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lawrence martin

Guns have been much in the news recently, but you don't see much talk, such is the tilt of the country, about the disappearance of the gun registry. The assault on Parliament might have stirred some protest. Where did Michael Zehaf-Bibeau get the rifle? Was it registered? The information might have been useful to the police. Then came the 25th anniversary of the slaughter at Montreal's École Polytechnique. Then the massacre over the holidays in Edmonton. Through it all, hardly a whimper from gun control advocates who were so outraged when the registry was killed.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, realizing what a mess his party made of the registry, doesn't want it back.

The NDP's Thomas Mulcair wants to bring in a new registry of some kind, though not the Liberal-styled one. After all, police favour the tracking of firearms. And he wonders: Is it really that much of a burden on gun owners? New Democrats, he said, "have confidence in the ability of farmers and duck hunters to fill out a form."

But Mr. Mulcair has been low-key on it. No shouting from the rooftops. He knows how the Conservatives can turn the registry into a lethal political weapon.

The NDP leader might have better luck going after the Conservatives on other aspects of their criminal justice package, such as the slammer-is-the-answer philosophy. Though criminologists repudiate it as a throwback to the Dark Ages, Justice Minister Peter MacKay is much in favour. As well, he likes hard anti-prostitution laws and a hard approach to soft drugs. In the Defence portfolio he wanted to militarize to the hilt. In Foreign Affairs he was a China-basher.

In the tilt of our society he has been a central player. He presided over the death of the Progressive Conservative party, which was swallowed up by the more ideological Canadian Alliance Party.

Though never a Red Tory, Mr. MacKay used to be viewed as a Brian Mulroney conservative, someone who espoused the party's moderate traditions from John A. Macdonald through Robert Borden, John Diefenbaker, Mr. Mulroney, Jean Charest, etc. He tried to get Bernard Lord, hardly a hardliner, to run against Mr. Harper for the Conservative leadership.

But in government he became a clone, much like Rob Nicholson, another Mulroney Tory, of Stephen Harper. He drank the Kool-Aid, as the saying goes, and although it is not easy to do otherwise under a ruler so resolute, the extent of his allegiance has been striking.

In Nova Scotia, from where Mr. MacKay hails, Reform-type Conservatives are not a populous breed. The party is currently faring miserably in the Maritimes and odds-makers doubt whether he can hold onto his seat in Central Nova. His ideological casting of himself in the vicinity of Jesse Helms hardly helps.

Moreover, if Mr. MacKay had any designs on a future leadership bid, a pitch to the moderate side would have been in his interest given the right flank is covered off by Western guys like Jason Kenney. Perhaps he realized there was hardly any moderate side left.

His evolution is an example of the tenacious strength of the right's grip. In the days of past Tory leaders, those who control the party today would have been regarded as reddish-necked fringe players. In the new Canada, they are entrenched.

There is still some bleating in Conservative circles about them not having made much headway under Mr. Harper on social conservatism and about federal intrusions into the economy.

But they should pause to consider the conservative gains. Gains on criminal justice, on making taxation such a dirty word that progressives are terrified to utter it, on moving Canada to a radical right foreign policy unheard of in the past, on relegating the environment – Mr. Mulroney used to win green awards – to low priority, on shrinking civil liberties, on union bashing, on guns.

Peter MacKay has been comfortable with it all. His trajectory mirrors that of his party and much of the country.

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