THE BLOG

Inside CPC13: The Party Is Defensive, Is It Divided?

10/31/2013 07:40 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

As the party's national convention kicks off today, over 2,000 Conservatives from across Canada are converging on Calgary. While protesters and picketers line the streets, swarms of well-dressed people in suits are entering Calgary's BMO Centre. Tories are calling it an opportunity for the party to reconnect with the party's base ahead of the 2015 election, but the party's base may be wondering if their faith has been misplaced.

In theory, this convention should be a triumphant gathering. Old friends from the campaign trail get to reconnect. It's the midterm point before the next election. The party is celebrating a major milestone: Ten years since Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative Party merged. And this is significant -- it's the first time in the party's history that a policy convention has been held in Calgary -- a seismic shift in a Canadian political geography that used to orbit Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

The last time the Tories got together for a policy convention the mood was light. The 2011 convention took place on the heels of a Conservative majority election victory. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in a speech to party members smiled, promising, "one step at a time, we are moving Canada in a conservative direction and Canadians are moving with us." He promised Senate reform. He quipped that in four years time, "people will say 'Conservatives can be trusted; Conservatives know what they are doing; Conservatives are the people the only people who deserve our vote!'".

At times in the last couple of years, the party has seemed confident, passing omnibus legislation, behaving like no opposition mattered.

But when Harper steps onto stage tomorrow to address 3,000 delegates from across the country, do Tories themselves feel they can trust their party, that the Conservatives know what they are doing? Do Canadians more broadly feel this way?

For a party that once appeared expansive and confident, the Conservatives now appear divided, shrinking and defensive. Even delegates arriving at the BMO Centre are puzzled why media has been given such limited access to the convention. One quipped, "It's because of the Senate stuff going on."

For the first time since 2006, an Ipsos poll puts the CPC third place in voting intentions. Another, by Ekos, has the Conservative Party behind the Liberal Party with barely one in four voters. Nearly three-quarters of Canadians feel that Harper is lying about his role in the Senate scandal; a further two-thirds believe he has mismanaged the issue. An Abacus poll found that 45 per cent of those who voted Conservative in 2011 are not sure whether to believe Duffy or the Prime Minister.

It's been a bad week, bad month, even bad year for the Conservative Party. But polls change, and the real question is: What kind of damage is being done to the fundamental relationships that have cemented a majority government?

The party's foundation is cracking, its base is splitting in both Ontario and Alberta. The Conservative Party has tried to create a governing coalition between rural West and suburban Ontario. The scandals and corruption in Ottawa are starting to erode their gains in Ontario, and it is creating a crisis of confidence in the Alberta base.

And as someone with roots in Alberta, the province too feels changed. With two progressive mayoral election victories under its belt, the winds of change are palpable. Albertans, especially urban Albertans, appear to be rejecting the status quo.

Is this party the same party their base voted for? How the party handles this onerous question this week will be incredibly telling. Will the Conservative Party manage to reconnect its increasingly fractured base? Will it connect with young Conservatives? Can it create a bold new vision for the future? When the Prime Minister takes the stage tonight, thousands of delegates will be watching, as will Canadians from coast to coast to coast. The party certainly has its work cut out for it.

Emma is reporting from the Conservative Party Convention in Calgary this week.