Tories Move on from Social Conservative Agenda

They are the ignition buttons for lighting a fire under Canadian right-of-centre activists: gay marriage and the gun registry. Stephen HARPER has promised to push both of them this fall, but now his government doesn't look all that enthusiastic on either front.
They are the ignition buttons for lighting a fire under Canadian right-of-centre activists: gay marriage and the gun registry. Stephen HARPER has promised to push both of them this fall, but now his government doesn't look all that enthusiastic on either front.

Tories Move on from Social Conservative Agenda

They are the ignition buttons for lighting a fire under Canadian right-of-centre activists: gay marriage and the gun registry. Stephen HARPER has promised to push both of them this fall, but now his government doesn't look all that enthusiastic on either front. A vote on whether to reopen the same-sex marriage debate - which he promised in last winter's election campaign - was widely expected early this month, but has been delayed in the face of its likely defeat in the House. No date has been set for the vote. There's also no firm timetable for debating the government's bill to scrap the registry for shotguns and rifles. The legislation was introduced last spring by Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day, with the Tory minority hoping to pass it this fall by combining their votes with those of maverick Liberal, NDP and Bloc Québécois MPs. But in the wake of the Dawson College shootings last month in Montreal, opposition stiffened, and the bill now looks likely to be shot down. Day's office wouldn't say when the government might risk exposing it to a vote.

The prospect of back-to-back failures on such high-profile issues would normally signal a government bracing for serious damage. But some Tory strategists suggest Harper is now positioning himself to limit the pain - or even turn these setbacks to his advantage. One approach could be to portray losing the votes in the House as inevitable for a minority, motivating anti-gay-marriage social conservatives and anti-gun-registry rural residents to work harder in the next election to win Harper a majority. After all, so-cons and angry hunters don't have another party to throw their weight behind. Nik Nanos, president of the polling firm SES Research, said Harper should view merely taking these two issues to the floor of the House sufficient to consolidate his standing among voters who care most about them. If they fail, he should cut his losses. "His best option is to stand up and say, 'I accept the will of Parliament,' " Nanos said, "and then move on."

Judging from the themes they stress in media interviews, some Conservative strategists already have. Asked about the hot-button issues, they tend to try shifting attention to policies that might appeal more to swing voters. Instead of talking about eliminating the long-gun registry, they tout their legislation to impose tougher sentences for gun crime. Rather than dwelling on fighting gay marriage, they talk up their new payment to parents of $1,200 a year for every kid under six - a less contentious signal of support for the traditional family.

There are also signals, however, that some powerful figures inside the government want to fight, not just change the subject. Justice Minister Vic Toews has reportedly drafted a so-called Defence of Religion act, which would be tabled if the motion to reopen the same-sex marriage debate is defeated. The act would assert the right of religious people to criticize gay marriage and ensure that a person who performs civil ceremonies couldn't be compelled to marry a same-sex couple.

Critics say those rights are already fully protected. Nanos argues that prolonging the debate with such a bill would be a gift to the opposition parties in the next election. "It would drag it out and suggest the Conservatives are throwing their full force behind it," he said. "Harper's got to close the door on this. He's got to think about what he's going to say in the next election when somebody asks, 'Will you open these issues again if there is a Conservative majority?' " A spokesman for Toews said no decision has been made about whether or not to introduce any follow-up legislation after the promised debate and vote on revisiting same-sex marriage. Yet by floating the concept of a new law to defend religious opposition to gay marriage, the government has stoked expectations among conservative activists. Dave Quist, executive director of the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, an Ottawa think tank opposed to same-sex marriage, said faith-based groups want their right to keep fighting for the traditional definition of marriage spelled out in law. "It's important for the government to define where the protection really is," Quist said.

Trying to turn back the clock on same-sex marriage has always looked more like a symbolic stance for the Tories than one with a strong chance of success. After a series of court decisions effectively legalized gay marriage, a law in line with those rulings was passed last year in the House by then-prime minister Paul MARTIN's minority government by a margin of 158 to 133 in a free vote. The balance among MPs on the issue doesn't seem to have been changed much by the Jan. 23 election. Advocates of gay marriage told Maclean's their tracking of MPs' voting intentions show Harper's promised motion to reopen that debate would be defeated this fall by a similar margin, perhaps 25 to 30 votes.

But the vote to scrap the long-gun registry looked winnable for the Tories - until the Dawson College shootings. After that, Liberal interim leader Bill Graham announced he would compel Liberal MPs, some on the record as opponents of the registry, to stand with their party to preserve it - a so-called whipped vote. Combined with overwhelming NDP and Bloc Québécois opposition to eliminating the registry, the tougher line by the Liberals makes the Tory bill look nearly impossible to pass.

Like the same-sex issue, the tricky strategic problem for the Tories could be how to cope with the aftermath of losing a vote on the gun registry. When Day tabled his bill to eliminate the registry for rifles and shotguns last spring, he also announced an amnesty that excused certain gun owners from registering unrestricted guns until May 17, 2007. The amnesty is complicated. For instance, it doesn't cover gun owners who have never held a licence to own FIREARMS, or whose licence expired before January 2004. (In late August, the Canada Firearms Centre had to issue a special bulletin, explaining how the amnesty works, to police - more than three months after Day announced it.) Now, after taking that extraordinary step of allowing many gun owners to ignore the law while they set about revoking it, the Tories now look unlikely to succeed in killing it after all. What will happen to the amnesty if the House reaffirms the registry? "Not only is the amnesty questionable as a policy," said Montreal MP Irwin Cotler, the Liberal critic for public safety, "it's contemptuous of Parliament."

Clearly, pressure to end the amnesty and return the Canada Firearms Centre to business-as-usual will be intense if Day's bill is defeated. Harper was emphatic even after the Dawson College shootings that he would not back down on trying to scrap the registry, but it is hard to see the case for him spending political capital to try to keep the issue alive beyond a first attempt. Support for doing away with the registry, which became a scandal when the cost of setting it up ballooned to more than $1 billion, has never been overwhelming. An Environics poll conducted around the time of the last election found that 49 per cent of Canadians thought the Conservatives should eliminate the long-gun registry. But that pales compared to the 88 per cent who favoured increasing the mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes - a step already taken in legislation waiting to be passed by the House. "It's pretty clear that we've got an active criminal justice agenda," said Toews spokesman Mike Storeshaw, stressing that the gun registry is hardly his minister's sole preoccupation. "About 40 per cent of the bills already before the House are Justice bills."

Of course, those bills, and most other bits of government business, don't have the sizzle of taking on gun control or gay marriage. But then Harper has never advocated a go-for-broke approach on the issues that matter most to many of his ardent backers. And these are his issues, too, although as an economist by training he is often mistakenly thought to be more interested in lower taxes and other tenets of economic conservatism. Back in 2003, during the hiatus from politics when he was president of the National Citizens Coalition, he said in a speech that, for conservatives, "the defining issues have shifted from economic issues to social values."

But he also urged true believers to learn patience. "The explicitly moral orientation of social conservatives makes it difficult for many to accept the incremental approach," Harper said. "Yet, in democratic politics, any other approach will certainly fail." This fall, the willingness of Conservatives to take incremental gains where they can find them, and stride past setbacks on emotional issues when they can't be avoided, is about to be put to the test.

Maclean's October 23, 2006