The Liberals backed themselves into a corner on firearms — leaving no option but surrender
They had a bill, it had support. Then they got creative.
Conservatives were beaming on Friday after the Liberal government quietly and suddenly abandoned its hotly debated attempts to expand firearms restrictions through Bill C-21.
"My Conservative team and I have forced Justin Trudeau into a temporary but humiliating climb-down today," Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre crowed.
It was a "climb-down" and it was "humiliating" — that much seems beyond dispute. But if Conservative criticism was a deal-breaker for this government, the Liberals would have a hard time getting much of anything passed.
What truly forced the government to retreat was more likely the simple fact that they couldn't count on enough support from everyone else. And the government's mistake was to allow itself to get so thoroughly cornered that throwing up its hands was the only conceivable way forward.
C-21 was designed and presented originally as legislation to implement a national freeze on handgun sales. Had it remained that, it might have passed the House of Commons by now. The bill was approved at second reading last June, with all Liberal, NDP and Bloc Quebecois MPs voting in favour.
But when MPs on the public safety committee got around to considering possible amendments to the bill this fall, the Liberal side put forward two changes that would have affected a much larger number of firearms. The government was swiftly and loudly accused of overreaching in a way that would have an adverse impact on law-abiding hunters and farmers.
So much for 'no surprises'
Beyond even the practical impacts, the execution was awkward and strange.
Among those apparently caught off-guard by the amendments were the New Democrats, the government's partners in the confidence-and-supply agreement. The second sentence of that agreement stipulates that "to ensure coordination on this arrangement, both Parties commit to a guiding principle of 'no surprises.'"
That's no small detail. That principle of "no surprises" — of ensuring one party knows what the other is going to do and why — is critical to building and maintaining the trust that makes a confidence-and-supply deal work.
It may be particularly important when dealing with an issue like gun control, which has proved difficult for the NDP in the past.
But the NDP was not the only player the government had to worry about. Liberal MP Kody Blois, chair of the party's rural caucus, called the amendments "problematic." The Assembly of First Nations passed a resolution officially opposing the changes.
"What we acknowledged today is insufficient consultation, that more work had to be done to hear from Indigenous communities and from Canadians across the board," government House leader Mark Holland gamely stated on Friday.
Even if the amendments had somehow passed, the Speaker might have been compelled to rule them out of order. Once a bill has been approved at second reading, the committee charged with studying the legislation has limited scope to propose amendments. Any changes must fall within the original intent and purpose of the bill.
NDP House leader Peter Julian rose in the House on Monday to tell Speaker Anthony Rota that he felt the government's amendments violated that principle. Rota said he would wait to see what the committee sent back to the House before ruling.
Malice? Or something else?
Conservative MP Raquel Dancho described the Liberal machinations as "underhanded" on Friday — but this might be a good moment to remember Hanlon's Razor ("never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity"). These amendments were never going to escape notice. If the Liberals believed they'd easily win support for the changes, they miscalculated wildly.
The Conservatives claimed on Friday that the government's retreat was really just a "pause," that the Liberals had shown their hand and would try again "if" they regain a majority in the House of Commons.
It's not hard to understand why the Conservatives would want to make that argument. But the Liberals had a majority from 2015 to 2019 and somehow managed to avoid banning hunting rifles during those four years. It's also equally plausible that the government's pratfall in this case has only made it harder for them to do anything else on firearms in the future.
"Any time you deal with guns, you're dealing with an enormously complex and emotional issue because you have two very passionate and rightfully passionate communities," Holland said.
He's not wrong. But the Liberals should know that by now, having experienced the divisive saga of the now-defunct long-gun registry.
Liberals are obviously inclined — either by personal belief or electoral calculation — to pursue stricter gun control. And they no doubt understand how much trouble the issue can create for Conservatives.
But regardless of their intentions, the Liberals suffer if they appear clumsy and bumbling — especially when they're still trying to recover from a difficult year during which their competence was in question.
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