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Harper's Conservative Party Base Agitated As PM Strays Far From His Roots

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STEPHEN HARPER THEN NOW
The Stephen Harper of 10 years ago would not recognize himself in the current prime minister, said one political scientist. (CP File Photos) | CP

OTTAWA — Two years into his party's self-described “strong, stable, national, Conservative, majority government,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper has hit a very rocky patch, leading some party faithful to question whether he has strayed too far from his political roots.

The Senate expense scandal involving three of his own appointees to the upper chamber – former television stars Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, as well as brash Aboriginal leader Patrick Brazeau – has garnered national headlines for months on end and caused Conservatives across the country no small amount of grief.

Questions continue to hound Harper over the decision of his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, to write Duffy a $90,000 cheque with the promise, according to CTV News, that a Senate committee audit report on the senator’s expenses would “go easy” on him.

Last week, Harper lost a vocal backbencher in Alberta MP Brent Rathgeber, who slammed the door shut on his future with the Conservative Party of Canada, telling colleagues he no longer recognizes the party they had built.

“I joined the Reform/conservative movements because I thought we were somehow different, a band of Ottawa outsiders riding into town to clean the place up, promoting open government and accountability,” Rathgeber wrote in his blog last Thursday. “I barely recognize ourselves, and worse I fear that we have morphed into what we once mocked.”

Later this month, some 2,000 Conservative supporters, grassroots organizers and party volunteers will assemble in Calgary for the party’s biennial convention. Conservative MPs expect they’ll get an earful from their membership about Rathgeber’s comments and a deeper questioning of what has become of the Conservative Party.

Former Reform Party leader Preston Manning told The Huffington Post Canada this week that when leaders crusade on issues such as accountability, they are held to a higher standard by the public.

“That’s always the trouble if you get on to moral ground and higher ethical standards. Of course you yourself are going to be held accountable to them, and, if something slips on that front, that really hurts,” Manning said.

The Senate expense scandal is just the latest grievance held by many on the Reform-side of the party, including Rathgeber, who believe the Conservative Party under Stephen Harper sacrificed their core values to become more electable and turn two minority governments into a majority. Among a litany of complaints and concerns about the Harper government expressed by some members of his base:

Peter Woolstencroft, a political scientist at the University of Waterloo who has studied conservative parties in Canada, said the Stephen Harper of 10 years ago would not recognize himself in the current prime minister.

“He’s been the great transformer,” Woolstencroft said.

The younger Stephen Harper, as head of the National Citizens Coalition, penned a letter arguing that Alberta’s provincial government should “build firewalls around Alberta” to limit a hostile federal government from encroaching upon its jurisdiction. He also urged then-premier Ralph Klein to pull out of national programs such as the Canada Pension Plan and look at ways to reduce the wealth transfer from the province to other parts of the federation.

Harper was a “really right-wing guy,” a true Reformer who believed in the independent actions of members of Parliament and yet has run a “very disciplined” party and one that is very much dominated by the Prime Minister’s Office, Woolstencroft said.

Since the amalgamation of the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance in 2003, Harper has made enormous concessions to the PC side of the party and generally adopted their pragmatic centre-right agenda rather than the Reform party agenda, the professor said.

“A lot of people on the Reform side feel they made all kinds of sacrifices and didn’t get much in return,” he said. Meanwhile, expense scandals have “embarrassed Conservatives because this is what they thought the Liberals would do.”

Outspoken Saskatchewan backbencher Brad Trost told HuffPost that there are many caucus members who would like to reflect, do some constructive self-criticism and get back to fundamentals.

“This isn’t all about winning the next election – we would like to win – but if we are only fixated on winning, we are not starting off with what is good for the country as our first question,” he said in an interview from his riding office is Saskatoon.

“That’s why you’ve got the tension,” he said, pointing to the government’s preference for small tax credits over bold changes to the tax code; piecemeal justice legislation designed for the news cycle rather than “principled stuff,” and a feeling among MPs after the Warawa incident that they no longer have the right to speak freely – despite a party policy stating that they do.

Over the years, Trost said, he has heard Conservative party members question why the Harper government is carrying deficits when former Liberal finance minister Paul Martin got Canada’s fiscal house in order. Martin, as Jean Chrétien’s finance minister, slashed the civil service and drastically cut transfers to the provinces in the 1990s to bring Canada’s fiscal house in order.

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“There is irony to it, for all our tough talk we haven’t done half (of) what Martin and Chrétien did,” Trost said.

While the Tories have lowered taxes, pursued free trade agreements and moved to restrict the size of government, Calgary MP Rob Anders said he would have liked to have seen more.

“If people can’t tell the difference between the Liberal and the Conservative, what is the point of voting Conservative?” he asked.

Topping Anders’ wish list is the elimination of the capital gains tax, which the Conservatives promised in the 2006 election campaign to kill. He wants to get rid of the GST and cut “several branches of government.” He would also like to see Harper defund the CBC and get out of the banking business by shutting down the Business Development Bank of Canada, Export Development Canada and regional economic development agencies.

“I would just say cut taxes, that is the way I want to help business,” he said.

He said the Conservative party should focus on its roots – free market ideals, social conservative values, a strong national defence policy and the promotion of the monarchy: “Those are the things that we need to hearken to.”

Anders said the longer the Conservatives have governed, the more the party attracted people “who are not into the issues and not into ideology and more into the pay and perks and the title and status that the job conveys.”

Anders’ former leader, Preston Manning, believes some of what he set out to do with the Reform party has been accomplished, from promoting balanced budgets and increasing Western influence in Ottawa to parliamentary reform. But lots of work remains, he said.

He referred to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s decision to run deficits in the wake of the 2008 fiscal crisis as “slippage” but said he still believes the federal government intends to return to the black. The greatest setback, Manning said, is the tightening of party discipline. Manning wanted to give MPs a voice, allow them freer votes in the Commons and promoted referendums as a way of consulting the public.

“Very little progress was made on that front,” he said, over the phone from his office in Calgary.

Yet, he says he is partly to blame.

“When I was running Reform, I gave members much more freedom than they might have had today, but, of course, some abused it and did some silly things that brought down criticism on us,” Manning said. “That’s back in Stephen Harper’s memory, and he lived through those days, and I think that persuades him to be more on the side of stronger control than letting members do as they please.”

Ontario Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth, who identifies with the social conservatives in the party, introduced a motion last year to get a Commons’ committee to study the question of when life begins. Although Woodworth received support from a majority of the caucus, including several cabinet ministers, the prime minister spoke staunchly against his motion.

“If I were the prime minister, even if I didn’t agree with the motion, I probably would have invested less energy into opposing it,” Woodworth told HuffPost from his office in Ottawa. Harper spoke out to quell criticism that he was allowing his MP to reopen the abortion debate.

The Kitchener, Ont., backbencher said he was disappointed with Harper’s reaction, but he wasn’t surprised. MPs in other parties confided that they were also worried about the political backlash of supporting his motion, he said. He wishes journalists would realize that there is nothing wrong with friends’ having “healthy disagreements.”

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Woodworth frequently cites article 7 of the Conservative Party of Canada’s policy declaration, which states that the party believes all votes, especially those related to issues of moral conscience such as abortion, the definition of marriage and euthanasia, should be free unless they relate to the budget, main estimates and core government initiatives.

Still, Woodworth said he feels at home in the Conservative Party and believes that many types of conservatives can co-exist together.

The criticism that MPs have little say in Ottawa irritates former Reform party MP Herbert Grubel. The upcoming Calgary convention is one way the membership can engage in the policy process, and caucus members do have a voice, he said.

“I can tell you that, I’ve sat through hours of boring, boring people speaking up who didn’t have a clue how many times this has been discussed before or what facts they were speaking about,” he said.

There will also be people who are dissatisfied, said Grubel, an economics professor who champions a flat tax, but that dissatisfaction comes mostly from those who have very strong opinions on very contentious issues, such as abortion and the death penalty.

“It’s not easy being in government. You are not going to get your way all the time,” said Edmonton MP Laurie Hawn, referring to Rathgeber’s resignation from the caucus.

“If everybody quit every time we had a disagreement, there wouldn’t be anybody left,” Hawn said.

The Conservative party of Canada is more than just the Reform party – it’s a big tent with two founding parties, added Burlington, Ont., MP Mike Wallace.

“We are a big country, and the government of the day needs to balance all the demands, and I think we’ve done a very good job of finding a balance,” said Wallace, a longtime Conservative from the PC wing of the party.

Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai, who first ran for office under the Reform Party, calls politics a “team sport” and says it is important that people do not go off on their “personal agendas.”

“When I came here, we were all from the West, so we had one track (mind). Now we have a huge caucus from coast to coast to coast, and they have equal right to speak,” said Obhrai, the parliamentary secretary to the foreign affairs minister.

Government House Leader Peter Van Loan, a former president of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, dismissed the suggestion that the government is too heavy handed with its backbench. He said MPs are more empowered – pointing out that 12 private members bills have become law in just two years, far more than the average of one a year.

Alberta MP and Minister of State for Finance Ted Menzies said his constituents have asked him why the government isn’t slashing spending further or reducing their taxes even more now that it has a majority. He tells them that the Conservatives are still committed to that policy agenda but are treading “prudently.”

Some MPs, however, aren’t waiting for Harper to act. Small Business and Tourism Minister Maxime Bernier, a libertarian, has shepherded a resolution he hopes will make it on the convention floor in Calgary that would freeze the federal budget at $300 billion for four years after the books are balanced in 2015/2016. Any additional spending – outside of an unexpected emergency like a terrorist attack – would have to be carefully weighed and other government expenses cut to make room for new investments.

In a speech to Conservatives at the Manning Centre conference in Ottawa in March, Bernier noted that the federal government had grown under Harper’s watch. Federal program spending as a portion of GDP went from 13 per cent in 2006 to 16 per cent in 2009, he said. Spending was slowing down, but Bernier said more needs to be done.

“I believe we should be bolder. We should be more conservative. We should stop growing the size of government in real terms. Government is big enough already,” he told the crowd.

Peter Coleman from the National Citizens Coalition agrees.

Harper has lost his “mojo” and strayed from his roots in the areas of program spending, communications and accountability, Coleman said.

There are more civil servants working for the federal government now than when Harper came to power, Coleman noted. He said the Tories should stop “tinkering” on the edges of the budget and make bold decisions about what services are needed in the 21st century.

“There is no boldness, but maybe the Canadian people won’t allow you to be bold. I don’t know. No one seems to want to do it,” he said.

Van Loan argues that the government has done a lot. It scrapped the long gun registry, ended the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly, reduced taxes and enacted a principled foreign policy, he said.

Gerald Chipeur, a Calgary lawyer and former legal advisor to the Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance, told HuffPost people are full of praise for Harper because they believe he’s given them good government, not “ideological government.”

“I’d much rather have good government than have us rush out and divide Canadians in order to achieve something that I think is a good idea,” said Chipeur, who has argued in favour of dismantling the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority and Agriculture Canada.

But incrementalism doesn’t sit well with party activists who have waited on the sidelines for years in order to finally have a shot at transforming government.

Trost, the Sasktoon-Humboldt MP, said party members and supporters on the phones are telling him they’re unhappy with Ottawa. “You get the feeling when you speak with voters that it was just ‘You guys are just looking out for yourselves,’” he said.

What worries him more, however, are those members of the base who are silent.

“When they stop calling, when they stop talking, when they stop enthusiastically showing up to be a supporter, when they will vote for you but they are not enthusiastic about it, that’s when you start to be concerned,” he said.

Even if some people in the party aren’t happy, most believe nothing will come of the discontent.

“There is no Reform party waiting in the wings to do to Stephen Harper what the Reform party did to Mr. (Brian) Mulroney,” Chipeur said. “We just went through that and we know what a disaster that was for the Conservative movement. It meant that we were out of office for 12 long years.”

As the backlash forms, one vote at the Conservatives’ convention later this month will be a lightening rod for controversy.

Two similar proposals to change the way the next Conservative leader is elected – moving from a weighted point system that gives every riding equal say to a one-member, one-vote system – could significantly change the future of the party.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay has already suggested that if the membership goes in this direction he would think of leaving the Conservatives, because “it would be a very different party with a very different future.”

Whichever way that vote ends, several party members may decide to follow through on his musing.

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