Gun registry duel could take Stephen Harper to brink of majority
Posted by cgccanada on August 7, 2010
By Chantal Hébert, Toronto Star, July 7, 2010
MONTREAL – With Parliament adjourned for the summer, a major skirmish in the Conservative battle for a governing majority has moved to 20 Opposition ridings spread across rural and Northern Canada.
They are the ridings of eight Liberals and 12 New Democrats who voted against the long gun registry in a House of Commons vote last fall.
At the time, their support allowed a Conservative private member’s bill designed to abolish the registry to be approved in principle by 164 to 137 votes.
The final vote is to be held in late September. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff expects the Liberals who sided with the Conservatives to reverse themselves on that vote.
Jack Layton has not issued similar instructions to his caucus but the NDP has been under intense pressure from gun control advocates to ensure that it does not play the supporting role in the registry’s demise.
Conservative strategists see the debate is a win-win and they have no objections in dragging it out to the fall.
If the government succeeds in eliminating the registry with the help of the NDP, it will have fulfilled an iconic promise to its core base.
Such a result would also empower Ignatieff to go after Layton on gun control in the next election.
From the Conservative standpoint, time spent by the Liberals and the NDP on fighting each other is time well spent.
But if the gun registry bill dies at the hand of a concerted Opposition barrage instead, that lost battle will be put to use in the fight for a Conservative majority. That is very much a war of attrition that is being fought on a seat-by-seat basis.
Some of the ridings held by the Liberals who have been asked to switch their votes are safer than others. In 2008, Scott Simms and Todd Russell won their Newfoundland-and-Labrador ridings with 70 per cent of the vote.
The other six ridings could be a different proposition. In the last election, the Conservatives came in second in every one of them and even a solid margin of victory is not always a guarantee of repeat success.
In the riding of Yukon for instance, Liberal Larry Bagnall had a 13-point lead on his Conservative opponent in 2008. But the gun registry has always been controversial in the North and it is a region where party labels tend to matter less than in other areas of the country.
In the last election, the Conservatives were serious contenders in four of the ridings held by anti-gun-registry New Democrats, coming a close or a respectable second in Welland, Western Arctic, Elmwood-Transcona and Skeena.
Taken together, the Opposition seats at play on the gun registry debate could bring the Conservatives to the doorstep of a governing majority.
That presumes that there are no government seats to be lost over the issue. And yet on paper at least there are sound reasons why the government rather than the Opposition should be on the defensive.
The registry is popular with the police and it enjoys significant support in urban areas — including the suburban belts of Toronto and Vancouver, where the Conservatives have made significant inroads since 2006.
But it is harder to launch single-issue trench wars in urban areas — where density makes resonance harder to achieve — than in rural ones.
And then there is the Liberal attitude to fighting the government.
Ignatieff’s party still seems to approach campaigns as if their outcome were determined by a single grand duel between two generals crossing swords on a central battlefield.
At a time when the vote can split anywhere from three to five ways along regional fault lines, that is like bringing a suit of armour to a jungle war.
Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears in the Toronto Star every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
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