Close elections often turn on obscure events. Outcomes can be affected as much by the emotional tone of voters as they are by the grand visions of the parties. Here’s one example, the much-criticized firearms registry. I maintain that this issue, and this issue alone, caused the NDP to fall short of the required number of seats – they needed one more – to hold the balance of power in Parliament. Here’s why.
Like all political parties, the NDP is a coalition of interest groups. Broadly speaking the party can be divided between somewhat conservative, blue-collar unionized workers and populist farmers on the one hand and hardcore left-wing feminists, academics and assorted activists on the other. On certain issues, political leaders must choose between the often competing wishes of these factions. This is common to all political parties, but the experience of the NDP with the firearms issue is particularly instructive.
Up until this year, both provincially and nationally, the NDP had spoken with one voice in opposition to the registry. Indeed, Premiers Doer and Calvert of Manitoba and Saskatchewan respectively differed not a whit from the positions of the federal and provincial Conservatives. They gave this one to the NDP’s blue-collar faction.
These savvy Premiers knew that support for the gun registry was the kiss of death for them in rural regions, and even in some close city seats. Contrary to conventional urban wisdom, Manitoba’s NDP holds at least eight rural seats, possibly ten if Brandon’s two can be counted as rural. The NDP would lose its majority if it lost those seats.
Then along comes Toronto-centric NDP federal leader Jack Layton, who states that he supports the firearms registry. And he wants to persuade the Americans to tighten their own gun laws!
What Mr. Layton does not realize, and Messrs. Doer and Calvert understand completely, is that the gun registry is a “voter determinant.” This means that some people will base their vote solely on that issue. And in the case of the gun registry, it only works in one direction. The registry does not get you votes, it only loses you votes. Gun registry supporters may or may not vote for you, but registry opponents will certainly vote against you. This can have major impacts in certain constituencies. In a close national election, it can make all the difference.
What did Mr. Layton’s stand mean for the NDP? They kissed some potential seats goodbye in Manitoba, specifically Dauphin-Swan River and Selkirk-Interlake. The latter contains provincial seats mostly held by the NDP. In the former, the policy completely undercut a capable NDP candidate, Crop Insurance Chair Walter Kolisnyk.
In Saskatchewan it was a complete NDP wipe-out. For the first time in recent memory, that province failed to send a single NDP MP to Ottawa. Popular and long-serving MPs like Dick Proctor, the NDP’s high profile agriculture critic, and Lorne Nystrom were unseated. In close races, the firearms registry is the kind of issue that determines who wins. Those two seats would have given the federal NDP the balance of power.
What’s obvious is that Jack Layton’s federal NDP has made a conscious choice to focus on a cities agenda. And it’s equally obvious that Manitoba Premier Doer has no intention of going down the same path. Good for him.