Ten allied groups rallied their supporters to buy Conservative Party memberships and become delegates at the party’s recent online policy convention. This resulted in more than 100 pro-life delegates, five times the amount at the 2018 convention.
The impact was substantial. Of 35 proposed amendments to the party’s constitution, positions recommended by one of the pro-life groups, RightNow, prevailed 29 times.
As RightNow hoped, delegates voted in favour of a national adoption strategy and tax credit, free speech on campuses, income tax splitting for families, an increase to the charitable tax credit, and continued opposition to assisted suicide.
The main thrust of changing party policy on abortion went nowhere. Prior to the convention, the boards of electoral district associations (EDAs) voted for their favourites among 196 policy proposals. A resolution to ban late-term and sex-selective abortions were not among the top 34 that qualified for debate.
RightNow co-founder Scott Hayward said the pro-life position was under-represented in the EDAs.
“There’s examples of different EDAs that voted for an extreme pro-abortion policy proposed by one of the EDAs in the GTA. Yet, even though some of these EDA boards of directors voted for that policy, 100 percent of their slate of delegates for this convention are pro-life. So there’s obviously a disconnect,” he said.
Hayward wants to rally pro-lifers to take positions on Conservative EDAs prior to annual general meetings in autumn 2021 and spring 2022. He said that presence would impact far more than policy.
“We’re also making sure that when decisions are made by local party officials regarding candidacies for nomination contestants or leadership races, or how the EDA is going to invest their funds … that the pro-life voices are there on the board.”
One important question is whether pro-life policy resolutions would result in the passage of abortion laws by a Conservative government.
“It doesn’t hurt,” Hayward said, adding that he would also like more pro-life staffers in MP offices and elsewhere. “It’s making sure that our people and our voices are properly represented at all levels within the party, but also within other political parties as well.”
Tom Flanagan, former chief of staff for Stephen Harper and professor emeritus at the University of Calgary, said election platforms are formed by the leader, not the party.
“The leader has complete control over that. He appoints people to write it and, through his assistants, controls the whole process of consultation, drafting, editing, and publication. The platform doesn’t usually contradict the policy book but often ignores many aspects of it.”
In the 2019 federal election, the party didn’t release its platform until the day after the final election debate. Flanagan explains why.
“Opposition researchers will read it carefully to pull out items to embarrass the leader, saying this is what the party truly stands for. Thus the leadership’s concern with the policy manual is mainly defensive in character,” he said.
Convention delegates elected 8 of the 10 pro-life candidates for the 10 contested seats on the National Council—where federal decisions are made for the party—and an additional 2 pro-life candidates were acclaimed. This resulted in pro-lifers holding 10 of the total 18 seats on the council, a first in party history.
Peter Aarssen, a resident of Sarnia, Ont., was one of the pro-lifers elected to the National Council. His involvement began with the federal Progressive Conservatives prior to the 1988 election. Later, he hosted then-Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day for a campaign event at his home.
“Those traditional values that are important to me that I lived and learned have a great compass for Canada. And I think the Conservative Party is the best party representing them, [although] it’s not perfect,” Aarssen said in an interview.
Aarssen, who has been an EDA president and ran as a Conservative candidate nominee in two ridings, said early discussions with the National Council have been cordial.
“It’s the only place we can dialogue, where I can say to you that I’m a social conservative, and I do not hide that fact. I feel an equal contributor at the council and heard.”
Aarssen says he doesn’t feel alienated by party leader Erin O’Toole’s efforts to create a “big tent” of party support.
“He might mention social conservatives more, but he doesn’t mean to ignore them. He’s trying to say that we have to embrace the regional and ideological breadth and depth of Canadians to offer a formidable alternative to the Liberals, who have thrown the social conservatives under the bus.”
A Dart & Maru/Blue poll in February 2020 found that 70 percent of Canadians wanted laws against third-trimester abortions and 84 percent opposed sex-selective abortions. Just 18 percent believe life begins at birth.
Of 120 current Conservative MPs, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada determined 81 to be “anti-choice,” 7 to be “pro-choice,” and 32 to have an “unknown or indeterminate stance.”