Thursday, November 09, 2000

Stock's woman problem

Margaret Wente writes:
Back at Westmount High, Stockwell Day was the life of the party and the king of the prom. He never had a problem getting girls. Would those same girls vote for him today? Not a chance.

"I'd rather drink battery acid," said the other woman at my table at the big Canadian Alliance dinner in Toronto. (It was a Bay Street crowd, and the ratio of women to men was around 1 to 5.) Multiply that comment by a hundred, and you'll get a representative sampling of opinion on Mr. Day among the women I'm acquainted with.

To get ahead, Stockwell Day has to win over at least a few women among the vast middle class of urban and suburban baby boomers. But in Ontario, their dislike for him is visceral, bordering on irrational. No matter that they're completely fed up with Jean Chrétien. Even the hard-line tax conservatives can't bring themselves to vote Alliance. Nearly all the women I know are convinced that, no matter what he says, Mr. Day's Agenda of Respect includes a hidden agenda to roll back the right to choose. And they are not going to let him get away with it.

The abortion issue is a total loser everywhere east of the Bible belt, and Mr. Day, no dummy, knows it. It's no accident that the A-word has been scrubbed right out of the official platform. The A-word does not appear once in the 24 pages of campaign bumf that we were served up along with the beef Wellington. Nor did it rate a mention in Mr. Day's remarkably bland dinner speech, which was filled with sunny words such as "hope" and "families." And nowhere does it appear on the Alliance Web site.

And so, when the A-word popped up this week by surprise, it confirmed those women's worst fears that Mr. Day is dissembling through his teeth.

As The Globe discovered, the briefing books sent to Alliance candidates say the party would hold referendums on contentious social issues such as abortion or capital punishment if 3 per cent of voters signed a petition. Aha! The opposition jumped, and hammered hard. Joe Clark said now we know what the hidden agenda is. Mr. Chrétien, the first to raise the A-word in this campaign, was able to say he told us so.

How scary is this?

Well, the petition part is easy, as Campaign Life president Jim Hughes told me. "In 1985, we presented a petition to the Mulroney government with over a million signatures." But so what? As Mr. Hughes himself says, this isn't California. There's no law that says referendums are binding. No House and Senate would vote to repeal abortion rights, and if they ever did, no such law could be enacted without repealing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Mr. Day knows all that, too. But try explaining it in a media scrum. The A-word is such a firecracker that it shuts down all rational conversation. So Stock got sandbagged on both sides. By claiming that abortion is the very, very furthest thing from his mind these days, he's denied his core supporters. "I don't know how he thinks he got elected as leader," says Jim Hughes. "He wouldn't even be there if it weren't for the grassroots, pro-life, pro-family Canadians that voted for him."

Annoy your friends and scare the folks whose trust you need to win. Then get mad at the media. Not a formula for electoral success.

Is Stock sincere when he says he wouldn't impose his own moral beliefs on the rest of us? I have no doubt about it. I believe he would gladly never speak the A-word again if it meant the baby-boomer women of Ontario would let him sign their dance card. He is not a single-issue candidate. Trouble is, that single issue, for women, is a deal-breaker.

Many politicians' public positions on abortion are more a matter of expediency than principle. In the United States, even liberals such as Hillary Clinton are obliged to say they're personally against it even though they defend choice. Even Mr. Chrétien was anti-choice once upon a time, before it became a political liability.

The trouble with Stock is that he believes it, and that this belief has been central to his life. In 1988, Valorie Day founded a pro-life pregnancy counselling clinic in Red Deer, and Stock helped raise money for it. (This week, the television show W-Five used a hidden camera to show how the clinic uses scare tactics on vulnerable young women, though Mr. Day says they didn't do that back then.) That same year, when he was a lowly MLA, he spoke more graphically about abortion than he has ever since—in public, at any rate. He said he thought that greater access to abortion would probably lead to a rise in child abuse. "The thinking is, if you can cut a child to pieces or burn them alive with salt solution while they're still in the womb, what's wrong with knocking them around a little when they're outside the womb?"

The women Mr. Day needs to win over will never forgive, and they'll never forget.
—MARGARET WENTE, Thursday, November 9, 2000

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