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Stifling debate works

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In the popular musical and film 1776, there is a key moment when the delegates to the Second Continental Congress consider debating Virginia's resolution on American independence. In this fictional account, the decision comes down to the vote of Stephen Hopkins from Rhode Island, who perceives the benefits of such a discussion like this: "I've never seen, heard, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn't be talked about. Hell, yes, I'm for debating anything!" He votes in favour and the pivotal debate proceeds.

Supporting open discussion on the issues that matter to the people you represent makes perfect sense in a democratic forum -- except, that is, if you are Stephen Harper. Because if the prime minister has learned anything during the past decade, it is to avoid debates on so-called "wedge" issues that split voters along ideological lines like the controversial Parti Qu©b©cois Charter of Values.

The charter, with its goal of banning religious symbols for provincial government employees, epitomizes a wedge issue in attempting to pit French-Canadians against Quebec's other citizens. If Premier Pauline Marois believes the charter will lead to greater PQ support, she likely is mistaken, as an increasing number of Quebec francophones have voiced concerns about it, as has the rest of the country. The odds are that it is a wedge issue which will soon backfire.

Anyone who believes, therefore, that the late Dr. Donald Low's recent emotional videotaped appeal to initiate a debate about legalizing physician-assisted suicide would prompt Harper to do so has not been paying attention to his evolution as a politician.

During the 2004 federal election, Harper made the political error of taking a hard line on same-sex marriage, stating that if elected, he would not alter the legal definition of marriage. That declaration cost him critical votes and was one of the factors that allowed Paul Martin and the Liberals to win a minority government.

Two years later, during the 2006 campaign, Harper moderated his position and stated that a Conservative government would permit a free vote on same-sex marriage. However, opposition from within his own caucus that he knew might tear his party apart rightly made him wary.

Finally, in early December 2006, he was able to put the issue behind him for good when a motion about whether or not to reopen the same-sex marriage debate was defeated.

Though Harper is constantly criticized for "abdicating governance in favour of electioneering," as one Ottawa correspondent recently put it, he knows that permitting debate on contentious social issues is tantamount to political suicide.

Such discussion merely stirs up party members, some of whom hold traditional views. And it gives ammunition to his opponents and detractors who still maintain he has a Republican Tea Party style "hidden agenda" to move Canadian social policy to the extreme right.

In fact, Harper's cautious approach makes more sense, considering how intractable divisions between Democrats and Republicans over a wide range of social issues have nearly brought the American government to a deadlock.

Hence, in recent years, any talk in Ottawa about debating capital punishment, abortion or the legalization of marijuana has been suppressed. Harper even avoided dealing with war criminal Omar Khadr as long as possible.

One of the few prickly matters that Harper has not deviated on is his government's full support of Israel (another is his unwavering advocacy for the Keystone XL Pipeline). Despite much criticism for this alleged abrogation of Canada's more neutral policy on Middle Eastern issues, Harper has stood firm. He has argued that, on principle, Canada must defend the only democracy in the region. He and his advisers also no doubt have calculated that the political fallout will not be great. So far, this has been correct and attempts to re-establish closer ties with the Palestinians will allay the opposition further.

In his approach to governing and staying in power, Harper would have agreed with one of William Lyon Mackenzie King's dictums. "The extreme man," King told one Liberal Party supporter in 1931, "is always more or less dangerous, but nowhere more so than in politics. In a country like ours, it is particularly true that the art of government is largely one of seeking to reconcile rather than to exaggerate differences -- to come as near as may be possible to the happy mean."

A notorious fence-sitter, King stayed in power for nearly 22 years by proceeding cautiously, waiting to see which way the political winds blew and straddling the middle of the political road as much as possible on such volatile issues as conscription and protectionist economic policy.

King understood that maintaining national unity was the key to his and the Liberals' long-term political success. He knew how such wedge issues as the hanging of Louis Riel in 1885 lost John A. Macdonald and the Conservatives support in Quebec; how his mentor Wilfrid Laurier's decision in favour of reciprocity (free trade) with the U.S. had caused a rift in the Liberal Party and contributed to Laurier's defeat in 1911; and he witnessed first-hand the demise of the Tories under Arthur Meighen, who perhaps more than any other Canadian political leader was done in by wedge issues and a stubborn resolve that only benefitted King and the Liberals.

Harper is no Arthur Meighen. On the contrary, he has every intention of following the Liberals' 20th-century strategy and establishing the Conservatives as the next "natural governing party." To this end, maintaining tight control over his caucus and stifling debate on anything remotely provocative is his chosen course. This may indeed be "abdicating governance in favour of electioneering," yet it appears to be working.

Now & Then is a column in which Winnipeg historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2013 A17

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