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Trudeau’s student-grant kerfuffle is the latest act that could alienate Manley Liberals

The Trudeau government refuses job grants to students who would have worked at summer camps and soup kitchens, but happily gives money to students to organize pipeline protests. The government has an explanation, but it doesn’t matter. Your jaw dropped when you first heard about this. That matters.

The summer jobs flap is simply the latest act that’s bound to alienate voters who are Conservative-Liberal switchers − who, by the way, decide elections. And yet, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has little choice. He is bound to act on his beliefs.

Political junkies parse this policy, that wedge issue, this caucus fight, those conflicting polls. The public just wants to know if the people in charge are minding the store and reflecting their values. Liberals know this as well as anyone else, which is why Mr. Trudeau has placed a heavy emphasis on protecting and promoting trade agreements and, in recent weeks, ensuring the Trans Mountain oil pipeline gets built. The country’s economic future depends on exports, and this government works hard to give exporters every possible advantage.

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But Mr. Trudeau is also committed to advancing equality for women. He’s passionate about this. On Thursday, for example, the Prime Minister spent much of the day at a summit dedicated to advancing gender equality.

And so it made perfect sense for the government to insist that organizations applying for student job grants affirm, among other things, their support for a woman’s right to choose. After all, this is the law.

But many people of good will and deep faith oppose abortion. Many churches and other religious organizations refused to tick the box on the application attesting to their support for reproductive rights. Those organizations were denied funding this year.

The Dogwood Initiative, an environmental group, did receive a grant − to hire a student who will help organize protests against the Kinder Morgan pipeline, the very pipeline the government has vowed to push through despite protests.

In the House, Mr. Trudeau defended the grant on the grounds of protecting free speech.

“We will not remove funding from advocacy organizations because we as a government happen to disagree with them,” he declared.

But it seems odd that the federal government would fund an organization dedicated to frustrating a core government priority while depriving churches of money for camp counselors. Don’t people of faith have free-speech rights as well?

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It’s hardly surprising that the Conservatives have chosen to pile on. MP Candice Bergen, decrying Liberal “hypocrisy and deception,” wanted to know “just how many organizations are receiving taxpayers’ dollars to protest or lobby against the Trans Mountain pipeline or any other Canadian energy sector project?” The question may have been rhetorical.

Liberal strategists believe that, to win elections, they must have progressive policies that will keep NDP-Liberal switchers on their side. And Mr. Trudeau is, by nature, strongly progressive on social issues.

But Liberals don’t lose elections to New Democrats. They lose to Conservatives. They lose when people I call John Manley Liberals, named in honour of the former minister-of-everything in Jean Chretien’s government, abandon them for the Tories.

Strongly pro-business (Mr. Manley is now head of the Business Council of Canada) but socially progressive, Manley Liberals generally live in suburbs. They aren’t rich and they aren’t poor. Many of them are immigrants or the children of immigrants.

They voted for Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals. They like the Liberal government’s efforts to protect the North American free-trade agreement and to expand trade in Europe and Asia. They are foursquare behind the Liberals’ vow to get the Kinder Morgan pipeline built. They appreciated the middle-class income-tax cut; many of them benefited from the enhanced support for child care. They like this government’s commitment to high levels of immigration.

But they worry about all the illegal refugee-claimants flooding across the Canada-U.S. border. They are wary of the Liberals’ cavalier approach to budget deficits. They were embarrassed by the costume parade in India. They aren’t confident the government will get an oil pipeline built. And why on earth would the Liberals ban churches from receiving summer-job grants, but not protesters?

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Mr. Trudeau might want to invite Mr. Manley over for lunch. And listen very carefully to what he has to say.

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