Their bid to kill the long-gun registry in peril, the Harper Conservatives are ramping up their campaign machine to blitz key ridings before a decisive Wednesday Commons vote on the matter - one that could reverberate into the next election.
The Conservatives are expanding the use of live callers and robo-dialers - automated calling systems - to contact voters across 20 federal ridings where they believe opposition MPs face the greatest pressure to help sink the registry. They're also boosting Internet advertising on top of radio ads already running in these constituencies.
The numbers in Parliament turned against the Tories Monday when NDP MP Peter Stoffer announced he would reverse his voting intentions and fight to preserve the registry on Wednesday.
If nothing else changes, Mr. Stoffer's decision means that opposition parties will be able to end debate by a vote of 153-151 this week on a Conservative private-member's bill to shutter the registry. This would effectively kill Manitoba MP Candice Hoeppner's legislation.
The future of the bitterly divisive gun registry - which has simmered for 16 months - is the first item on the parliamentary agenda as the Commons resumes sitting this week.
The Conservatives are investing a lot of time, energy and resources in fighting to kill the registry with a view to the next election. They believe they win regardless of what happens, betting that rural NDP and Liberal MPs will suffer a blowback next time at the ballot box for preserving a registry that's generally loathed in small town Canada.
The Tories in some ways relish the battle, which takes place while Ottawa's deficit-ridden coffers have little to offer potential Conservative voters in the way of tax cuts or goodies. The debate allows the government to cast itself as crusading against state intrusion and forces opposition parties to alienate parts of their rural base to save the registry.
Indeed, Ms. Hoeppner's bill was only able to move as far as it did in the Commons thanks to the support of 20 opposition MPs - 12 New Democrats and eight Liberals - who originally backed it. Many of these MPs have been pressured by their parties to change sides.
"People are very frustrated with members of Parliament who have turned their back on what they campaigned on and what they promised," Ms. Hoeppner told reporters.
"We have a couple of days left, I am hoping some of them - even one of them - will change their mind."
As things stand, opposition parties have only amassed a slim, two-vote margin in defence of the registry.
If the Tories manage to dissuade even one of 153 opposition MPs from voting to preserve the registry, they can prevent Ms. Hoeppner's bill from dying.
In the event of a tie vote - such as 152-152 - Commons Speaker Peter Milliken would be called upon to break the deadlock. The Liberal MP would almost certainly vote with the government because precedent obliges him as Speaker to vote to "maintain the status quo" - which entails voting whenever possible to leave the matter open for future consideration.
The vote will be an important test of leadership for both Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and NDP Leader Jack Layton.
Mr. Ignatieff has ordered his caucus - often an undisciplined and independent-minded bunch - to be in their Commons seats Wednesday and to vote for a motion from Liberal MP Mark Holland to end the Conservative bid to kill the registry.
The NDP's Mr. Layton, meanwhile, has managed to persuade six NDP MPs to change their minds and vote to preserve the registry.
Liberal officials said Monday that all of their MPs will be present - and all will vote according to the party line.
That includes Scott Simms, the MP from Bonavista-Gander-Grand Falls, who is said to be unhappy with the whipped vote but also knows the consequences of dissent - consequences that have not been spelled out to reporters.
Mr. Simms did not return phone calls Monday. But other Liberal MPs who have previously voiced opposition to the gun registry said they have agreed to support the motion that would kill Ms. Hoeppner's bill.
"What I am hearing from my constituents and what I have been saying all along is the registry is not essentially the problem," said Anthony Rota, the Liberal MP from Nipissing-Temiskaming in Northern Ontario, who voted in favour of Ms. Hoeppner's bill when it was last before the House.
He said what he disliked was the licensing process and the criminalization of gun possession, adding that he now embraces Mr. Ignatieff's proposals to reform the registry.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said he has no plans to reform the registry as proposed by opposition leaders.
Mr. Ignatieff said that refusal to negotiate demonstrates a lack of leadership.
"If he won't listen to reason, we will do it when we are in government," he said Monday at a press conference to mark the opening of the fall session of Parliament. "We made it perfectly clear, this country needs a gun registry, we need control across the country, period. And then we need to reach out listen to farmers and others who have pointed out problems."
Editor's Note: The original newspaper version of this story transposed the number of Liberals and New Democrats who voted with the Tories to scrap the registry. This version has been corrected.
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