You could almost hear a collective groan across the land when Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a free vote in the House of Commons, slated for this fall, on whether to reopen the same-sex marriage issue. Isn't it enough that Canadian parliamentarians spent huge amounts of time and political capital over the last few years to secure equal rights for same-sex couples? Let's do a priority check here. Three days to prepare for a debate on whether to extend our military mission in Afghanistan, and three months to prepare for another same-sex dust-up? Arrgh.
And on top of it all, many observers don't even think Harper is gung-ho on this file any longer. Okay, here it is: my prediction is that this vote is a dead duck. It may get nasty before it's over, but in the end it just ain't going to fly.
"This issue isn't over completely, but it is sputtering out," says U of T political scientist Nelson Wiseman. "My sense is that Harper believes the party shouldn't be focused on same-sex marriage," he says. "And don't assume the majority opinion among Conservatives is for this vote."
Still, he says, "it is more dangerous for Harper not to have a free vote than to have one." Indeed, you can already hear the mantra from Tory spin doctors: Promise made, promise delivered.
(And in a government whose message is as tightly controlled as this one, you have to consider the irony that at the very same time the feds are pushing to reopen the law, the Canadian Tourism Commission is luring gay Americans with glossy ad campaigns, using our same-sex marriage laws as bait.)
But Wiseman and I aren't the only folks who think the issue is over. Laurie Arron, national coordinator for Canadians for Equal Marriage, is of the same mind. "Two-thirds of Canadians consider this issue settled," he says. His group has done a head count in the House of Commons and concludes that the bill will die by a majority of 20, though there are still 12 undecideds.
Ironically, it may not be much of a free vote after all. Yeah, sure, it will be for the Tory caucus. But Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe has commented recently that he won't let his members vote their conscience - probably because five voted against the same-sex legislation in 2005.
And some Liberals suggest that their party, which is the most split on the issue (32 of 133 voted against Bill C-38), may vote together against opening the law up just to stick it to the Tories.
And there is no way it will be a free vote for the NDP.
When I ask NDP MP Tony Martin about the upcoming debate, he exudes a sense of deep core fatigue. He's still healing from the battle wounds received from his local Catholic community for supporting same-sex marriage. "Look, this was a challenging piece of public business," he says. "It's over. Let's move on."
Like many MPs I spoke with, Martin is feeling much less pressure this time out from social conservative or right-wing Christian groups than he has in the past. "I'm getting very few letters or cards on this. I think those who were opposed fought the good fight, but it is over."
Some MPs are feeling the heat, however, and they turn out to be Tories. Currently, renegade Tory Garth Turner is in the Christian right's crosshairs after clashing with arch same-sex foe Charles McVety recently on an interview program.
Turner, who will vote against reopening the issue, says the debate will be the most emotional issue this Parliament will deal with. "There is a very energetic component in both the Liberal and Conservative party that will never give up," he says. "I don't think it is a majority, but it will be a very noisy debate."
Behind the noise is this threat from the anti-same-sex army: "We will be looking at the vote this fall and we will target those who voted against reopening the debate," says Jill Cahoon of the Alberta-based United Families Canada, a member group of the newly formed Defend Marriage Coalition.
"We will encourage people to get involved politically when nominations take place for the next election." Turner is already girding for a fight over his nomination for the next election, which he expects in the spring. "I'm viewed as an independent, I'm close to Toronto and my margin of victory was slim in the last election," he says. "So I'm a target."
Indeed, protection for sitting MPs from nomination coup attempts has been a sticking point for all three national parties. On the left, former NDP MP Bev Desjarlais lost the NDP nomination in her northern Manitoba riding after voting against the same-sex legislation. The Liberal candidate won the seat in the following election.
Turner sees the same scenario playing out if the religious right targets Tories. "It could become a giant issue," he says. "But as far as the same-sex law itself, if the vote is no, then the issue is behind us."
But really, what is fuelling the frenetic conservative lobby? Ten thousand same-sex marriages later the sky hasn't fallen, has it? Well, according to the Defend Marriage Coalition, the sky is indeed about to fall. Cahoon complains darkly of attacks on religious freedom and freedom of speech since the passing of same-sex legislation. "We know that some implications in countries that have had same-sex marriage for much longer are fewer people getting married and more children born out of wedlock," she tells me. That's weird. More homos getting married leads to a declining marriage rate and more bastard children. Who knew?
United Families Canada is a project of United Families International, a privately funded U.S. social conservative organization working to "defend marriage, family and life wherever they are challenged," according to the group's website.
It is the meddling by U.S. social conservatives that particularly irks Toronto MP Carolyn Bennett, long-shot Liberal leadership hopeful. "Many parliamentarians are not keen on this targeted American Republican campaign," she says on a campaign break in Moncton. "This is incredibly dangerous for our political culture. They have targeted Canada and are spending a lot of money."
Bennett is clearly irritated by the whole affair. "Harper's being dishonest with Canadians, because he knows the only way he can reopen this is by using the notwithstanding clause " - something he's vowed not to do. "He just doesn't have the votes."
And that's all there is to it.