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A rifle owner takes a walk through his hunting camp west of Ottawa on Sept. 15, 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
A rifle owner takes a walk through his hunting camp west of Ottawa on Sept. 15, 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Jack Layton hopes to capitalize on gun-registry schism Add to ...

By most accounts, Jack Layton should be trying as hard as he can to turn the page on the gun-registry issue.

It has divided his caucus. It has prompted an unseemly feeding frenzy among the other parties hoping to benefit from NDP disarray.

And it has turned the NDP into the centre of negative attention in the blogosphere and the media just as the fall parliamentary session kicks off.

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But, for better or for worse, the NDP Leader is doing all he can to keep the issue alive - partly because he promised his rural MPs he would do so, but also because it gives him a platform to play up his consensus-building persona and contrast it deeply with the Harper Conservatives.

"It's battlefield politics versus an attempt to find and develop and nurture a common ground that I guess we're emphasizing here," Mr. Layton said in a wide-ranging interview on Friday to talk about strategy going into the fall session of Parliament.

The NDP Leader doesn't hesitate to talk about his plan to keep the registry alive so he can "fix" it. His recent caucus retreat in Regina included photo ops with police authorities and discussions on gun control.

Now, his party is planning its own bill on the registry, assuring the issue will be kicking around for a long time yet.

Insiders say it's the price Mr. Layton has to pay to keep his rural caucus onside, as they vote with the Liberals next week to keep the registry afloat. But they also say the NDP Leader is also seeking to make the best of bad situation, turning a destructive debate into a virtue.

"It will continue to be used by the Conservatives as one of these toxic, divisive issues,"Mr. Layton said.

"It's critical for us to try to find some way forward. Instead, [Prime Minister Stephen Harper]has adopted a 'my-way-or-the-highway approach.' That's been an approach to governing that has been un-Canadian. It doesn't reflect the traditions of our country."

But whether Mr. Layton's bridge-building, ready-to-make-a-deal technique will pay off for him in the coming parliamentary session is an open question.

NDP Leader Jack Layton explains his compromise proposal on the long-gun registry during an Ottawa news conference on Sept. 16, 2010.

The NDP has long been stuck well below 20 per cent support in public-opinion polls, despite party optimism that Mr. Layton's pragmatism would pay off.

Insiders say Mr. Harper's "coalition" discourse - warning voters to support Conservatives because the Liberals are consorting with separatists and the socialists - works in the NDP's favour. New Democrats say it inadvertently gives the NDP a legitimate voice even though it is the fourth-place party in the House of Commons.

"I'm never going to apologize for working with other parties to reflect the democratic will of the Canadian people," Mr. Layton said.

The problem for the NDP is whether the bridge-building approach will allow their own policies to gain traction, and whether they will get enough credit for their work to turn around votes in the next election.

All the federal parties want to talk about the stuttering economy, how government can support growth, and why stimulus efforts need to be made more effective.

And they all want to talk about seniors, beefing up retirement income and pension reform.

"If we go into another winter with people being worried about jobs and mortgages and things, I think that's good opposition territory," said political strategist Robin Sears.

"The challenge for Jack will be competing with [Liberal Leader Michael] Ignatieff for ownership of it. That's going to be the real tussle this fall: who is the stronger anti-Harper leader?"

Through the din of anti-Harper posturing and pre-election rhetoric that is sure to dominate the fall session, the NDP is also hoping to make headway on health care.

A perennial issue for the NDP, party insiders say they hear more and more about health concerns at the doorstep, and they believe their pitch for a national pharmacare program can gain momentum.

They also plan to hammer away at the Tories on accountability.

Despite promising more accountable government, Mr. Harper has appointed senator after senator, killed off the long-form census and earmarked billions for fighter jets in untendered contracts, Mr. Layton notes.

"This is a government by fiat, instead of democratic decision-making," he argues, and he feels the lack of accountability has struck a chord with voters.

As for election timing, Mr. Layton won't hazard a guess. A year ago, he saw no public appetite for another vote. Now, Canadians and politicians alike are nervous about the economy and don't want to rock the boat.

But he senses restlessness.

"It's as though people are beginning to realize the type of politics [Mr. Harper]practices doesn't resonate with them. So there's probably an increasing impulse in the country to say we need a change in government."

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