jackie we hardly knew ya

Whatever you might think of the Conservative government's move - dressed up as a private members bill - to dump the long-gun registry, it has finally given Canadians something they have always lacked: a clear distinction between our two major parties.

Whatever you might think of the Conservative government’s move – dressed up as a private members bill – to dump the long-gun registry, it has finally given Canadians something they have always lacked: a clear distinction between our two major parties. With whipped votes on both sides, the Liberals and Conservatives stand toe-to-toe on this issue as they have never done before.

Because of their names, outsiders might think that Canada’s two big-business parties are diametrically opposed on most matters. After all, isn’t this the divide – liberals versus conservatives – that threatens to tear the United States apart? Doesn’t the media teem with hateful accusations directed in both directions, with almost pure hate, especially of liberals, by conservatives?

But here in Canada experience has shown that the difference between the two is not so great as the names might imply. The Chretien/Martin years were a pretty clear demonstration of the modern Liberal party in action. They reduced the deficit at the expense of social programs, cut taxes to the most wealthy, led us into war in Afghanistan, and leapt to embrace American-style “anti-terrorism” rules at the expense of the civil liberties their party had once championed.

As to the Harper Conservatives, despite a strong representation in cabinet from the religious right, they have steadfastly avoided recriminalizing abortion, and have even turned their backs on party founder Preston Manning’s first principle, that deficits are ba-aaad. (It seems a new slogan has appeared on that barn wall, reading “deficits for the poor, bad; deficits for the rich, good”).

On the environmental issue Liberals and Conservatives sound much different at election time, but in government their actions are quite similar. Under Chretien and Martin, Liberals subsidized the tarsands, licensed offshore drilling, and blocked an international movement to control asbestos imports.

Even on the issue of gun control, the line between Liberals and Conservatives has been fuzzy. Stephen Harper’s insistence on dogged loyalty from all around him means that Conservative MPs are to all intents and purposes whipped on every vote, while on certain issues, such as gun control, Liberals have been allowed to vote with their “conscience”- loosely defined as the strategy most likely to get them re-elected. So rural Liberals have voted against the gun registry, which the party leadership supports.

Now that Michael Ignatieff has declared a whipped vote on the registry, voters can finally make a clear choice between the major parties, if only on one issue. If you are anti-registry, you can vote Conservative, if pro, you can vote Liberal, and know where you stand. In Quebec you have the option to vote for the Bloc Quebecois, which has also chosen to whip the gun control vote.

Indeed, among Canada’s political parties, only one has failed to take a clear stand on gun control. NDP Leader Jack Layton and all of his urban colleagues support the gun registry, while 12 rural New Democrat MPs oppose it. When the Conservative bill comes to third reading in the Commons, those 12 members have the power to see that it passes, and the registry is scrapped.

The long-gun registry is a tough issue. Hunters and farmers who have used firearms for generations and see them as a food-gathering tool resent being lumped in with criminals, while urban Canadians fear the proliferation of guns and the resulting rise in violent crime. Because the Harper Conservatives’ support base is primarily in rural areas, they see gun control as a useful wedge issue.

The current gun laws were written in a panic by a Liberal government desperate to be seen to be doing something in the wake of the Montreal Massacre. They were poorly planned, badly presented to the public and disastrously managed. But by now, most of us with firearms have registered them, locked them away legally, and forgotten about it. If someone must stir up that old kettle, all we really want is clarity. Tell us what you stand for, and we’ll see if we support it.

At last, the Liberals have decided to do just that. If it costs rural MPs like the Yukon’s Larry Bagnell their seats, so be it; the party will probably make up for it in the cities. Likewise, Conservatives have shown themselves willing to take a hit in urban areas if it means cementing their base support.

As leader of the NDP, Layton had to decide whether to take a clear stand on gun control, or whether to waffle. Like party leaders before him, he chose the latter, handing the Liberals one club to beat him with in the cities, and the Conservatives another for the country ridings. So while the task of distinguishing between the two big parties has become easier, New Democrats come out looking less like a party than a marriage of convenience.

Come on, Jack, take a stand. We might like it and we might not, but at least we’ll know who you are.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.