Its campaign promise to kill the long-gun registry almost certain to be thwarted Wednesday, the Harper government has begun laying the groundwork for the next election - casting political rivals as a threat to Canada's economic recovery.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty used a speech to an Ottawa business audience Tuesday to deliver a campaign-style attack on opposition parties who are expected to join forces Wednesday to quash a Conservative bill aimed at abolishing the gun registry.
He warned the next ballot will effectively be a choice between a majority Conservative government and a coalition led by Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff that could cost Canada 400,000 jobs.
"Under an Ignatieff-NDP-Bloc Québécois government, nothing would be safe," Mr. Flaherty said. "No part of our economy would be spared. No taxpayer would avoid the hit."
MPs head into a tight Commons vote early Wednesday evening that appears set to spare Canada's embattled long-gun registry from shutdown but do little to quell a fiery partisan battle over its future.
A count of declared and expected voting intentions suggests that opposition parties will narrowly succeed in sinking a Tory private member's bill to kill the long-gun portion of the registry.
If no MPs switch sides or absent themselves, the Liberals, New Democrats and Bloc Québécois should be able to end debate by a vote of 153-151 on Manitoba MP Candice Hoeppner's legislation. Voting starts at 5:45 p.m. ET.
Ms. Hoeppner said the Tories will not give up their campaign against the long-gun registry and suggested that opposition MPs who switch sides to oppose her bill, such as the NDP's Peter Stoffer, will be punished by voters.
"It's certainly not the end of the fight for the Conservative Party," Ms. Hoeppner said.
"I do feel betrayed but I can't imagine what his constituents feel like," she said of Mr. Stoffer.
The Tories will be hard pressed to introduce a second bill on the same question before another election, unless they hit the prorogation reset button on the current parliamentary session. Rules prohibit the Commons from deciding the same question twice in the same session.
The Hoeppner bill's defeat is only possible because Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff ordered his caucus to vote in support of the registry and NDP Leader Jack Layton coaxed some of his MPs to change their minds. Previously, eight Liberals and 12 New Democrats backed the Hoeppner bill.
Wednesday's vote may come at a political cost for some opposition MPs.
Liberal MP Keith Martin won his southern Vancouver Island seat in 2008 by fewer than 70 votes and he's now backing the registry after earlier supporting Ms. Hoeppner's legislation.
He said he's voting to preserve the registry not because of Mr. Ignatieff's order but because police forces across Canada have strongly spoken out to defend what they consider a valuable tool.
Dr. Martin said he's not afraid to face defeat in the next election over the matter.
"If I was voted out because I supported the gun registry and supported the police, so be it," the veteran MP said.
"Given a choice between supporting the police and being voted out versus voting against the registry and staying in [office] I choose to support the police and lose my job."
Even as the three opposition parties join forces to save the long-gun registry, they say they are planning to work together to craft legislation that would effectively water down its provisions. The Liberals, NDP and Bloc want to appease those Canadians who oppose the registry through a private member's bill that would make its provisions less onerous and reduce penalties.
In his speech on Tuesday, Mr. Flaherty said his government does not want an election now because it would put at risk Canada's economic recovery. It was clear from his speech, however, that a pre-campaign is already under way when he compared opponents to pirates.
"A would-be captain and his … crew are trying to storm the bridge," the Finance Minister said. "If they seize the wheel, ladies and gentlemen, they will have us on the rocks."
Conservatives are hoping the abandoned attempts by the Liberals and the NDP to form a coalition in late 2008 - with the support of the Bloc - will raise doubts in voters' minds about what a Liberal government might look like. Mr. Flaherty said the NDP's participation would lead to higher taxes.
Mr. Flaherty's estimate that a Liberal-led coalition government would cost 400,000 jobs is based on private estimates of the projected effects of a higher GST and higher corporate taxes. Both the Liberals and NDP have promised to scrap planned Conservative corporate tax cuts, but have not confirmed their platforms regarding the goods and services tax.
Liberal Finance critic Scott Brison said Mr. Flaherty is ignoring warnings from businesses that planned Conservative increases to employment insurance premiums will cost 170,000 jobs.
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