Prime Minister Paul Martin launched an attack on Tory Leader Stephen Harper and a defence of human rights in a passionate sermon to his national caucus yesterday, pleading for support for his government's same-sex-marriage legislation.
Saying he is a "practising Catholic" who "leaves his church more quickly these days," a reference to the strong opposition the Roman Catholic church has to same-sex marriages, Mr. Martin characterized the issue as one of "rights" and "not about sexuality."
According to sources, he asked his MPs not to make this "a divisive issue" and said he would defend the constitutional rights of the churches not to have to perform same-sex marriages.
But he threatened to invoke the notwithstanding clause in the Charter if those rights for churches were taken away.
According to an insider, he also told his MPs to "beware of Stephen Harper," adding that when Mr. Harper speaks it's "all smoke and mirrors." He accused the Tories of "attacking the Charter," an MP said.
Justice Minister Irwin Cotler said yesterday he will introduce the new bill next week and hopes to have it passed by June. MPs return to the House of Commons on Monday after a seven-week winter break.
Liberal MPs who were in the private caucus meeting, the first since the issue of same-sex marriage blew up on the party, said Mr. Martin was obviously "scripted" and "well-rehearsed." He received "respectful" applause, one MP said, at the end of his lengthy wrap-up. He did not address the recent controversy over the Gomery inquiry into the sponsorship scandal.
Nor did he spend much time with reporters, taking only a few questions before being whisked off by his handlers.
However, the meeting, which some had feared would erupt into a showdown among caucus members who are clearly divided on the marriage issue, was respectful and tame, according to insiders.
Martin PMO strategists had laid the groundwork for harmony at the meeting. For the past couple of days they have been crawling over the Fredericton hotel where the winter caucus retreat is being held, talking to backbench MPs to gauge their support or opposition to the contentious legislation.
Many caucus members had come to the three-day retreat feeling uneasy, especially over the Prime Minister's musings about calling an election on the same-sex issue. He later retreated from those remarks.
Caucus insiders say that of the 20 MPs who spoke at the meeting, only a few were against the same-sex legislation while the "vast majority" were in favour.
One veteran MP who is against same-sex marriage dismissed the caucus speeches, saying the new MPs spoke in favour.
"The newbies won't buckle," he said. "The people with strong positions [against]kept their cool."
The Prime Minister and his strategists feel confident they have the numbers to pass the legislation. Mr. Cotler said as much yesterday, predicting a win in the House of Commons.
The Liberals, who have conducted a straw poll, believe they can win the vote by about 20 or 25 votes with about 141 MPs in the 307-seat Commons voting against the bill.
Sources say that Ontario MP Paul Steckle, a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, urged the Prime Minister to allow cabinet ministers to also vote freely. Mr. Martin is allowing his back bench to vote its conscience but not his cabinet ministers. He has been criticized by some opposition members and some of his own MPs for not allowing a truly free vote.
But another Ontario MP, Paul DeVillers, told Mr. Martin that if the vote was completely free it would mean the Liberals would have "no position."
He suggested that he could no longer be a Liberal if the cabinet did not defend the rights in the Charter. Sources say Mr. DeVillers was applauded for his intervention.