Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The long gun registry lives, at least for now

With last night's nail-biter vote on a Liberal motion to end the Conservative bid to kill the gun registry passing 153 to 151, you can now be returned to your previously scheduled program of baseless election speculation. The registry will live to be a political prop for all for another day or three. But first, a look back at the vote and the way forward.

THE POLICY

It's important to say that the most important thing is that the registry remains in place as a valuable tool that police forces across the country insist they need to do their jobs and that everyone from doctors and nurses to victim's groups believe is an important (and symbolic) part of a wider gun control regime.

It doesn't end here. The anti-registry forces have promised to try and try again. The pro-registry forces can't rest here either. Both the Liberals and the NDP have similar proposals to reform the registry. The Liberals have said they'll implement there's when in government; the NDP promise a private member's bill as soon as possible. I believe there is much common ground here. I'd like to see the Liberals and NDP get together on registry reform legislation and push it through this Parliament.These reforms are needed, there's no need to wait, and it would put rural NDP and Liberal MPs in a much better position next election to be able to point to a reformed registry. I hope both parties can at least temporarily put aside the politics to work together on this one.

And I agree with Ian Capstick's point on Power and Politics last night: the gun control lobby shouldn't stop here. They should move the debate to new ground, such as exploring selective weapons bans. The same polling registry opponents like to point to in support of scrapping it also show that 44 per cent of Canadians would support a complete hand gun ban (the same number are opposed.) An earlier poll showed 45 per cent of Canadians felt owning firearms should be illegal altogether. I wouldn't go that far, but there definitely is appetite for stricter gun control.

THE POLITICS

The Conservatives like to say they were going to be a winner either way. Of course, they always say this. Prorogation was still a magnificent victory for the Prime Minister's genius. Anyway, time will tell. Bottom line: they wanted to kill the registry, and they failed. They took their best shot last night, using a private member's bill to make it seem a pseudo free vote, and nearly moved enough NDP votes to take it. But the registry lives.

And I ask you, are these the faces of happy people?


They lost the battle, but they'll tell you it was a Pyhrric victory for the opposition and the war will still be their's. It's nearly entirely spin, but it's pretty good spin.

Certainly, the registry is useful to the Conservative Party as a fundraising tool. I have no doubt they wasted no time getting an e-mail solicitation out to the faithful after the vote, and I'm sure when this quarter's financials are in, it will show the faithful opened their wallets. The registry is also a useful way of keeping their rural base energized and onside: as long as it lives, they need to vote Conservative to get it killed. If it's gone, maybe another ballot issue comes up that changes the equation. And if they really wanted it killed, they'd put it on a money bill and make it a confidence matter. It's more useful as a wedge.

The party has their eye on potential pick-ups from Liberal and NDP pro-registry voters in rural Canada. As I've said before I'm doubtful they'll find gains; I think the registry has already been factored into rural voting patterns. If it's a ballot issue for you, you're probably voting Conservative already. You're nearly definitely not voting Liberal. Time will tell, of course, but I'd be surprised.

More interesting for me, and continually ignored by the so-called liberal media, is the impact for the Conservatives in urban Canada and Quebec, where the registry is popular. Many urban and Quebec MPs are offside from their constituents on this issue. And it's also in these registry-supportive areas where the Conservatives need gains to earn a majority.

Will the registry be a ballot issue in urban Canada and Quebec? It remains to be seen. It could be. Certainly, it hasn't been in the past, nor has it generated the raw emotion it has in rural Canada. Two things on that, though.

One, the registry is the status quo, it's accepted as a fait accompli in urban Canada, so there's been no need to get too worked up over it. And two, the Conservatives haven't elevated the issue before. Sure, it was in the platform. But it wasn't in the brochures and stump speeches of urban Conservative MPs and candidates, and in government Harper didn't show any eagerness to kill the registry until now. With Candice Hoepner's bill, the issue is now national news, and you can count on the opposition reminding urban and Quebec voters in the next campaign that the Conservatives very nearly killed the registry, and have promised to not rest until they succeed.

This could well become a ballot issue for those educated urban women that helped flip a number of urban ridings to Harper in the last election, and if it does it could mean Conservative trouble.

For the Liberals, there is risk but also potential for growth. Deciding to "whip the vote" was a risky gambit for Michael Ignatieff, but one worth making and a little less risky then it seems on the surface. Remember, months back the Liberal caucus came together, urban and rural, and hashed-out a compromise that they could all agree on, that balanced the legitimate concerns of rural Canadians while keeping the registry alive. With that compromise agreed to the caucus was united and onside. So was it really necessary to call a formal whip?

Perhaps not, but I'd argue it was still a good call. For one thing, it made clear the Liberal Party was united on the issue and it shifted the public and media pressure to the NDP. It ended months of possible "how will x, how will y" vote stories immediately. Liberal MPs could go right to work explaining the compromise position. And for a leader who has been criticized for a lack of strength, I think the show of "whipping" the vote even though the compromise was reached was useful to portray Ignatieff as a strong, decisive leader. You can also make an argument for the consensus-leadership approach that Jack Layton took on the issue, but Ignatieff and Layton have different leadership perceptions and challenges to overcome. Ignatieff had to show a firmer hand to the public than Layton did.

What will it mean electorally? Well, there certainly is risk in rural Canada, both for sitting Liberal MPs and for growth potential. But as I argued above, I think that the pool of voters for whom the registry is a ballot issue are lost to us no matter what we do on the issue. There were a lot of tight-margin ridings both ways last time. Could this issue move some votes there? Potentially. Enough to swing seats LPC to CPC? I'm doubtful. Remember, the LPC ran a very weak campaign last time and turned in one of its worst showings in history. I'll make a bold prediction: at worst, we'll suck slightly less next time. So I don't see enough Liberal vote being in play here to be difference-making.

What about urban Canada? Again, I think that's more interesting. I went over many of the reasons above why this could be troubling for the Conservatives in urban Canada and Quebec. I'd suspect the Liberals will put this issue front and centre in those ridings in the next election. There is the potential for pick-ups in a number of ridings across the country for the Liberals here. If there are rural loses they'd, at worse, be balanced by urban gains, with a net positive being more likely. It would have been a bigger mover had the Conservatives succeeded in killing the registry, but it could still be a ballot issue.

For the NDP, they're getting positive reviews for Layton's handling of the issue. My bias is obvious here and my awareness of that fact can't negate it (although I shall try), but I have to disagree with those positive reviews. I think he fumbled his way through this, and was lucky to pull it off. But in the end, I think he probably did the best he could with a bad situation.

And Layton did have a very difficult challenge here. His party was much more divided on this issue than the Liberals were. When the Liberals unified around their compromise position, the NDP was left without cover. Layton didn't want it to be NDP votes that killed the registry, but he has a large rural caucus that doesn't support the registry and feel their constituents don't either. Somehow, he had to bridge those two sides.

The compromise was there, and he found it. I was genuinely surprised that it took him as long as it did though. What followed seemed a strange kabuki play as a parade of NDP MPs came forward to change their votes on the issue. In the end, their least-vulnerable MPs took one for the team, and those most at risk were given cover and allowed to vote with the government. And I give full credit to all those that made the difficult decision to support the registry, and wrestled with this issue mightily.

Will Layton and the NDP get a bump from being seen as allowing this to be a free-vote, despite the intense lobbying behind the scenes? Perhaps. I think it would be negligible, though. I think the question, though, is can the NDP have their cake and eat it too on this one? Can they support the registry in the cities and oppose it in rural Canada at the same time? I think that's a tough sell that would hurt them on both sides. If they can successfully move reforms to bridge that urban-rural divide, however, it over-rides that problem.

Electorally, I don't see this hurting the NDP in rural Canada, particularly if the registry is reformed. Their most at-risk MPs voted to scrap, and the others have sufficient margins to overcome any blow-back on this issue. In urban Canada (and Quebec), if the registry had died with NDP rural votes they'd have been in serious trouble. Recent polling makes that abundantly clear. With the registry saved, I think they're probably fine. You could make an "you can't trust the NDP to support the registry when the chips are down" argument, but I don't think it would resonate.

For the BQ, nearly the entire Conservative caucus in Quebec is offside with their constituents on this issue, where the registry is very popular. With the BQ as the second-choice in most of those seats. you can be sure Gilles Duceppe will be reminding them of this next election.

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9 comments:

JimBobby said...

Good bloggin', Jeff.

I'm concerned about something. For the past couplafew years, the Harper gummint has had an amnesty on gun registry scofflaws. Those who don't register are not prosecuted or penalized in any way. What's to stop them from continuing this amnesty?

Due to the Harper amnesty, teh registry has become more and more inaccurate (i.e. useless). By sabotaging the registry through his amnesty, Harper adds to its uselessness and adds fuel to the argument that it is ineffective.

Another concern is starvation. Harper has shown he can push through an omnibus budget with any number of objectionable features. What's to stop him from killing the registry by failing to provide adequate funding?

It was nice to get a win in yesterday's vote but I'm not sure it will really ensure a healthy registry.

JB

Jeff Jedras said...

JB, I'm not sure how to get around the amnesty. The government tends to have some flexibility in regulation and implementation of legislation. Short of changing the government, I think the best that could be done would be include mechanisms in the reform bill that would remove any flexibility.

Joe said...

Maybe it wasn't necessary to whip the liberal vote to achieve this result, but it was necessary for Michael Ignatieff. No-one doubts that the other three parties are in control of their caucuses, but there have been questions about Ignatieff and his caucus. Whipping the vote in his caucus and succeeding was about ore than saving the long gun registry.

JF said...

I think the electoral implications are being very much overblown...

Of the NDP caucus that voted in favor of scraping the Registry I count 3 (and one of those, Denis Bevington, still voted to scrap the registry) where the margin of victory in the last election was close between them and the Tories (I'll define "close" as being a margin of 10% or less). Likewise for the 8 Liberals only two had victory margins over the Tories of less then 10%.

Hardly fertile ground for growth for the Tories on this vote.

Eugene Forsey Liberal said...

Excellent post. I think you underestimate the consequences for the NDP though. For their core vote - female urban - there are issues that symbolise who can and can't be trusted, as with all core votes. That's why Cornellier hit the nail on the head in Le Devoir: "if not whipped on this PMB, what happens if there's a PMB on abortion, or other women's issue?" Iggy did the right thing, for once, and the LPC will be rewarded. The NDP have problems.

DL said...

If there was a PMB on abortion it would be a whole different situation. It is 100% engraved in stone NDP party policy to support abortion rights - no one even gets their nomination papers signed unless they support a woman's right to choose. In contrast there has never been an NDP "official policy" on the long gun registry.

Scotian said...

Good analysis, although I am with Eugene in thinking you may be underestimating the impact in urban Canada for the NDP. The thing is, it was one thing when only the politicians and media types understood the fiction about the PMB for Layton to claim he had to respect free will in his caucus, but when pretty much every Canadian paying even the slightest attention to the news was made aware that this really was a government bill in drag with all the resources of the government behind it passing then Layton's refusal to whip and risk the demise of the registry could well be a problem. It also needs remembering to consider this not in isolation but with the consideration of the many soft NDP voters in those ridings that have already wondered just how strong a fighter of Harper and his policies Layton truly is and whether this is really the old principles first NDP party which have been growing since he first became leader of the NDP.

Now, I am not sure that this will have this impact, I just think it is a real possibility and need remembering. I don't see this hurting with the hardcore NDP supporters and partisans, but there are more than a few soft NDP voters that are disaffected Liberals that may see in this latest vote enough reason to start being willing to consider Liberal as well as to distrust that their vote of conscience with Layton's NDP is as really aligned with principled politics first as has been the history of the NDP prior to Layton's leadership. Of course, like yourself I have a bias about Layton's leadership of his party and the willingness of too many of its partisans to simply go along with him, but even setting that aside as much as I can I do think this issue because of how naked Harper was in showing the entire public this really was government legislation in drag could be a problem for Layton in an election, especially if the CPC really does plan on using this vote to try and target Libs and Dippers that changed their vote thereby making it a topic within the election cycle itself.

It will be interesting to see how this works out, I do think of all the leaders it was Layton that won the least/lost the most in the result last night. If he had managed to get to his compromise and solution sooner than he did maybe it would have been less damaging in potential, but by leaving it so late in the process he let himself looking like either a fool or a tool about whether this really was a simple PMB versus government bill in drag even when the rest of the country was well aware of the reality.

Terry said...

Good blog.

1. a continued amnesty should be played up by the Libs to show the tories cannot be trusted to apply the country's laws.

2. I had a funding email from the Libs by 9PM the other night and did specifically contribute to show our party that targetted or specific event fund raising is a great way to raise money.

3. I think the dippers did a lot of harm to themselves with their performance. A lot of their recent success was as a result of Liberal no shows at the ballot box but they also picked up some left leaning Liberals which they will now lose.

4. Iggy's effective moves to show a united party will definitely pay off at election time. He has become very effective and he is continuing his bus tour this fall. these things should all add up to a victory next time out

canadianpatriot555 said...

What has happened to you men? I don't even know if i can call you that actually. Men used to be the ones to protect their family, the brave soles who would lay their life on the line for loved ones. We hunted for our families, built homes and farms for our families and taught these traits to our sons. But now in the 21st century many have become reduced to what you men who posted on this blog are! I have never ever been unsafe in the handling of my firearms. They are stored safe and out of reach of anyone who shouldn't touch them. I enjoy hunting and do not waste anything that I hunt. I enjoy target practice and I just enjoy guns in general. Its a hobby of mine. Now you feminine men are trying to tell me that I shouldn't have rights in my own country? How dare you. This should be my right. I was born a Canadian and will die one. If you don't like guns then don't buy one, but leave us men to our business.