As we hit the middle of the election campaign, a recurring theme has emerged from the Conservative camp. There have been subtle and some not so subtle messages to the province's most socially conservative voters that the Tories are listening to their concerns. Accused of waffling and being too centrist during the Tory leadership race, Ernie Eves is hesitating no more. But while this move might shore up hard-core supporters, it risks offending middle-of-the-road voters, the very people who were attracted to the Tories economic platforms of 1995 and 1999 and helped them win two consecutive majorities.
There are been many issues discussed this far in the campaign and one has yet to dominate. Some, such as leadership, lend themselves easily to negative campaigning, or attacks on the other leaders. Economic questions tend to centre on how a party can manage the books, keep taxes low and provide adequate funding to programs. Health care, education and other mainstream social policies are more easily couched in terms of who is going to shorten hospital waits, reduce classroom sizes and generally outspend the other parties - all while remaining fiscally responsible, of course. The latter issues are not necessarily divisive, nor do they have to split the population; indeed, the goal of most political parties is to reach out to as broad a section of the public as possible.
That's not the case with the so-called "moral" issues that the Tories have raised during the campaign. Here, in three specific instances, the goal has been to target a particular portion of the voting population and to let them know that your party is the only one that shares their views.
Early in the campaign, Eves declared that he believes that the death penalty should be applied in certain cases. The problem is that the province has no jurisdiction when it comes to changing the punishments laid out in the Criminal Code; even if Ottawa was to bring back the noose, provinces would not have had a say in the matter. So why mention it? To let those who are passionate about being hard on criminals that Eves is on their side.
The Tories have also come out with a curious immigration policy, suggesting that too many criminals and would-be terrorists are arriving on our shores while good, honest folks are being kept out. The Conservatives suggest that re-electing them will ensure that illegal immigrants will not get free medical assistance in Ontario (they do not right now) and that people on welfare cannot sponsor immigrants (they cannot right now). They also pledge to work out a new deal with Ottawa on immigration matters (while failing to mention that Ottawa has wanted such a deal for years). The Tories are aiming this message at people who think of immigrants primarily as a security concern, rather than as fuel for the province's economic engine. The best way to stop terrorism, goes this message, is to re-elect the Tories. Few Ontarians may share this view, but it's a powerful message for those who do.
The Tories have also waded into the debate about same-sex marriages, with Eves modifying his position to suit a more conservative stance. Last year, the Tory leader said he was not opposed to same-sex marriages. Just prior to the campaign, however, he stated a privately held belief that only a man and women should be "married," and he explicitly tied this view to his religious upbringing. Other members of the Tory team have been even more direct in their views on same-sex marriage, particularly in some rural ridings, and Eves has campaigned with MPPs who are openly opposed to the idea. At least one Conservative candidate has taken out newspaper ads contrasting his man-and-woman version of marriage to that of the Liberal incumbent.
But like capital punishment, this is a matter that will be decided in Ottawa, not at Queen's Park. And while the Ontario government could conceivably refuse to register same-sex marriages, it has so far done just the opposite. So why all the posturing? Once again, the Conservatives are letting the province's more socially conservative voters know that the Tories are the party that stands with them.
Eves' U-turn same-sex marriage is similar to his change of heart on tax breaks for religious and private schools. It's a calculated and targeted approach: Tories strategists know that these issues attract small but important audiences. Indeed, the beauty of this constituency is they will vote for the party that represents their interests on these matters, to the exclusion of other policy concerns. For example, there are many Ontarians who support same-sex marriages, but are not likely to let that issue determine how they vote. By contrast, individuals who oppose same-sex marriage, favour the death penalty and send their children to private schools are more likely to tune out economic and other social considerations and look for the candidate that stands with them on the "family values" question. Eves is banking on being welcomed into their fold.
That's not to say that the Tories are concerned that religious or far-right voters will abandon them for the Liberals: Dalton McGuinty's stance in favour of same-sex marriages is enough to insure that won't happen. But some in this group might see the Family Coalition Party as an ideologically pure alternative, or they might not vote at all. Neither of those options is acceptable to the Tories, who will require all the support they can muster in this campaign.
Eves does run one risk in changing his colours so quickly, particularly on the questions of same-sex marriage and religious education tax credits. There are a large number of voters, self-described as centre or centre-right on social and economic issues, who have stuck with the Conservatives for two elections. Unmoved on questions of immigration or same-sex marriage, they may still like the Tory policies on the economy or education. But they might not trust the Tories or their leader as much as they once did.
And that is the problem with making a second U-turn: you end up going full circle.