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Harper says he will revisit gay marriage

[PoliticsWatch Updated 12:45 p.m. November 29, 2005]

OTTAWA  — Gay marriage emerged as an election issue again on Tuesday when Conservative Leader Stephen Harper said in his campaign kick-off press conference that he would revisit the issue if elected prime minister. 

Parliament approved Bill C-38 over the summer after a two-year debate that dominated caucus meetings and much of the political agenda. 

That bill changed the definition of marriage to include gay and lesbian couples.

Harper voluntarily revealed the issue without prompting shortly before he ended a 25-minute appearance outside the chamber in the House of Commons. 

The Conservatives are committed to put a free vote on the issue in the next Parliament if elected, according to Harper.

"It will be a genuinely free vote when I'm prime minister," Harper said. "I will not whip our cabinet. Cabinet can vote as they want."

Prime Minister Paul Martin made the vote free for his backbench MPs, but not for his cabinet ministers. Many of those cabinet ministers had voted for the traditional definition of marriage in previous votes in the House of Commons.

This included key Martin allies, such as Immigration Minister Joe Volpe and Government House Leader Tony Valeri, who reversed their position once in cabinet.

One cabinet minister, Joe Comuzzi, resigned from cabinet shortly before the vote because it would have violated an election promise he made to constituents. 

"We will simply ask the House of Commons through a motion whether they want the government to table legislation on the marriage issue - to change the definition of marriage," Harper said. "If that motion is defeated we won't proceed. If it is passed we will proceed."

But Harper noted that any legislation overturning the gay marriage law would not overturn existing gay marriages. 

"If the House wants legislation on the traditional definition of marriage, that legislation will have to preserve same-sex marriages that presently exist," he said. 

Harper's decision to announce on the first day of the campaign that he will revisit same sex marriage is sure to come under criticism from some circles in the media and the Liberal war room. 

After Bill C-38 was passed in the House, Martin held an end of session press conference where he dared Harper to make gay marriage an election. 

"The issue will not be civil marriage," Martin said in June. "The issue is going to be the use of the notwithstanding clause to overturn a right that has been established by the Charter."

The Liberals argue that the Supreme Court opinion on four questions regarding gay marriage makes same-sex marriage a Charter Right and the only way to overturn gay marriage would be to use the controversial notwithstanding clause that allows governments to ignore court decisions for five years. 

No prime minister has ever used the notwithstanding clause.

"This is a Charter question," the PM said at the time. "I believe that the Parliament decided the right way on a Charter issue yesterday. 

"And if you want to overturn the Charter then you're going to have to use the notwithstanding clause and if somebody wants to have an election on the basis of using the notwithstanding clause to overturn a Charter right then let's have it."

During the House vote on gay marriage in June, almost three dozen Liberal MPs voted against their government and opposed the legislation. 

Twenty-three of those MPs are Liberals whose ridings are in Ontario, a part of the country where the Conservatives need to make gains if they are ever to form government. 

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