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Conservatives tout traditional family values in message to party members

OTTAWA - The federal Conservatives are telling core supporters that "traditional family values" are a party stance, a phrase that so far has not entered the prime minister's public speeches or official Tory documents.

A survey was circulated Tuesday to Conservative donors and "grassroots supporters," to "hear what issues matter to you the most."

Under a section entitled "I stand with the Conservative Party on the following issues," the members are asked to check off those that apply. "Respecting traditional family values," is one of the options, along with "safe and sensible firearms policies" and "tough-on-crime approach."

It is unclear what is meant by traditional family values. Conservative party officials did not respond to a request for a definition.

The Tea Party in the United States currently lists the encouragement of traditional family values as one of its non-negotiable core beliefs, and the Republicans have associated it with their party's anti-abortion stance.

Political scientist Tom Flanagan, a former Conservative campaign manager and chief of staff to Stephen Harper, says while the terminology might be new, the sentiment is not among Conservative activists and supporters.

He said he suspects that with abortion and gay marriage largely off the table, the party's drug policy — specifically on marijuana — is likely one of the elements of what it considers traditional family values.

Flanagan notes that surveys sent to members are usually more about shaking loose donations and exciting the support base, rather than just collecting data.

"The party's success has always been dependent on mobilizing high turnout among those who really do support the party, and then winning over some other fragment of voter support," said Flanagan.

"It's always tied to the base, it has to be. So you have to keep rallying the base. ... They use these other things to send messages that their heart is in the right place."

Pollster Nik Nanos says the party is likely making the electoral calculation that it should position itself clearly as socially conservative, differentiating itself from progressives Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair.

"Probably what they're trying to do is say, even if you're angry with us, we're still closer to the values that you have compared to the other choices," Nanos said of the survey sent to Conservative members.

Nanos predicts that the coming election, expected next year, will be fought along gender lines, with the Conservatives pursuing policies that they believe will appeal to men. He notes the party has been losing traction with the male voters who are essential to its competitiveness.

The Conservatives have committed to introducing income splitting for families with children, a policy that some critics say most favours households where one spouse stays home to care for the children.

The party's popular Universal Child Care Benefit of $100 a month for families with children under six was put forward to provide Canadians with "choice in child care" — notably including the choice to care for children at home.

The party's policy declaration does not use the term traditional family values, but talks about the family unit as "essential to the well-being of individuals and society."

It goes on to say that the party supports legislation defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. That issue has not been raised by an Conservative MP in Parliament since 2006, and attempts to reopen the abortion debate have been quashed.

The Conservative survey also asks members to identify "the biggest threat to the progress we've made together as Conservatives," and goes on to list "Justin Trudeau and the Liberals," or "Thomas Mulcair and the NDP."

Gwendolyn Landolt, national vice-president of REAL Women of Canada, says she's glad to see the Conservatives spelling out clearly support for traditional family values.

"It indicates that the Conservative party knows where its strengths lie. It's not in so-called liberal camp, it's in the middle-to-the-conservative camp," said Landolt, who also identified drug policy as an area of family values.

"I think it does mean people who support ordinary taxpayers, who pay their taxes, raise their families, pay their bills and get on with life."

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