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Robert Silver

Harper could be the real gun-registry loser Add to ...

There has been much ink spilled over the last month, while I was away on special assignment for Silver-Powers, about the conundrum that Jack Layton finds himself in over the gun registry. If, as expected, the Liberal caucus votes unanimously against the "private member's bill" currently before the House (which might as well be a government bill) and Stephen Harper's caucus votes unanimously to gut it, the vote will come down to a divided NDP caucus.

While I hope as a matter of policy that Layton is able to convince enough of his members to vote to save the registry, as of today, that is far from a sure thing.

So let's assume that:

a. The Liberal caucus does follow Michael Ignatieff's direction and votes to save the registry;

b. The NDP caucus is divided; and

c. The bill passes with the handful of required NDP votes and the registry is thus dismantled.

I would argue, if this happens, this is bad news for the government. Huh? What? Stephen Harper gets what his party has long fought for (the end of the registry) and yet they are the big losers? How does that work, you may be asking yourself.

It is conventional wisdom at this point that the Conservative Party of Canada is the slickest political machine in modern Canadian history. That is of course very different from being even marginally competent at governing. They are particularly powerful at small donor, issues based fundraising -- a must under the current campaign finance laws.

This fundraising can't exist in a vacuum -- it requires hot-button policy issues that motivate their base. While I have no access to issue-by-issue fundraising data, I think it is a relatively safe assumption that no issue has raised the Conservative Party of Canada more money since the party's inception than the gun registry. Some issues have come and gone, others like the CBC are like bad pimples that return periodically to mixed results, but the Conservatives hatred of the gun-registry? That's political Viagra to their base and thus gold for their fundraising.

If they lose the issue, they lose some of the gasoline that powers their machine. People don't donate based on moot issues and the day after this vote, the issue is gone.

In terms of the long-game of defeating the Conservative Party, triangulating away core Conservative motivational issues like Senate reform and the Wheat Board is essential. This vote -- if it goes the way it currently looks, and again, I hope the gun registry is saved -- accomplishes that with Michael Ignatieff cementing the positives of his summer tour and leading a united caucus taking a principled stance to save the registry and stand with the police of this country.

So while no seats are likely to shift based on this vote (I would argue that any seat that was going to swing because of the gun registry has already swung), in terms of long-term political impact, Stephen Harper may prove to lose by winning the gun registry vote.

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