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Treasury Board President Stockwell Day speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on April 13, 2010. (Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Treasury Board President Stockwell Day speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on April 13, 2010. (Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters)

John Ibbitson

Placating the Tory faithful Add to ...

It must be Play To the Base Month on the Conservative calendar.

Rarely, if ever, has this government appeared to court social conservatives on so many fronts.

On Thursday, we learned that Treasury Board President Stockwell Day wants to review the federal government's employment-equity laws, which sometimes prohibit people from applying for public service jobs unless they come from target groups, such as aboriginals or other visible minorities.

"We are inclusive, and we want to see diversity within the public service," Mr. Day said in an interview. "At the same time we don't want to see people banned because of ethnicity."

This came only a day after the chief statistician resigned from Statistics Canada in protest over the government's demand that Statscan make filling out the long-form version of next year's census voluntary, to allay privacy concerns. Moving to voluntary compliance could dangerously skew the census, according to a slew of statisticians and economists.

And earlier this month, Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose mused about making honour killings - the killing of a woman by a member of her own family because they believe she has disgraced them - a separate crime. Even after the Justice Department shot down the idea, on the grounds that murder is murder and the penalty is already the toughest on the books, she continued those musings.

There is no evidence that these three initiatives are part of a concerted campaign by the Conservatives, but there is a common thread: While the initiatives find some resonance with the mainstream, they clearly resonate most strongly to people who are more than moderately conservative.

This seems a very dangerous political thing to do. As wiser minds have observed, governments that cater to a right-wing populist agenda seldom survive for long in this country. Canada has no Tea Party movement, and is unlikely to acquire one. The Conservatives could be at risk of alienating mainstream voters who they need to win the next election.

They may be willing to take that risk because of the time of year. MPs are back in their ridings, working the barbeque circuit. Party faithful who are concerned about all that government spending to fight the recession need to be placated. Beating up on the census department is a cheap and painless way to assuage the doubts of true believers.

Confidence may also be part of it. Targeting honour killings and easing back on employment equity could harm the government's electoral prospects among immigrant Canadians. But the Conservatives have been making solid gains within the south Asian and east Asian communities, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper may believe that most immigrants won't fault his government excessively..

Mr. Day insists there is no connection between the review of employment equity and changes to the census. "The two are not related at all," he maintained.

If Mr. Day is right, the census furor, the ruminations on honour killings and the review of employment equity are disparate events that have been brought together and blown out of proportion by journalists with nothing better to do.

If he's right, these July incidents are mere coincidence. But some of us can smell barbecue in the air.

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