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Martin dares Harper to make gay marriage an election issue

[PoliticsWatch Updated 5:30 p.m. June 29, 2005]

OTTAWA  — A tough talking Prime Minister Paul Martin dared Conservative Leader Stephen Harper Wednesday to make  overturning this week's House vote on gay marriage an election issue.  

On Tuesday evening, the gay marriage bill, which was a divisive issue for all parties in the House of Commons, passed by a vote of 158 to 133. 

But earlier that day, Harper told reporters that the Conservatives could revisit the issue if they were to form government. 

On Wednesday at an end-of-session news conference, the prime minister challenged Harper to do so, and reiterated his position that Harper would have to use the controversial notwithstanding clause of the Charter if he wanted to maintain the traditional definition of marriage. 

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

"This is a Charter question. 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."

Whether Harper decides to make gay marriage an election issue or not, the existence of the issue on the political agenda will continue to expose a rift within the Liberal party, where the largest divisions existed.

Gay marriage has already cost Martin two of his strongest supporters in the Liberal caucus. Cabinet minister Joe Comuzzi resigned hours before the gay marriage vote on Tuesday so he could vote against the bill. And MP Pat O'Brien left the caucus earlier this month to protest Martin's handling of the gay marriage legislation. 

In addition, 32 Liberal MPs - approximately a quarter of the Liberal caucus - voted against their own government on the marriage bill on Tuesday. 

And 23 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. 

While Martin did not say he would like to put the gay marriage issue behind him and his caucus, he attempted to speak on behalf of the public when he said, "I believe this is an issue that Canadians want to put behind them. Their Parliament has dealt with it."

Martin also revealed there was some discontent within his caucus about his decision to commit to an election call within 30 days of the publication of Justice John Gomery's report into the sponsorship scandal.

The prime minister made the pledge in a nationally televised address in early May when the Liberals were tanking in the polls and the Tories and the Bloc were making moves to force a confidence vote to launch a spring election campaign. 

Gomery is due to release his final report in mid-December, meaning an election would be called in mid-January for late February or sometime in March. 

Martin said "a number" of his MPs pointed out to him that they would rather be campaigning in May instead of the sleet and snow of the winter. 

"I'm looking forward to going door-to-door with you," the PM said to reporters. 

The prime minister also tried to quash rumours about an imminent cabinet shuffle. 

Sun News reported Tuesday that cabinet ministers had been asked to stay in town until Thursday, prompting speculation about Martin replacing existing ministers who may not run in the next election with fresh faces from the backbench. 

"At some point we may have a cabinet shuffle, but there's nothing planned for the moment," the PM said.  

: Related Links

> Gay marriage bill approved in the House

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