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Parties wage battle for the Canadian family - but which family?

Steve and Tanya Wellburn and their children Fiona, 2, Gregory, 6, and Crispin,11, pose for a photo on the front deck of their home where Stephen Harper made an announcement during his election campaign tour in Saanich, where conservative candidate Troy DeSouza is running in the Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca riding, near Victoria, BC, Monday morning.

Deddeda Stemler for The Globe and Mail/deddeda stemler The Globe and Mail

There is no safer ground in Canadian politics than the family.

The mere mention of the word conjures the positive connotations in which every political party wants to bask. It can stand for almost anything a party wants to project, from unity to security to continuity. In fact, "family values" polls more favourably than any other phrase in Canadian political discourse, according to a survey by the Association for Canadian Studies.

The question is how a party can claim this turf as its own. Will it be an appeal to the pocketbook, or social policies? Or is it about a sense of shared values?

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What the politicians should consider is that a demographic shift, decades in the making, has changed the market for their ideas.

In 2006, for the first time, the census found that families with no children at home outnumbered those with children. The proportion of lone-parent families, at 16 per cent, has never been higher. And the number of unmarried adults has now surpassed the number of married adults.

There are "sandwich generation" families with young children and aging grandparents supported by parents caught in the middle. There are blended, post-divorce families, with children coming and going depending on the week. Nearly two-thirds of women work, and the birth rate is not far above its lowest levels. The family is changing, and our image of the family struggles to keep pace with reality.

As Conservative Leader Stephen Harper introduced a new income-splitting policy on Monday for families with children, the notion of whose family counts, and which kinds of families are being courted becomes a source of debate. Mr. Harper's policy is aimed at a version of traditional family that seems to hold strong appeal, even for those whose lives reflect a different reality.

Mr. Harper staged a photo op Monday in the Victoria area with the Wellburn family, whose children provided an attractive backdrop for a discussion of his policy.

"I'm not a party member," Steve Wellburn told a reporter on his doorstep as his three young children vied for attention.

He said he likes the Tories' family values and doesn't see anything that would change his voting preferences. But family values, he maintained, are not a partisan issue. "I don't think it is left wing or right wing. Family values are what is best for families that are the cornerstone of building the country. It's a good thing to have."

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Linda White, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said the income-splitting plan "may not be good public policy but it's smart electoral strategy. It's very much an appeal to a white, middle-class, traditional family. I don't think it's [appealing to]new Canadians, but it may be appealing beyond that. They may have polls showing it will play well in the suburbs of the big urban centres."

Prof. White said it's the rhetoric that's so attractive. The image of the 1950s family is deeply ingrained in our culture as what a family should be, even if it's increasingly no longer what a family actually is.

She said the Conservative policy will appeal to the same families Mr. Harper courted with his child-care rebate, those with a stay-at-home parent.

"It's difficult to come out opposed to this policy. As an academic, you can say this is a subtle attack on working women who earn comparable incomes to their spouses, but I don't think a party would gain any purchase saying something like that in the campaign," Prof. White said.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is expected to target families in a different way. His appeal will be about education, ensuring that students with good grades get to university, something the party expects will resonate with immigrant voters and middle-class families caught in the demographic crunch.

NDP Leader Jack Layton could scarcely stop referring to families in his campaign launch, saying he would ease the burden on "working" families. He also promised to help seniors and children living in poverty, as well as enhance pensions and education, and provide some relief for those in the sandwich generation.

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How families assess these policies will go a long way to determining the campaign's outcome.

With a report from Justine Hunter

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