What happened to all the pro-life Liberals?
When Tom Wappel was first elected to Parliament in 1988, he recalls that 40 per cent or more of the Liberal caucus was pro-life, or held traditional values.
But by the time he left federal politics and retired as MP for Scarborough Southwest in 2008, he was one of the last remaining pro-life MPs in caucus. The same year, fellow prolife Liberal Paul Steckle (Huron-Bruce) retired from politics.
Judi Longfield, another pro-lifer, lost in the 2006 election to Conservative Jim Flaherty in Whitby-Oshawa. In 2005, Pat O’Brien (London-Fanshawe) retired from elected politics, having left the party to become an independent MP in June that year in protest of Paul Martin pushing same-sex “marriage” down the country’s throat.
Last September, Albina Guarnieri (Mississauga East-Cooksville), who was first elected in 1988, announced she would not seek re-election. On the eve of the election call, pro-life MP Derek Lee (Scarborough-Rouge River) announced he would not seek re-election. In the May federal election, two prominent pro-life MPs were defeated: Paul Szabo (Mississauga South) and Dan McTeague (Pickering-Scarborough East).
While Wappel, who now serves as legal counsel to Campaign Life Coalition, estimates four in ten of his colleagues were pro-life and pro-family, O’Brien says MPs holding such views were down to a third of the Liberal caucus when he was elected in 1993. Over time, pro-life MPs retired, were defeated, or changed views.
In the 1980s, Don Boudria (Glengarry-Prescott-Russell) was a member of the famous “Rat Pack” of young Liberals who dogged Brian Mulroney’s government from the opposition benches, along with Brian Tobin, Sheila Copps, and John Nunziata. Tobin and Copps were abortion supporters, but Boudria and Nunziata were pro-life. Boudria voted pro-life, introduced a pro-life private member’s bill, and even praised The Interim publicly.
After Jean Chretien became leader of the Liberals in 1990, Boudria became the deputy House leader and after Chretien became prime minister and a short sojourn in the backbenches, Boudria became the Government Whip. After introducing a private member’s bill protecting conscience rights in 1994, he never uttered a pro-life word again.
After Wappel’s leadership bid in 1990, in which he finished fourth out of five candidates, the Liberal Party changed its rules in part to thwart pro-life efforts at both the federal and local levels. Local pro-life candidates for Liberal nominations at the riding level were victims of trickery or parachuted candidates. Pro-life Liberal Joe Bissonnette won his nomination in Willowdale only to have the party force a second nominating battle which was won by Jim Peterson, the pro-abortion brother of former Ontario premier David Peterson. Another pro-life Liberal, Dan McCash, lost the chance to represent Etobicoke-Lakeshore after pro-abortion feminist Jean Augustine was parachuted into the riding by Jean Chretien.
Rosanne Skoke was an outspoken opponent of abortion and homosexuality who won the safe Progressive Conservative seat of Central Nova in 1993 for the liberals. Due to changing riding boundaries in 1997, she was forced to fight for her nomination against pro-abortion MP Francis LeBlanc in the new riding of Pictou-Antigonish-Guysborough. The Liberal establishment played hardball to prevent Skoke from winning: busing in anti-Skoke temporary Liberals and implementing a rule that kept children out of the election hall on nomination night, preventing Skoke’s supporters with families from casting a ballot. The Liberals lost the seat to Peter MacKay in the general election later that year.
Before Skoke’s defeat, the Liberal Party was generally tolerant of pro-life and pro-family members and voters. Wappel told The Interim that when he was first elected, the party was fiscally liberal but permitted a range of views on contentious social issues. “There was no firm position on abortion,” he said. “Every MP could vote how they wanted” on social issues.
However, gradually, things began to change and Wappel said the switch was not imposed from above, but occurred within caucus and the party grassroots. He said that when he was first elected he had a conversation with Liberal leader Jean Chretien who said he was personally opposed to abortion although he would not do anything about it, but that he would respect Wappel’s right to vote his conscience on moral issues. Wappel said that was the norm from Liberal leaders during his tenure, but that the party shifted left on moral issues anyway.
He places most of the blame on the youth wing for pushing for a range of socially liberal positions over time: abortion, same-sex “marriage,” euthanasia, and decriminalizing prostitution and drugs. Wappel recalls being booed when he spoke up at meetings on abortion, euthanasia, and homosexuality, often, he noted, by young Liberals.
Wappel has provided the same advice to pro-lifers for 25 years: get involved. “If you do not become involved in politics, people who disagree with you will and they will get to decide matters.” He said the other side took up his advice and took control of the party, rigging leadership rules and nomination meetings to prevent pro-lifers from winning office or being promoted.
Campaign Life Coalition national president Jim Hughes told The Interim “in recent years the party has moved to eliminate pro-lifers and they have parachuted pro-abortion candidates where pro-lifers would have won nominations.”
Pat O’Brien, who now serves as a political advisor to several NGOs including Campaign Life Coalition and the Knights of Columbus, told The Interim that the Women’s Caucus was increasingly militantly pro-abortion and it brooked little dissent of opposing views within caucus. He said feminist colleagues were “antagonistic to anyone in caucus who stood up for pro-life, pro-family values.”
Wappel said that during caucus meetings his speeches about moral issues would be met with “the sound of one hand clapping” while those who supported abortion or other liberal ideas, were applauded. Eventually, he was met with open derision, although he admitted that some male colleagues would admit in the privacy of the washroom that Wappel had made good points, they could not support him publicly. It was increasingly difficult to work with his colleagues because of the growing animosity to his moral views.
Hughes said he was “appalled to see” the number of pro-life Liberals in Parliament after the 2011 federal election reduced to a mere handful. Only two are publicly identified as pro-life according to the CLC questionnaire: Jim Karygiannis (Scarborough-Agincourt) and John McKay (Scarborough-Guildwood).
Hughes notes that in the 1990s, despite having Jean Chretien’s as leader, a fifth to a quarter of the Liberal caucus was pro-life as rated by CLC and their questionnaire. O’Brien said the number who were quietly pro-life and did not sign questionnaires was slightly higher.
Hughes said that the loss of Szabo and McTeague were big blows as they both helped behind the scenes providing information about procedure and legislation. Szabo and McTeague were reliable votes and they frequently rose on the House floor to speak on moral issues. Szabo also wrote books about stem cell research and fetal alcohol syndrome.
O’Brien said that pro-life voters look for pro-life parties but right now “they are out of luck” because the Stephen Harper-led Tories are not pro-life, although they are much more open to having pro-life candidates and MPs. Hughes worries that the Liberals’ leftward lurch will give the Conservatives a free pass: if there is no competition for pro-life and pro-family voters, the Tories can do nothing and look good in comparison to the Liberals and NDP who always seem to push the morality envelope.
O’Brien said “it is always better to have alternatives” to keep pro-life and pro-family politicians on their toes. By moving to the same policy space as the NDP, the Liberals provide the Conservatives the chance to take socially conservative voters for granted. Hughes said the pro-life movement has lost a lot of leverage over pro-life Conservatives because they know pro-life voters have no other political party to support.
Wappel said that the Liberals moving left on moral issues is a hindrance to getting pro-life legislation passed. He said the pro-life issue will not advance unless there is bipartisan support to move an anti-abortion bill forward. “The less chance in politics to move an issue forward,” Wappel explained, “the less power and less ability to make change.”
Wappel said the Liberal Party needs to return to its roots. He says that the party’s fortunes have declined in part because of its left-wing stridency on moral issues, thus completely alienating voters who hold traditional values. “Traditional Liberals,” he said, “have become less and less comfortable with the party’s position on life and family … the party has gone way beyond the comfort point (on moral issues) for many” of its long-time voters. He said they have “stopped donating, stopped working for the party, and stopped voting for the party.”
Polls bear that out.
Angus Reid Strategies has found that outside Quebec over the past four elections, Liberal support has plunged among both Catholics and Protestants that regularly attend church. In a poll released midway through the election – before the Liberal support dropped precipitously – Conservatives had the support of 59 per cent of Catholics who attended Mass weekly compared to 31 per cent for the Liberals. Among Protestants who attend church weekly, the gap was even more stark: 65 per cent Conservative, 18 per cent Liberal.
An Ipsos Reid exit poll conducted after the federal election found that precisely 50 per cent of those who attend church or temple regularly voted Conservative.
According to Angus Reid, in 2004, the Liberals had the support of 43 per cent of Catholics who attended church weekly and 28 per cent of Protestants. Those numbers fell to 40 per cent and 20 per cent respectively in 2006 when the Liberals were booted from power six months after passing same-sex “marriage” legislation. In 2008, the Liberal Catholic vote fell to 31 per cent and Protestant support to 16 per cent.
An Angus Reid analysis stated that since 2004, Catholics have been “abandoning what was supposed to be their traditional political home.” Jim Hughes suggests that Catholic Italians, Portuguese, and Filipinos that were traditional Liberal voters began to stay home or vote for other parties when the party imposed same-sex “marriage” on the country and made it clear it did not countenance pro-traditional value MPs. Wappel said Paul Martin would have won a majority if he had clearly come out against same-sex “marriage,” but he had become “scared” and moved left, pushing away many traditional voters.
Many religious and minority voters have become Conservative supporters but others have stayed home. The Ipsos Reid exit polls finds that visible minorities, recent immigrants, and settled immigrants (who have been in Canada for at least a decade) no longer automatically vote Liberal and while they have not all moved to the Tories, their support is up for grabs. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says many immigrants are social conservative, entrepreneurial and are open to the Conservative Party in a way that traditionally they have not been. Political observers credit Kenney’s outreach to immigrants for delivering the Conservatives to a majority government.
Wappel wonders if it is too late to regain their support, but said the Liberals have no alternative but to try to woo them back by once again welcoming a diversity of views on moral issues.
Michael Ignatieff asked John McKay to reach out to religious voters who were abandoning the party. McKay met with Catholics and evangelicals, but Hughes said it did not move the party to adopt more socially conservative positions on moral issues. Indeed, O’Brien says McKay was given “an impossible task” in his outreach efforts as the leader undermined him every step of the way. Ignatieff pushed for abortion as part of maternal health, and declared special rights for transgendered and transsexuals was what the Liberals were all about.
O’Brien says that the Big Tent that welcomed diverse views “has shrunk down to a pup tent on the crowded left-wing with the NDP.”
Before O’Brien left the party, he was in the prime minister’s office and told Paul Martin that the Liberals were becoming “NDP-lite” – a prospect, he warned, that would hurt the Liberals electorally. Under three consecutive leaders – Martin, Stephane Dion, and Michael Ignatieff – socially the party has become indistinguishable from the NDP and have seen their seat total drop from 172 in 2000 to 135 in 2004, 103 in 2006, 77 in 2008, and third-party status with a mere 34 seats in 2011.
O’Brien is unsure the Liberals can become a party of the centre again. “It is in serious trouble,” he said, but added: “When it returns to its roots, it has an important role to play” in Canadian politics.
Wappel said that the party is headed in the wrong direction with former Ontario NDP premier Bob Rae as interim leader and he does not see anyone on the horizon who will take the party back to its open-minded roots. He predicted that eventually, after several defeats, the Liberals might realize they have no choice but to welcome back pro-life and pro-family candidates to win back religious voters.
Wappel and O’Brien agree that the Liberal Party does not need to become pro-life– neither saw that as a realistic possibility– but become once again a party that is open to letting pro-life and pro-family MPs vote their conscience.
When asked if they were beginning their political careers today whether they would run as Liberals, both said no. When O’Brien ran for the nomination in 1993, there were three candidates: two were unabashedly pro-life and one indicated he might be. It is unimaginable that in 2011 a pro-life candidate would run for a Liberal nomination, let alone battle another pro-lifer for the nomination.
Wappel said pro-lifers cannot give up on the Liberal Party, although he understands not wanting to face the hostility that getting involved might invite.
Hughes warns about giving up on the party completely, noting that politics is a pendulum that swings back and forth. He said if all the pro-lifers are in one party, the movement has even less influence when that party is out of power.
O’Brien said he hopes for the day when all three parties are “genuinely” open to pro-lifers and that voters will have a choice among two or three pro-lifers in every riding on election day. But considering the trajectory of the Liberal Party over the past few decades, he does not imagine his dream will come true any time soon.