The Manitoba Progressive Conservatives may have a new leader, but they’re championing old ideas. The opposition party is risking the alienation of valuable urban and suburban voters with their strong opposition to Bill 18. The government bill would force all schools that receive government funding to allow gay-straight alliance student groups. It may also serve as a strong political wedge issue for the governing NDP.
The Progressive Conservative Education Critic and MLA for Steinbach, Kelvin Goertzen, has been very outspoken against the bill for fear that it violates religious freedoms. Goertzen and at least two other rural PC MLAs joined over 1000 opponents to the bill at Steinbach Christian High School.
There can be no doubt that Goertzen personally opposes the bill. In reference to the meeting in Steinbach, he said, “the greatest lesson that the teachers and staff at Steinbach Christian High School will ever give students will be demonstrated…and that lesson is that it’s always the right thing to stand up for what is right.” He must also firmly believe he is representing the wishes of his constituents by bringing the issue to the forefront, and for that he can be commended.
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In reaction to the criticism, the government has shown it is absolutely unwilling to compromise on the bill. When the bill was drafted, Education Minister Nancy Allan must have been very well aware of the battles that would be fought over this legislation; the quick response to disregard the opposition to the bill would demonstrate that the government clearly believes its position is on the right side of public opinion on the issue.
Bill 18’s official name is “The Public Schools Amendment Act (Safe and Inclusive Schools)” but has become known as “the anti-bullying bill.” Who would ever want to appear pro-bullying? Bullying has become a hot topic as of late with widely publicized stories of young gay people committing suicide due to relentless abuse from their peers. All the NDP needs to say is that if a gay-straight alliance saves the life of one young person it’s worth offending a couple thousand religious people. Many Manitobans would likely agree.
The Tories have also pointed out that the gay-straight alliances aren’t the only problems with the bill, but an unclear definition of “bullying” doesn’t bring 1000 people out to a school gymnasium in Steinbach. There’s no sense kidding ourselves, the opposition is based on the fact that Christian schools do not want these alliances within their walls.
PC Party leader Brian Pallister has tried to steer the issue away from the religious debate and focus on other aspects of the bill. The shift hasn’t been easy as his former colleague and federal Member of Parliament for Provencher, Vic Toews, appears quite happy to keep the focus on religion. In a letter to constituents he wrote that he believes Bill 18 violates Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms by infringing on freedom of religion. Meanwhile, Goertzen has been using his Facebook page to inform his supporters of which pastors of evangelical churches in Winnipeg are publicly opposing the bill.
The PC Party is in a desperate battle to reach beyond its base and make inroads among suburban voters. Opposition to anti-bullying legislation probably isn’t what is going to bring those voters on side. In the aftermath of the party’s shift to the centre in the 2011 election it was clear that the right wing base needs to have a bigger voice under a new leader. This topic may serve to throw a bone to the base but may well alienate moderate voters.
The thought of the official opposition taking such a strong stand on the bill must be welcome news to the government. The more battles that are fought over social issues, issues which the NDP clearly thinking they’re on the right side of, the less time is spent focusing on the government’s deficits and tax increases. Opposition will be out in force when the bill goes to public hearings in spring. The government would much rather have the public focus on Tory opposition to gay rights than focus on what is sure to be a lackluster budget.
Whether or not the Tories and people of faith like it, much of society has moved on from these debates and has become progressively in favour of protecting the rights of gay, lesbian, and transgendered people. As much as these types of issues can work opposition into a fervor, it can go both ways. If the PC Party of Manitoba is to become a party that appeals to a broader base, particularly within Winnipeg, it seriously needs to consider how strongly it stands on these types of social issues.
Kelly McCrae is a former PC caucus staffer and is currently a public affairs consultant with Grey Owl Public Affairs. Follow him at: @kellymccrae