Can direct democracy and social conservatism successfully co-habit in the Canadian Alliance?

by Margret Kopala

Anyone seeking the nomination to become a Canadian Alliance candidate must fill out a form which, among other things, queries those areas of party policy or principle with which the prospective candidate disagrees. Filing my papers to seek the nomination in Ottawa West-Nepean in early August, I replied, "It would be interesting to see if Canadians ..(accept)... direct democracy. As a question, would it, for instance, survive a national referendum? And if it didn't, what kind of identity crisis would that produce in the Alliance?"

On cue, the federal election featured discussion about direct democracy - in the nation's editorial pages and airwaves, if not on the hustings. Excellent points were made. Free votes, we learned, could result in gridlock, while citizen initiated referendums would give special interest groups power to set the national agenda. And then my favourite - that direct democracy cuts into the heart of the party system which for a country like Canada would be particularly sad. Parties exist to mediate between national and constituency interests and so achieve some measure of national unity. Three hundred and one fiefdoms, with the MP under constant threat of recall, hardly seems the surest route to this end. All in all, commentators concluded, better we address our frustrations with the system by reforming our parliamentary institutions!

I found these observations neither surprising nor unwelcome but I was surprised no one detected the biggest problem with the Alliance's direct democracy proposals - the one for which it may have paid its biggest price in Ontario polls and which only became apparent to me during my campaign to become an Alliance candidate.

At one riding association event, a kindly woman enquired whether I knew that Campaign Life had instructed its members to join the party to vote for Stockwell Day. No I hadn't, I answered, silently wondering just how many had joined. Hardly a rabid pro-choicer, I nonetheless have concerns about recriminalising abortion. What chance did I have with a group of anti-abortionists stacking the nomination meeting? I brushed my doubts aside, accepting Stockwell Day's assertions that personal religious and moral views have no place in the Alliance platform. I also felt protected by the fact that such issues would be "put to a referendum" whose results I would respect. In this light, surely, my personal views on the matter were irrelevant. Even so, a nagging doubt lingered.

It was probably the same doubt that affected Ontario voters. Perhaps because they inherently understood what I eventually came to realise: that refusal to impose one's personal views means little if, at the same time, one offers a process by which they can be imposed. If citizen initiated referendums allow special interest groups to set the national agenda, the promise by Campaign Life to initiate a referendum on abortion the minute an Alliance government assumes power gives the term 'hidden agenda' new meaning.

In other words, direct democracy and social conservatism together have placed the Alliance in a toxic soup. Can it bale itself out?

The answer is yes but success depends on the willingness of social conservatives to pursue their objectives in open, not "process" driven, ways. Most parties simply say where they stand and seek votes on that basis. If Stockwell Day's success in attracting social conservative support is any indication, perhaps it is time for Canada to acquire a true party of the religious right.

If, however, social conservatives wish to be part of mainstream parties with a better chance of achieving government, then they must accept the obligations that come with the territory. The first of these is to realise that the most important task a party member performs is to select leaders and candidates who are capable of being Prime Minister and Members of Parliament whose first duty is to uphold the constitution and the rule of law. This means applying a sophisticated, multifaceted selection criteria, not one based on a single issue or belief.

As for the Canadian Alliance, another identity crisis may indeed be in order. Assuming it wishes to remain a mainstream party, it must take steps to prevent takeover by single issue groups. One way of achieving this might require that the leader be selected by a majority of riding associations as well as a majority of the members. The party should also suspend its proposals for direct democracy and concentrate on institutional reforms. If these do not restore parliamentary dignity and fairness, then direct democracy should be the fall-back position.

Margret Kopala

November 29, 2000

ps: the anti-abortion vote was only one factor in my defeat.

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