It’s one of the few ways he can galvanize supporters. And that’s bad news for Harper.
Politics has odd rhythms. Suddenly we’re talking about gay marriage again. Perhaps I should define my terms. By “we,” I don’t actually mean “most Canadians.” I mean “a few
people obsessed with strategy and tactics in Ottawa.” Most Canadians probably don’t stop to remind themselves, on any given day, that a few more of their gay and lesbian fellow citizens have decided to share the bounties of marriage today. Ever since gay marriage became law—first through an Ontario court decision in 2003 and then with Parliament’s belated and half-hearted endorsement in 2005—life has gone on pretty much the way it did before. This state of affairs seriously wrongfoots the Chicken Littles who told us marriage as an institution would collapse if its joys were extended to gays and lesbians. Predictably, that news has been slow to spread to some quarters. One group, the Defend Marriage Coalition, proclaims it is working “to restore marriage to man and woman.” Restore? Man and woman get married every day. Man and woman are fine, thanks. Man and woman have had nothing taken away that the Defend Marriage Coalition needs to about.
And yet here’s Stephen Harper confirming his promise to hold a free vote in Parliament on same-sex marriage in the autumn. “The vote will be in the fall,” the Prime Minister told reporters. “It will be a free vote. We committed to that in our platform.”
And indeed it is so. It is hard to get too upset at the Prime Minister, not only because he is fulfilling a campaign pledge, but because everything suggests he is doing what he can to put a losing cause behind him. Actually, I’d be a lot angrier at Harper if I opposed same-sex marriage. He may actually be less effective as an opponent of gay marriage than Paul Martin was as an advocate, which is saying something.
By holding a vote in the fall, Harper is short-sheeting gay-marriage opponents who hope a delay will give them time to bully MPs by threatening to steal away their nominations for re-election. And there’s something even more significant: the vote will be on whether MPs want the debate reopened, rather than on the substance of the question itself. Kaj Hasselriis from Canadians for Equal Marriage told me last week that several MPs find themselves sitting in that gap. They oppose gay marriage. But they note that Parliament voted on the question less than two years ago and they wonder why they should revisit the debate. And the current governing Conservative caucus is a little less hostile toward samesex marriage than the opposition Conservatives of2005. About half the 10-member Que-
bee Conservative caucus, for instance, would refuse to vote against gay marriage no matter how the question is phrased.
Hasselriis figures reopening the debate today would be opposed by 158 MPs, a bare majority in a 308-seat House, against 137 firm Yeses. And that’s the end of that-or it would be if Harper weren’t taking flak from a most unlikely source.
Down in Washington, George W. Bush is getting a bit desperate to avoid catastrophic results for Republicans in mid-term congressional elections. Iraq is a mess, Iran would be a bigger problem, and hurricane Katrina shattered Bush’s reputation as a competent domestic manager. If Republicans stay home, basically out of embarrassment, the Democrats will mow their lawns big time. What’s left to
bring out the Republican base? Bogeymen and panic buttons. In earlier times, Bush’s forebears would have discovered an epidemic of flag-burning; this season, it’s gay marriage. After paying the issue no nevermind since the last election season, in 2004, Bush has decided once again it’s time to amend the Constitution to make same-sex marriage illegal.
It would be easy to see a little cross-border coordination in the way Bush and Harper have prodded this sleeping dog out of its slumbers at the same time. But it ain’t so: Bush and Harper face different pressures and have different goals. The Canadian Prime Minister just wants this debate to go away. The U.S. President wants it back, in the hope that a few Republican voters will be so addled by visions of same-sex couples
fornicating that they will forget all the real ills that ail their nation.
Which is why the autumn might be a little hotter than Harper wants. The Republican-dominated U.S. Senate couldn’t muster enough votes last week to keep Bush’s bogus constitutional amendment alive. But the President won’t let that stop his little crusade, because right now it’s all he has. He will keep campaigning against gay marriage through the autumn. The awesome megaphone of the U.S. media will spend part of its time amplifying that campaign. And a Prime Minister who wanted nothing more than a little peace and quiet on a divisive issue will get none. This is one case when Harper would really rather not wind up in bed with Bush. M
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