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For Liberals, a little infighting among Conservatives goes a long way

It was about time for the government to clear out invalidated provisions from the Criminal Code and mere happenstance that the effort, which includes deleting the defunct section outlawing abortion that was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1988, was launched while the Conservatives are divided, and in the heat of a leadership race.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould insisted it wasn't about reopening the abortion debate, but about cleaning up a whole bunch of defunct sections such as the one that made it a crime to spread false news, so apparently it was coincidence that it was announced on International Women's Day.

One gets the feeling there might be more coincidences coming – the kind that make Conservatives, and some of their leadership candidates, squirm.

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The Liberals know that social-conservative hot buttons such as abortion have long divided Conservatives. Brad Trost, one of two Tory leadership candidates with an anti-abortion plank, said he'd vote against Ms. Wilson-Raybould's bill because supporting it would amount to providing symbolic support for abortion.

Now that's a question for some other candidates, such as Andrew Scheer, the former Speaker of the House of Commons who has positioned himself as a compromise choice for the leadership. Mr. Scheer is a pro-lifer who is trying to steer clear of the abortion issue by promising he wouldn't reopen the debate. But his many social-conservative supporters might not appreciate the symbolism if he votes in the Commons for Ms. Wilson-Raybould's bill.

For the Liberals, a little of this kind of thing can go a long way. The putative Conservative front-runners, Quebec MP Maxime Bernier and reality TV star Kevin O'Leary, are both pro-choice, but Mr. Bernier, at least, doesn't want to scare off social-conservative votes.

Both have ample negatives the Liberals will use against them if they win – Mr. Bernier is a hard-core fiscal conservative who would slash government and Mr. O'Leary is an abrasive character who doesn't speak French. But if neither has enough support, Conservative Party members might turn to a compromise figure such as Mr. Scheer or Ontario MP Erin O'Toole, so the Liberals would like to see those lesser-known figures squeezed into a tough spot now.

It's hardly surprising the Liberals can't resist the temptation to trip up Conservatives, since the Tories recently managed to troll themselves over a perfunctory motion to condemn Islamophobia. Scared by a campaign whipped up by right-wing activist Ezra Levant, many Tories ran in circles claiming they opposed the motion because the word Islamophobia was ill-defined or misunderstood.

No wonder Liberals decided it was the right time to take old, defunct abortion laws off the books, and see how Tories respond. But the problem with worthy initiatives with ulterior motives is that it helps to grind down the Liberals' earnest promises of a new kind of politics.

Wedging the opposition in the midst of a leadership race isn't a new tactic. It works best when it employs some kind of serious initiative – something a government might do anyway, but which splits opponents apart at the seams.

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In 2006, new PM Stephen Harper surprised the opposition with a snap debate and vote on keeping troops in Afghanistan for two more years, dividing Liberal MPs embroiled in a leadership race. The motion split hawks and doves, divided contenders Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae, and generally made the Liberals sputter.

But who could attack Mr. Harper's Conservatives on the substance? Who is against voting on the serious matter of soldiers being put in harm's way? At the time, The Globe and Mail's John Ibbitson called it "an unparalleled mixture of principled policy and political sleaze." In politics, that's like having your cake and eating it, too.

Now, it's the Liberals' turn. They're doing it with proposals most of their supporters will heartily applaud. Last Wednesday, on International Women's Day, they pledged $650-million for reproductive health around the world, including abortion services and advocacy. That won kudos from some aid groups, but it made Conservatives uneasy: It was Mr. Harper who had cut abortion services from foreign-aid budgets as a sop to social conservatives in his caucus.

Not surprisingly, people want to know where Conservative MPs stand on it now, so in the halls of Parliament, reporters held out microphones to ask Conservative MPs their opinion of the Liberal initiative. And Liberal researchers just happened to be hanging around with recorders, too, to log their comments.

Video: Liberals not opening abortion debate, Justice Minister says (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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