to 16 per cent in 2008. Many of those votes also went to the Conservatives.

What caused this shift? The sponsorship scandal was one reason. But the Liberal party's support for same-sex marriage and abortion widened the gap. Grenville suggested that the flight by religious voters away from the Liberal party would continue in the 2011 election, citing the "clear pattern" of the previous two elections.

And that is what appears to have happened. The result was "pretty much what we predicted," he told me last week, noting that a majority of Evangelicals and 39 per cent of other regular church-goers voted Conservative.

Unlike the Conservatives, the Liberals were late in noting the importance of the religious vote. Prior to the 2011 election, Michael Ignatieff, who was the party's leader, asked Liberal MP John McKay, who attends an evangelical church in Toronto, to try to rebuild bridges with religious voters across Canada.

In an interview before that election, McKay acknowledged that support from regular churchgoers was "bleeding away." This was due, he said, to how his party had dismissively treated religious voters over issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion. The wounds, he added, were "self-inflicted."

Which brings us to Trudeau's recent statement that all new candidates for the Liberal party must be pro-choice.

Today, McKay is still the "very unofficial" representative from the Liberal party to religious groups in Canada, especially to Catholics and Evangelicals. Trudeau's statement "won't help me with the constituency I've been working with," he told me.

Further, the announcement is a "vote mover," he adds -- something that could have serious implications for party in the next election.

Reaction to Trudeau's announcement suggests he is right. Trudeau's comments were denounced at the May 8 March For Life rally in Ottawa, which was attended by thousands of people. A participant in Winnipeg's March for Life was quoted as saying "it's going to hurt his chances at getting votes." In Edmonton, Roman Catholic Archbishop Richard Smith voiced "outrage" over Trudeau's comments.

Of course, Catholics, Evangelicals and other religious groups aren't monolithic on the issue of abortion. And no matter who wins the next election, the issue will likely never be brought to a vote in Parliament. But many religious groups are officially pro-life; they will likely be reminding their members of this come election time.

This could pose a challenge for all political parties during the next election. But for the Liberals, who need to win back religious voters, it could be more significant.

"This government is at the end of this natural life cycle," says McKay. Members of Catholic and Evangelical churches were starting "to give the Liberals a look again."

Now he worries they may stop looking.

jlonghurst@yahoo.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2014 D15

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