1. The mood of the delegates
Some 3,000 delegates and observers are expected to attend the party’s biennial convention in Calgary that kicks off Thursday. The last time Conservative members met, the party had just won its first majority government since 1988. The mood was electric.
Two years later, Stephen Harper’s Tories are sinking in the polls and are dogged by a Senate scandal that overshadows the government’s accomplishments.
Tory donors, volunteers and members also learned this week their contributions to the party were used to pay Senator Mike Duffy’s legal bills. Documents filed in court suggest the party also contemplated using $32,000 of donors’ money to foot Duffy’s ineligible expenses after he balked at paying the money back to the Senate.
Saskatchewan MP Brad Trost said he doesn’t think the base is thrilled their donations went to pay for Duffy’s legal bills.
"I don't think they're happy," he said.
Although Senate discussions are not on the convention agenda, Trost told HuffPost it will be interesting to see whether the base wants to "throw the crooks" out and abolish the upper chamber. Or if the membership’s long-standing view that Senators should be elected and the institution reformed will prevail.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty told reporters earlier this week that he thinks the Senate should be abolished -- a position several other Tories say their electors support.
Calgary MP and convention co-chair Michelle Rempel said conventions are a good opportunity for caucus members to “roam the floor and talk to people” and get a sense of what the membership is thinking and feeling.
Certainly the party’s membership “is not impressed with what has gone on there,” she told HuffPost.
“People are going to want to hear that our government remains committed to changing the status quo in the Senate and seeing Senate reform,” she said.
2. Will the party introduce new rules for leadership selection?
Ten years ago, Progressive Conservative leader Peter MacKay and Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper agreed to merge their two parties and form a united right. One of the principles of the agreement was that each riding would have an equal say in selecting the new leader of the merged party.
That meant ridings in Quebec and Eastern Canada with fewer members would get the same say as ridings with large members in Alberta. But ever since that concession was made, several ridings associations have been trying to change the rules towards a one-member, one-vote system. The discussion happened in 2008, in 2011 and it’s going to happen again in 2013.
In June, MacKay sent a warning to delegates that if the Conservative party changed the rules, he might be out the door.
“People would leave the party,” MacKay told the National Post. “I’d think about it. It would be a very different party with a very different future.”
MacKay says the current system which allocates 100 points to every riding and weighs the votes accordingly has been a “winning formula” which fosters a necessity to be inclusive and speak to all corners of the country.
Rempel, the campaign co-chair, won’t say which way she thinks the membership will vote because she’s chairing that panel. But she told HuffPost she expects delegates will come out of the discussion united -- as they always have.
“Even though they have been hot debates, our membership comes out united on the back end,” she said.
“It’s okay to talk about these things, it’s okay to talk about the long-term governance of the party.”
But some members appear to have had enough. There is one proposed resolution that seeks to introduce a two-convention ban on any resolution that has already been decisively voted upon at a previous convention.
3. What happens to controversial policy suggestions?
There are several interesting policy and constitutional changes proposed. Among them:
- Several labour reform proposals, including ending mandatory union membership and banning unions from work other than collective bargaining
- Proposals to defund the CBC or move towards a user-supported model
- A proposal that “faith-based organization” be granted protection to discriminate in accordance with their religious views
- That the party move towards “a less progressive tax system” by reducing the number of personal income tax brackets
- That the party rejects any legislation to legalize euthanasia or assisted suicide
- That the party condemn sex-selection during pregnancy -- a move that could be seen as a way of re-opening the abortion debate
- That the government resist any domestic or international pressure that threatens the legitimacy of private gun ownership
- That the party move public sector pensions in-line with Canadian norms by switching to a defined contribution pension model
- That the party end supply management
- A proposal to force the party to report to delegates how the Conservative Fund Canada is used (in light of the Duffy allegations, party members may choose increased transparency).
Rempel said it was unfortunate that the convention couldn’t be held in June before the government delivered its Speech from the Throne and its agenda for the next two years. Typically conventions serve to influence and guide major policy announcements.
But Rempel noted that many of the policy resolutions up for debate in Calgary, however, have already been included in the Speech from the Throne. Examples include the victim rights bill, selling federal assets to pay down the deficits, and ensuring the government defends Canada’s prostitution laws.
Rempel said she wants to hear whether the vision that the government put forward in the Throne speech is going to resonate with party members.
4. Leadership politics at play. And the prime minister’s speech.
Party conventions are always where you see future leadership politics play out. This year will be no different with ministers such as MacKay, Jason Kenney, James Moore and Maxime Bernier work the room.
Organizers, however, have gone to great lengths to ensure that the Calgary convention will be a celebration of Stephen Harper. Although it is the party’s 10th year anniversary of MacKay and Harper uniting the right, Rempel says that won’t be a theme at the convention.
Instead, Rempel said, delegates will be lauding the prime minister, his leadership and the respect they have for him as someone who has helped pull the movement together over the last 10 years.
“The focus of this convention is on unity behind the prime minister’s leadership,” she said. “What you are going to see is a strong unified force behind our prime minister. Full stop.”
5. What are journalists able to report?
The Conservative party, unlike the Liberals or the NDP, has banned reporters from covering its policy workshops. In fact, it has banned journalists from covering any of the convention events on Friday, including a Q&A session with cabinet ministers and delegates, and the opening ceremonies on Thursday.
A photo op of the prime minister and Mrs. Harper arriving at the convention Thursday was also cancelled because of “a change in schedule.”
Rempel said barring reporters from some events was a “long-standing practice” and she suggested it was designed to ensure delegates feel free to discuss issues without the media glare.
“Our delegates pay a lot of money, they run for a spot, they are party members who are active in the policy development process,” she said. “So our policy convention is geared towards them having a good and fulsome debate and that’s what our focus is on.”
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