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The continuing long-gun registry fight: A dangerous two-edged wedge

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Brent Rathgeber

In the lead up to Parliament's dramatic vote last week to keep Canada's national long-gun registry, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's political advisors clearly thought making Canadians register their rifles and shotguns was a classic "wedge issue."

Judging from their promises since they lost the razor-thin Sept. 22 vote that they will not rest until they can shut down the national registry, they still think so.

But what if this particular "wedge" cuts in two directions?

Now, a "wedge issue" is political shorthand for a social or economic issue that divides the core supporters of a particular political party. If you’re a Conservative say, and you can use a wedge issue to push people who would normally vote for the Liberals or the NDP to vote for you, or not to vote at all, you’ve driven a wedge into your opponents' support.

Obviously, the Conservatives concluded registration of rifles and shotguns was a wedge that could separate sufficient numbers of habitual NDP supporters in rural Northern Ontario and Liberal supporters in rural Atlantic Canada to give them the Parliamentary majority they crave.

There is no doubt wedge issues work. They may be divisive and negative, polarizing the populace into bitter camps, but they have effectively driven politics in the United States since the era of Richard Nixon. The cynical Republican strategist Karl Rove used them to push the sophomoric loser George W. Bush right into the White House.

But while Harper's Conservatives clearly admire Rove and imitate his tactics, there are reasons to believe the divisive campaign they have crafted using the long-gun registry could drive just as deep a wedge between Conservatives and many of their natural supporters as the other way around.

This may be especially true in several seemingly safe electoral districts here in Western Canada where many of the groups that polls show support the long-gun registry in rising numbers -- women, seniors, well-educated people and people with high incomes -- make up a significant portion of the population.

For example, most folks in the riding of Edmonton-St. Albert tend to vote for the federal Conservatives out of ingrained habit, without thinking too deeply about it. So a Member of Parliament like Brent Rathgeber, with an undistinguished history as a defeated one-term provincial MLA in Edmonton, was elected with ease once he won the Conservative nomination.

But many of these same customary Conservative voters may be among the millions of ordinary urban Canadians who surprised seasoned political observers by rising up to passionately support keeping the long-gun registry alive.

Unlike the opponents of the registry, who benefited from organizational assistance from the fanatical U.S. National Rifle Association, an inside track to Harper's wedge strategists and a chorus of cheerleading from the Conservative-dominated mainstream media, support for the registry bubbled up spontaneously from women, men, parents, grandparents and young people in towns and cities across Canada -- and in plenty of rural areas, too.

Yes, they heard some good arguments from the chiefs of police and organized women's groups, but in large part this was a natural and unrehearsed expression of political will by literally millions of Canadians in every corner of the country. All you have to do is look at the letters columns of our local community papers in the Edmonton area to see which way the wind is really blowing on this issue.

So will these same voters, concerned about the minority Conservative government's plans to close the long-gun registry, now be pleased that their MP has made his mark as one of the fiercest boosters of the scheme to scrap the registry?

Rathgeber's political calculation -- and that of Conservative MPs throughout urban Alberta -- is that his enthusiasm for killing the registry will help his party in Ontario and Atlantic Canada without negative impacts at home on his rock-solid Conservative vote.

He may be right. But with no shortage of women, seniors, well-educated people and people with high incomes among his traditional core supporters in Edmonton-St. Albert, maybe he'll be in for a surprise.

Wouldn't it be refreshing if an intentionally polarizing strategy like the attack on the long-gun registry turned into a dangerous two-edged wedge for Rathgeber and other Conservative MPs throughout urban Alberta?

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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