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Patrick Deegan, a senior range officer at the Shooting Edge, looks through the scope of long gun at the store in Calgary, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Patrick Deegan, a senior range officer at the Shooting Edge, looks through the scope of long gun at the store in Calgary, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

John Ibbitson

Anti-elite PM hopes gun-registry anger unites suburban, rural voters Add to ...

The gun registry has become a totem, a symbol brandished by both the teeming, polyglot, multi-hued citizens living in the first cities of Canada and the declining populations and economies of the hinterlands, as each side accuses the other of disrespecting their values.

The mystery is why Stephen Harper seeks to stoke those tensions, when it would seem to be in his political interest to douse them.

It may be about strategy, Mr. Harper's political DNA, or the wind.

NDP Leader Jack Layton accused Mr. Harper Thursday of "fuelling offensive stereotypes about rural Canadians" when the Prime Minister declared "the people of the regions of this country" will never tolerate the long-gun registry that the Conservatives failed to scrap this week, thanks to opposition resistance.

"He's got people believing, because he puts it this way all of the time, that the only thing people in rural Canada care about is their rifle and whether or not they have to register it," Mr. Layton said, when rural voters are every bit as concerned as their urban counterparts about job security, the availability of health care and the quality of their children's education.

Mr. Layton's right, of course, there's more at work here, some of it embedded in the complex political psychology of the Prime Minister.

Mr. Harper understands that the Conservatives will only entrench as a viable national party if they unite shared conservative attitudes among urban and rural populations.

It is why his government introduced legislation to increase the size of the House of Commons, with the new seats going to underrepresented urban ridings in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta.

It is why the Conservatives have successfully courted immigrant voters, who are often more socially and economically conservative than their European counterparts.

But these efforts to forge a broad conservative coalition may founder on the Conservatives' obsession with the gun registry. Sure there are a few rural seats held by the opposition that might be won by demonizing MPs who switched their votes, but there are seats to be lost in the urban ridings of southern Ontario and the Lower Mainland of B.C., two of the fastest-growing parts of Canada.

Why would he do it? The answer might lie in that "regions of the country" quote. Embedded in Mr. Harper's political genetic code is a visceral resentment of what could be called the Laurentian consensus - the shared assumptions of the liberal elites in the universities, bureaucracies, cultural institutions and even boardrooms of Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.

Mr. Harper defines himself as the antithesis of that consensus, and the consensus agrees. They loathe each other. It is why House Leader John Baird happily castigated the "Toronto elites" who were behind the fight to save the registry, and why at the Eden Mills Literary Festival, outside Guelph, last weekend, writers and readers spat the name Stephen Harper.

This is why Mr. Harper wages war over the registry, and why he insists on dismantling the mandatory census in the face of protest and reason - and legislation introduced by the Liberals and supported by all opposition parties to restore it.

The Conservatives would forge a new conservative consensus that marries the suburban with the rural in common cause against these downtown elites. It would pit the resource worker and the commuter against the professor, the hard-pressed lower middle class against the privileged.

Most of the time this strategy doesn't work, because the suburban allies with the urban instead. But it worked for Mike Harris in 1995, and it appears to be working right now for Rob Ford in his bid to become mayor of Toronto.

Mr. Harper has been trying to make it work for six years. So far, all it has gotten him is minority governments.

But if there really is an angry wind blowing, then anything becomes possible.

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