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The gun-registry end-game: Whistling past the graveyard with flip-flopper Harper

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If Canada's rifle and shotgun registry manages to cling to life tomorrow, as seems likely with support from NDP Sackville-Eastern Shore MP Peter Stoffer, the Conservative strategy will be to go after rural New Democrats who planned to dump the registry but were talked into switching sides.

So NDP MPs from rural Canada who vote to save the registry will be portrayed by Conservatives and their on-line auxiliary, the Tory Rage Machine, as self-interested flip-floppers who switched sides for the most craven of political reasons.

As kill-the-registry bill sponsor Candice Hoeppner, Conservative MP for the Manitoba riding of Portage-Lisgar, put it yesterday: "People are very frustrated with members of Parliament who have turned their back on what they campaigned on and what they promised."

You know, flip-floppers, just like Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the former serial gun-control supporter who voted for the registry twice in 1995 then switched sides for craven political reasons. But never mind that! Just give us a few minutes to flush it down the Memory Hole!

If you'd like the details of how the Conservative plan is supposed to work, check out the Postmedia News columns of Don Martin, who for many years has been among the Conservatives' most enthusiastic cheerleaders. On Sept. 14, Martin argued the Conservatives actually, secretly, really want the New Democrats to keep the registry afloat so Harper can sail effortlessly to a majority on a wave of popular revulsion by gun-toting Canadians.

Now, Martin is too Tory-friendly to call this Carl Rove-George Bush style wedge politics, but that's what it is. Just look at Government House Leader John Baird's contemptibly divisive effort to pass off support for the registry as the work of "Toronto elites." Please! This guy's from Ottawa!

It's not as if Conservatives wouldn't have campaigned against the NDP in rural Canada anyway. But since there is truly less support for the registry in rural ridings than other places, it's likely this technique will win some votes for the Conservatives.

However, it strains credulity to believe, as Martin suggests, that "deep in the bowels of Conservative party backrooms, gleeful laughter can be heard from a government celebrating a defeat." A lot can happen between now and the next election, but it's a safe bet that if the Conservatives get a majority, it won't be because they played wedge politics with firearms.

For one thing, notwithstanding the transparent lies of the Rage Machine, it's obvious that NDP Leader Jack Layton actually allowed what Harper only says his troops should be able to do, that is, let his MPs vote with their consciences.

For another, while there's not a lot of polling on this topic, there's reason to believe public opinion is shifting in favour of the registry. In late August, a credible Canadian Press-Harris-Decima telephone survey indicated 48 per cent of respondents thought it would be a bad idea to eliminate the registry, an increase from 42 per cent in April and 41 per cent last November.

On the other side, only about 38 per cent of the 1,000 respondents thought the registry should be scrapped, down from 45 per cent in April and 46 per cent last November. The shift toward a plurality of support for the registry was especially strong among women, Ontarians, people over 50 and high-income earners -- groups no minority government can afford to lose.

The reasons are obvious: despite the hysteria of its opponents, the case for eliminating the registry is weak. As the arguments pro and con rise in the public's consciousness, thanks to media attention, fewer Canadians support dumping of the registry.

Note that the Toronto Sun Monday claimed an Angus Reid poll shows 46 per cent support for scrapping the registry. But the hard-right Sun provides little information about the poll beyond percentages. Nor was there any information on Reid's website. If history is a guide, the Reid poll is a less-trustworthy on-line forum, but more facts are needed to analyze its conclusions.

Meanwhile, another Harris-Decima survey of voter intentions between Sept. 9 and Sept. 19, when it still appeared many rural New Democrats would back the Conservatives, showed NDP support slipping -- especially, unsurprisingly, among urban women.

Harris-Decima Chairman Allan Gregg offered a pro-Tory spin, but here's a prediction NDP support will bounce back now the party is siding with its natural supporters.

Moreover, the Conservative counterattack predicted by Martin fails to account for the appeal of sensible proposals by the NDP to scrap features of the registry its rational opponents most dislike, for example criminalization of honest mistakes.

This was ignored by the cynical Harperites, naturally, and will hardly satisfy the registry's most rabid foes. But that's the Conservatives' problem now, as National Rifle Association-style screeching about confiscation by the likes of Yorkton-Mellville MP Garry Breitkreuz is not terribly persuasive to anyone.

Nothing in this world is for sure, of course. There remains, one supposes, the unlikely possibility Liberal supporters of the registry as Machiavellian as the Rovian Conservatives are secretly plotting to scuttle it so they can hear "gleeful laughter from an opposition celebrating a defeat."

But for many sound political reasons, the scenario described by government supporters sounds each day less like reality and more like the Conservatives whistling past the graveyard.

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

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