Gun list's fate could come down to 1 vote

The registry law is a textbook case of an issue driven by interest groups

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The Gazette, Wednesday, September 22, 2010

By all accounts, today's vote on the long-gun registry will be close, perhaps as close as a single vote either way.

This issue is not fundamental to the life of the country, or the future of the federation. And it will not be on the ballot at the next election, except in rural ridings where MPs vote to retain the registry. But it is a textbook case of an issue driven by interest groups on both sides of the question. And it is a classic instance of wedge-issue politics, along an urban-rural divide.

"Toronto elites" was John Baird's infelicitous choice of words to describe proponents of the gun registry, meaning Michael Ignatieff, who is from Ottawa, and Jack Layton, who is from Hudson. Actually, the only federal leader from Toronto is Baird's own, Stephen Joseph Harper, the boy from Leaside, who became the man from Calgary.

While the new Tory House leader's comment was certainly off-message -- he'd called a news conference on the economy -- it's not clear there are any votes to be lost in this country by running against Toronto, except of course in downtown Toronto, where the Conservatives haven't won a seat since 1988.

And even there, a guy named Rob Ford is running against the Toronto elites in the mayoralty race, and he's 25 points ahead, heading to near certain victory, in spite of a media attack machine in full throttle that is only firming up his decided vote.

The vote on the registry is consequential only because the opposition leaders have made it so. Ignatieff has said he would whip his caucus rather than allowing a free vote, and this has made life uncomfortable for the seven rural Liberal MPs. If any is a no-show, or votes the other way, Iggy will have eggy all over his face.

What the Liberals were obviously trying to do here was hold Jack Layton's feet to the fire. But while the NDP leader supports the registry, 12 of his 36 MPs are from rural ridings. But some of the dozen Dippers, who voted with the Conservatives at an earlier stage, have now come around to Layton's view.

But he also understands that a leader's job is, above all, to hold his caucus together. He learned that from his father, Bob Layton, who was chair of Brian Mulroney's caucus.

For Harper, this is a vote that can go either way. If he wins, he will be a step closer to abolishing the registry. If he loses, he still wins at the next election in some of those rural seats. The people who oppose the registry will never let go of the issue.

This isn't about whether the registry is an effective deterrent, as the police chiefs and RCMP say it is; or whether it's just a nuisance, as the cops on the beat maintain.

It isn't even about the billion-dollar boondoggle of the registry, whose startup costs ran 500,000 per cent over its $2-million budget.

This is about the symbolism of gun control, not whether the registry would have prevented the tragic shootings at Ecole Polytechnique or Dawson College. In Montreal, where it's still an emotional issue, the symbolism is positive. In rural parts of Quebec, no less than the rest of the country, where the register is simply ignored, the symbolism is negative.

While feelings will be high on both sides of this question, this is not how the session that resumed Monday will be framed.

The Conservatives want to make it all about the economy and recovery. The story line is a good one, and the government had its best messenger, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, out selling it yesterday at the Canadian Club in Ottawa. It's a simple narrative: Canada came out of the recession in better shape than any of its G7 partners, having recovered all the jobs lost in the recession, with the lowest deficit-to-GDP ratio, the lowest debt-to-GDP ratio, and the strongest economic growth. But the recovery is fragile, and the economy needs a steady hand on the wheel. In other words, competence.

So far, so good. A finance minister's speech, a variation on a familiar theme. But then, Flaherty veered off his core message and delivered a stinging partisan attack on the opposition "coalition" that would destabilize the government and foist an election on voters.

For Flaherty, this was very much out of character. He's at his partisan best when he's a happy warrior, not a conspiracy theorist.

There's only one conclusion to be reached: The first part of his speech was written at Finance, and the second part was a clip and paste job written at the Prime Minister's Office by the dark side of the Langevin Block.

Even Conservatives in the room were staring at their shoes in embarrassment.

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