Should Dion whip the gay marriage vote?
This is a very important question both tactically and morally.
Does the right of an MP to vote his or her conscience trump the right of gays and lesbians to equality? I would argue that if the right of an MP to vote his or her conscience does not trump the necessity of caucus solidarity on matters of confidence, then it doesn't trump human rights, either.
As to the tactical question, however, that's a bit different. There are two factors to consider here. The first is party unity. The second is electoral politics.
So far as party unity goes, the issue is obvious. The last thing Dion wants to do right now is cause a split within the party. However, I don't think a whiped vote would cause too big of a split. Consider this: There are 29 sitting Liberal MPs (out of a caucus of 102) who voted against same-sex marriage last year.* That's almost 1/3 of the caucus. Four of these MPs (Bryon Wilfert, Charles Hubbard, Francis Scarpaleggia and Paul Steckle) made up part of Dion's 11 MP caucus support. By the final ballot, his caucus support had swelled to 25 MPs. Among the 14 newcomers, however, only Jim Karygiannis opposed gay marriage, for a total of 5 out 25. That's still 20% of his caucus support, but it's not as drastic. Moreover, those men are generally not considered to be among the social conservative hardliners in the Liberal caucus, which mostly consists of a small coterie of Toronto-area MPs many of whom I suspect are mostly Liberals of convenience, since they could never win their ridings as Conservatives.
Basically, I think that most of the anti-SSM MPs could be convinced that this issue has been dealt with already and should stay closed (Paul Szabo, a leading social conservative, has already stated he will vote against re-opening the debate). The ones who would be most likely dissent from this party line (I'm thinking chiefly of Dan McTeague and Tom Wappel here) to be perfectly blunt would not really represent a huge loss, certainly not significant enough to warrant unnecessarily ceding any ground on the left to the NDP, which brings me to the second factor.
Tactically, the Liberals need to be able to use same-sex marriage as a card against Stephen Harper in the next election. It's becoming increasingly obvious that Dion plans to try and make the ballot issue of the next election a clear question of ideology (and equally clear that Harper wants to make the ballot issue a question of honesty) and while same-sex marriage is not an important issue for most Canadians, it plays into a rich tapestry of what-we-believe, opposed to what-they-believe. We need to be able to say that the next election is a choice between a real child care program, or just $4 a day; a choice between environmental sustainability, or environmental recklessness; a choice between treating aboriginals with respect, or treating them like third class citizens; a choice between a compassionate Canada, or a selfish Canada; a choice between equality for all citizens, or meanspirited homophobia.
The NDP is fond of blunting that last point by saying that the Liberals aren't really standing up for equality because 1/3 of Liberal MPs voted against it. They have a point; having 1/3 of your caucus oppose you on an issue you're using in a campaign is embarassing. What I'm saying is, it would be nice if Jack Layton wasn't able to make Dion look like a hypocrite if the issue is raised in a leaders' debate. Worth, I think, a few hard feelings.
*Raymond Bonin (Nickel Belt, ON) Ken Boshcoff (Thunder Bay--Rainy River, ON) Gerry Byrne (Humber--St. Barbe--Baie Verte, NF) John Cannis (Scarborough Centre, ON) Brenda Chamberlain (Guelph, ON) Joe Comuzzi (Thunder Bay--Superior North, ON) Roy Cullen (Etobicoke North, ON) Rodger Cuzner (Cape Breton--Canso, NS) Charles Hubbard (Miramichi, NB) Jim Karygiannis (Scarborough--Agincourt, ON) Wajid Khan (Mississauga--Streetsville, ON) Derek Lee (Scarborough--Rouge River, ON) Lawrence MacAulay (Cardigan, PE) Gurbax Malhi (Bramalea--Gore--Malton, ON) John Maloney (Welland, ON) Bill Matthews (Random--Burin--St. George's, NF) John McKay (Scarborough--Guildwood, ON) Dan McTeague (Pickering--Scarborough East, ON) Massimo Pacetti (Saint-Leonard--Saint-Michel, PQ) Bernard Patry (Pierrefonds--Dollard, PQ) Francis Scarpaleggia (Lac-Saint-Louis, PQ) Raymond Simard (Saint Boniface, MB) Scott Simms (Bonavista--Exploits, NF) Paul Steckle (Huron--Bruce, ON) Paul Szabo (Mississauga South, ON) Alan Tonks (York South--Weston, ON) Tom Wappel (Scarborough Southwest, ON) Bryon Wilfert (Richmond Hill, ON) Paul Zed (Saint John, NB)