OTTAWA (BP)–Giving hope to Canada’s evangelicals on a number of key issues, Canadians cautiously elected a Conservative Parliament Jan. 23, ending nearly 13 years of power for a Liberal government that just last summer pushed a bill through the legislature legalizing “gay marriage.”
Led by Prime Minister-designate Stephen Harper, the Conservatives won a minority government with 124 seats in the 308-seat House of Commons (Parliament). The Liberals tallied 103, the Bloc Quebecois 51 and the New Democratic Party 29. There is one independent.
But because the Conservatives fell short of the 155 seats required for a majority in Parliament, Harper, 46, will need the help of the other parties to pass legislation.
“We now have a government that will be more sympathetic to a number of the issues of concern to evangelicals,” Bruce Clemenger, president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, told Baptist Press. “But for Canadians, this was a cautious vote for change.”
In Canada’s political system, there are no set, scheduled elections, and minority governments historically are short-lived. The outgoing Liberal government, under the direction of Prime Minister Paul Martin, lasted just a year and a half, and was toppled when the other parties passed a vote of no confidence in November. The Liberals had been under heat for a scandal that didn’t directly implicate Martin but did damage his party’s image.
By contrast, majority governments historically last much longer because they can pass their own legislation and defeat no-confidence votes simply by keeping their members united.
But even without a majority of seats, it was a significant victory for Harper, who had watched his party lead in pre-election polls in June 2004 before taking a nosedive just before Election Day and winning only 99 seats. Liberals won 135 seats in ’04.
“The question is whether Harper can convince the Canadian population that he is trustworthy and will do what he said he would, and that he does not have a hidden agenda,” Clemenger said. “If people get more comfortable with him, then I think he has a chance to probably expand his base.”
Harper already had promised a vote in Parliament to repeal Canada’s “gay marriage” law. Such a vote would be a “free vote” — that is, members of Parliament (MPs) would be free to vote their conscience and not be forced to vote according to the party line. Clemenger said he is not yet sure whether the votes are there to pass such a bill; it is expected to draw some Liberal support and possibly even some Bloc and NDP votes.
The “gay marriage” bill passed Parliament last summer, 158-133.
Even if the bill were to pass the House, it would face a tough battle in the Senate, which is still controlled by Liberals. Senators are unelected and typically serve until age 75.
“That will certainly become a barrier,” Clemenger said of the Senate. “But the first step would be to get it past a free vote in the House of Commons.”
Yet at the very least, a Conservative government won’t pass any major social legislation that evangelicals oppose. There was movement within the Liberals to decriminalize marijuana and prostitution. One Bloc member had proposed legalizing assisted suicide.
The Conservative Party was formed in 2003 when two parties, the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives, joined forces. Most, but not all, of the Conservatives are socially conservative. By contrast, most of the Liberals, Bloc and NDP members are socially liberal.
“On a number of issues, the government, I think, will be more sympathetic, but they’re going to have to move very cautiously and very carefully,” Clemenger said.
Harper’s beliefs on religious freedom have been particularly pleasing to Canadian evangelicals.
“Sadly,” he wrote in an answer to a question on Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s website, “freedom of religion has come under attack in recent years in cases ranging from religious organizations being expected to rent facilities for same-sex marriages to pastors being threatened with human rights charges for expressing their religious beliefs. A Conservative government will be vigilant to ensure that freedom of religion is protected in Canada.”
Harper’s position on the separation of church and state would make any American conservative proud: “In recent years, some politicians and commentators have asserted that in order to maintain the separation of church and state, legislators should not be influenced by religious belief. Leaving aside the fact that the separation of church and state is an American constitutional doctrine, not part of Canada’s legal or political tradition, the notion of separation refers to the state not interfering in religious practice and treating all faith communities impartially. It does not mean that faith has no place in public life or the public square.”
The Conservative victory came at the end of an election in which the 67-year-old Martin tried to demonize Harper by tying him to American Christian conservatives and saying Harper had a hidden agenda. Much of Martin’s campaign included anti-U.S. advertisements.
“We have a party [Conservatives] that basically draws its influences from the farthest right of the U.S. conservative movement,” Martin said on the weekend before the election, according to Reuters. “Let me tell you, Stephen Harper — we have our own values in Canada.”
Election Day saw at least one prominent evangelical Christian elected. David Sweet, the former president of Promise Keepers Canada, was elected as a Conservative MP out of an Ontario riding (district). But Conservative candidate Darrel Reid, a former president of Focus on the Family Canada, lost by less than 2,000 votes out of 43,000 cast for a British Columbia riding.
The popular vote total had the Conservatives at 36 percent, the Liberals 30, the NDP 17 and the Bloc 10. The Bloc campaigns only in Quebec and supports secession for the province.
In Canada’s parliamentary system, citizens don’t vote directly for prime minister. Instead, they vote only for their local MP. The leader of the party with the most MPs in Parliament becomes prime minister. The prime minister also serves as an MP.
Prime Minister-designate Stephen Harper’s full statement on the role of faith in Canadian society can be read online at: