Iggy may whip himself with gun registry edict

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Sun Media, Friday, September 3, 2010

The Liberals are trying to frame the upcoming vote on abolishing the long-gun registry as a moment of truth for NDP Leader Jack Layton.

Itís very clever of them, but quite possibly too clever by half.

At his summer caucus meeting in Cape Breton, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff declared he would whip his MPs to oppose abolition of the gun registry, and called on Layton to do the same.

The Liberals are trying to jam Layton, who supports the gun registry, but is allowing a free vote among his 36 members as a question on conscience. Itís also a question of survival ó the survival of his 12 MPs from rural ridings, where the gun registry is about as popular as a skunk at a strawberry festival.

For good measure, Iggy added that if Layton didnít whip his vote, it would be proof that NDP stands for ďno darn principles.Ē

Thatís a pretty unusual way of trying to attract NDP strategic switch voters, by calling their party unprincipled. Sometimes, when Iggyís trying to be funny, he ends up sounding arrogant.

Itís part of too clever by half.

What if, in setting a trap for Layton, Iggy tumbles into it himself? By announcing a whipped vote ó where Liberals must toe the party line, Ignatieff hasnít left his MPs anywhere to hide, either behind the curtains in the House or conveniently back in their own ridings.

All will be expected to show up for the vote on Sept. 22. The media, and advocacy groups on both sides, will be counting heads.

Eight Liberals from rural ridings have voted in favour of abolition at an earlier stage of this private memberís bill from Tory MP Candice Hoeppner. Has Iggy really got all their votes in his pocket? He called a resolution of his own, on the availability of abortion as part of maternal health in the developing world, only to lose it when the pro-life wing of the Liberal caucus voted against it.

So Iggy has set the bar high for himself, while driving expectations south for Layton, whose position is that the NDP always allows free votes on private membersí bills.

That may be a fig leaf, but it will do as cover.

He is looking at a very different caucus dynamic. There are 76 members of the Liberal caucus, of whom only eight, or 10.5%, need to change their positions to support the leader. But there are 36 members of the NDP caucus, of whom 12, or 33%, support abolition of the long-gun registry.

One tenth in the Liberal caucus, versus one-third of the NDP caucus. You do the math.

The math of the vote is obvious. All 143 Conservative MPs, plus two independents, will vote in favour of abolition. The 12-NDPers would make a majority in the 308-seat House, which will have at least three vacancies by then, with a magic number of 153.

The gun registry is not a ballot question, but it is a classic wedge issue, one that divides urban and rural voters, and one on which interest groups on both sides aggressively engage with U.S.-style advocacy campaigns.

For Layton, itís a question of keeping his caucus united, and holding on to a third of his seats, by allowing a free vote. Itís the smart way to go.

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