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Same-sex will smite Harper

The Conservatives are polling visible minorities on same-sex marriage. They don't like what they see.

Stephen Harper has staked all of his electoral hopes on Bill C-38. The legislation allowing homosexual couples to marry has divided the Liberals, and the Conservatives enjoy watching them squirm.

More important, the Tories see the same-sex message as a wedge they can drive between the Liberals and immigrant Canadians.

That is why the party is running ads attacking Bill C-38 in the ethnic press, and why Mr. Harper is permitting virtually every Conservative MP to speak on the bill, which will drag out debate for months.

By appealing to the socially conservative attitudes of new arrivals, Mr. Harper believes he can create the conditions for a Tory breakthrough in ridings with large populations of visible minorities, especially in the suburban ridings surrounding Toronto.

But there are early indications that the strategy is backfiring. Instead, the same-sex issue is probably going to cost Stephen Harper the election.

The Tory polls reportedly show that some white suburban voters are attracted to the Conservative position. But there is little or no leakage from the Liberals to the Conservatives among ethnic minorities. There could be two reasons: The issue might not matter to immigrant voters; or they might have realized that, whatever they might think about the idea of homosexuals getting married, minorities need to stick together.

After all, the Reform Party opposed allowing Sikhs in the RCMP to wear turbans, and now the Conservative Party, its successor, opposes letting homosexuals marry. If you're a Sikh, what should you conclude?

Mr. Harper, though he was Toronto-born and raised, remains intellectually the product of Prairie populist conservatism, with its socially conservative roots. He cannot shake his suspicion of the centrist, Red Tory traditions that dominate the Progressive Conservative wing of the party. It's no secret that MPs such as Belinda Stronach, Peter Van Loan and Gordon Chong, who hold ridings in the coveted suburban belt surrounding Toronto, are restless with Mr. Harper's approach and with the Alliance side of the party's domination of policy and machinery.

But there is also a general assumption that Mr. Harper's team has earned the right to fight the next election, expected in the spring of 2006.

If he loses -- and there are many Conservatives now who expect to lose -- Mr. Harper will have to step aside, leaving New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord as the centrist alternative. Mr. Harper, who is well aware of this potential scenario, continues to marginalize the PC wing of the party, knowing that Mr. Lord is its real favourite.

A wise head observed that the Conservative Leader actually has an Ontario-specific issue available that could win him seats there. He could champion Premier Dalton McGuinty's campaign to limit federal transfers from Ontario to have-not provinces, which is costing Ontario taxpayers billions of dollars each year, and over which Ontario Liberal MPs are utterly supine. Some day, there will be a political party in Ottawa that speaks for the interests of Ontario, instead of simply relying on it for votes. But that opportunity has probably been lost to the Conservatives. Instead, same-sex marriage appears to be turning into one of those trump issues that help determine the ballot question, and how it gets answered.

No one is going to cast a vote based on any party's position on same-sex marriage. They will vote based on the question: Which leader do you trust? What the same-sex issue has done is make the Conservatives look socially intolerant, rural based, and in thrall to the religious right. This won't help Mr. Harper win seats in urban Ontario -- or urban anywhere, for that matter.

It may, however, ensure his defeat in the next federal election, and the end of his political career.

Whoops: Rob, not Ron, Fonberg is deputy minister of International Trade. My apologies for this slip of the keys.

jibbitson@globeandmail.ca

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