January 27, 2006
Pundits are blaming Stephen Harper’s failure to win seats in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver on fears that Harper has a broad social conservative agenda. Or on a distaste that urban residents have for free enterprise. Or on his reluctance to fix the city’s fiscal imbalance.
That’s far too broad and complex an assessment.
It’s really all about sex.
|People vote their sexual preferences, and their ability to pursue them without undue risk, much more than they vote any left-right ideology or pocketbook issue. A vote for the Conservatives, to very large numbers of urbanites, would be a vote against their self-interest.||
No one knows how many gays Canada has – they haven’t all come out of the closet – but estimates vary from about 1% to 10%. At the high end (10% is the figure used by some marketers to the gay community), Canada has more than three million gays; at the low end (from a suspect Statistics Canada study that reports an unusually high rate of people who didn’t want to respond), there are 1%, a mere 300,000-plus.
Let’s assume the actual figure is about one million, and that the great majority of them live in cities, especially Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, since gays gravitate to big cities to find mates and a community to belong to. Let’s look at Toronto, which has Canada’s largest gay population and, along with San Francisco and Amsterdam, the world’s highest proportion of gays. Many credit Toronto with 300,000 to 400,000 gays but, even assuming that number is inflated, Toronto could well have 10,000 gays per Toronto riding on average. But that doesn’t begin to describe the gay-friendly vote.
At Toronto’s gay concentration, virtually every Torontonian knows gays. They have gay friends and gay co-workers. They have gay relatives. They see gay tendencies in the young children of their friends and, as they become older, speculation turns to confirmation. They have bonds with all these people and often a strong loyalty toward them, too. They don’t want to see them disparaged, even implicitly. They don’t want their vote to be read as an insult to gays. For many, a vote for Conservatives, knowing it would deeply offend a friend, a relative, a co-worker, would show disloyalty.
The abortion issue produces more visceral sex-based opposition to the Conservatives. Canadian women have more than 100,000 abortions a year. Put another way, for every 100 babies born, 32 are aborted. Among women in their twenties, about 2.5% will have an abortion this year. Among those who don’t, many fear that, but for fortune, they might face the same choice.
Most women do not slough off their past abortions easily, and they certainly do not want societal reprimands for their past misfortunes. Neither do they want others to suffer any such stigma, or limit on their freedoms. These women’s mates do not want any of the stigma to rub off on them, or to be limited themselves by unwanted obligations.
The numbers of voters here are massive, and not just in cities. And because the votes are often tied to visceral existential experiences, they can trump a distaste for other parties, even as scandal-tainted a party as the Liberal party. Urban voters do not oppose the Conservatives’ free enterprise policies; they tend to favour free markets more than rural voters. Urban voters also are not hostile to social conservative policies that don’t interfere with their choices in life. They don’t hyperventilate over church-going, even if it’s not their preference, or family friendly policies such as child-care allowances. They positively favour social conservatives’ tough policies on crime.
Only the strict sex-related votes – thousands of them per urban riding – keep Harper from breakthroughs in Canada’s big cities. If he can neutralize his image as a sexual throwback, and if only a few thousand urban voters per riding switch to the Conservatives, urban ridings – and majority government – are his.
In truth, Harper has shown no antipathy to gays – his pro-civil union, anti-gay marriage position is comparable to that of Labour’s Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, and left-leaning U.S. Democrats such as Howard Dean and John Kerry. And Harper has pledged not to reopen the abortion debate. But he needs to dispel the public’s perception that he is a closet bigot by laying down the law on intolerance and then slapping down anyone, including anyone in his caucus, who steps out of line, akin to the Sister Souljah moment in 1992, when Bill Clinton publicly repudiated the extremist rap singer, demonstrated his credentials to centrist voters and won the presidency.
To convince urban voters – gay or otherwise – that he can be trusted to keep his word on sexually charged issues, and not unveil a hidden agenda once in power, Harper could not do better than to march in a gay pride parade. There will be no shortage of opportunities in the next year or two before an election – Canada has more than 20 gay-pride events from May to September – but the best photo-op would come this August in Toronto. Toronto Pride is Canada’s most-attended single-day event, with more than a million participants, bigger than any sporting event this country has to offer. The organizers would welcome him with open arms, as would the country.
Lawrence Solomon, author of the forthcoming book Toronto Sprawls, is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and Consumer Policy Institute, divisions of Energy Probe Research Foundation.; www.urban.probeinternational.org.