Nik Nanos digs beneath the numbers with CBC News Network's Power & Politics to get to the political, economic and social forces that shape our lives.

This week: Backbench pushback in the Conservative caucus could be trouble for Stephen Harper.

The number:


The percentage of Canadians who want the abortion debate to be re-opened.

Source: Angus Reid, National online survey of 1,009 people conducted January 11 to 13, weighted to be representative of the Canadian population.

B.C. MP Mark Warawa is the latest Conservative backbencher to try to bring the issue of abortion to the House of Commons, with a motion to condemn sex-selective abortion. He was stopped after a committee of MPs deemed his motion unvotable.

He then tried to use his member's statement but he says he was blocked by the party. MPs get time before question period to make one-minute statements in the House of Commons.

The effort by Conservative backbenchers to bring the abortion issue to the floor of the House of Commons is wedge politics and is forcing the prime minister to manage the debate, Nanos told guest host Hannah Thibedeau on Power & Politics Wednesday.

"The reality is that for the pro-life movement and for the MPs that are committed to pro-life, they've been in the wilderness for a number of years," Nanos said. "With the resurgence of the Reform and the Canadian Alliance [last decade] and with the election of Stephen Harper, I think there was some hope [for them] because of Stephen Harper's social agenda."

But there hasn't been any movement in advancing that agenda, Nanos added, and now Harper is facing some pushback.

"What they're doing is associating gender selection with abortion and trying to reinvigorate and re-engage Canadians on the issue of abortion in order to try and put in on the political agenda," Nanos said.

A recent poll  by Angus Reid shows that the majority of Canadians do not want the abortion debate to be re-opened.


Source: Angus Reid, national online survey of 1,009 people conducted Jan. 11 to 13, weighted to be representative of the Canadian population. (CBC)

The findings are based on a representative random online survey by Angus Reid of 1,009 Canadians conducted Jan. 11-13. A margin of error does not apply and the data was weighted using the latest Census information to be a true representation of opinion at the time of the fieldwork.

But Nanos pointed out "it's not a slam-dunk when you look at the numbers" because four out of every 10 Canadians would potentially be open to having a discussion about abortion.

Harper's approach

The prime minister has been firm his government will not re-open the debate.

But Nanos said in terms of how the government manages this issue there is not a clear winning strategy.

In terms of appealing to the majority of Canadians, shutting down any effort to re-start the abortion debate is likely a good strategy. But if you look inside the caucus, and consider some of the pressure points the Warawa situation has highlighted, the prime minister may be seen as too heavy handed on this issue, Nanos said.

"There is still a significant number of Conservative backbenchers that are willing to stand up and who want to engage on the issue of abortion and actually want to force the government and the prime minister to try and have some kind of public dialogue on this," Nanos warned.

While Nanos doesn't believe the incident with Warawa is a sign of a possible wider revolt, he said "it's very unusual to see caucus members in a government stand up openly and defiantly opposing the prime minister and the government."

Nanos said the backbenchers could also be seeing a downward trend in some of the recent polling numbers, including last week's Nanos Number that showed 32 per cent of Canadians thought Harper was the most compentent leader.

"As well, [the Conservatives] are past the mid-point of this particular mandate â€” how long will Stephen Harper remain prime minister? They don't know," Nanos said. That could mean trouble for Harper as well, he said.

Harper could have allowed more leeway for his MPs to talk about abortion, Nanos added, but it's a little late to change strategies now.

The Liberals and New Democrats have clear policies on the issue of abortion and won't look divided on this issue.

Nanos warned the Conservatives need a strategy now to look united.

"What the Conservatives have to watch out for is a narrative out there that there is part of the Conservative Party that is not satisfied, that might not necessarily be supportive of the prime minister's position on abortion and that the Conservatives are not necessarily as unified as possible," he said.

Recognized as one of Canada's top research experts, Nik Nanos provides numbers-driven counsel to senior executives and major organizations. He leads the analyst team at Nanos, is a fellow of the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, a research associate professor with SUNY (Buffalo) and a 2013 public policy scholar with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC.