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Harper's Keynote at CPC13 - A Make Or Break Moment For The Tory Party?

11/01/2013 09:11 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Prime Minister Stephen Harper took the stage tonight in Calgary to a packed room of 3,000 delegates. For the media and Canadians at large, this was their first glimpse inside this week's Conservative Party convention in Calgary. Both pundits and delegates have called tonight's speech a make-or-break moment for the party. So how did the Prime Minister do?

Harper's keynote was mostly what you'd expect -- it focused on jobs and the economy. He spent most of his time on stage praising his government's record on job creation, protecting the economy, keeping taxes down and protecting children from criminals.

He lauded his party's work to abolish the Wheat Board and long gun registry. He gave nods to the party's 'Arctic sovereignty' agenda and electoral redistricting. He lionized the Safe Streets and Communities Act, which he said, "cracked down on repeat, violent offenders, sexual predators, and drug traffickers."

He painted the opposition as a foe who tries to block progress the Harper government is trying to make.

But most people in the room weren't looking for a report card. They were waiting to see if he'd mention the ongoing Senate scandal that has cast a shadow over this week's convention -- which he did, to gasps from the crowd.

In a move that has become characteristic of his response to the scandal, Prime Minister Harper assigned blame, this time to the courts and Liberal Senators for continuing to block progress on Senate reform. Rather than admitting culpability in the ongoing problems within the Senate, he presented his government as the victim of the opposition's lack of willingness to cooperate. He brazenly argued that the Conservative Party is the only party that wants to reform the much maligned Senate.

He reiterated his support to suspend Senators Brazeau, Duffy and Wallin without pay.

In perhaps the most significant line of his keynote Harper proclaimed, "As Conservatives, we believe that actions have consequences."

Harper might not realize it, but this is perhaps the most telling line of the weekend and goes to the core of the Senate scandal. Opinion polls have slammed Harper for his handling of the scandal, and delegates at this conference have called for him to take responsibility and accept the consequences.

One of those delegates is Zweitse de Wir, a delegate from Nanaimo Alberni. He told the Huffington Post today, "Stephen (Harper) should just come out and say, you know what we have some dirty laundry. Yup, I tried to hide it. But you know what...I can't. I didn't think I was hurting the country by doing it, but obviously now, we have to clean it up".

Instead, Harper has laid out the consequences for his former chief of staff and Senators -- but has yet to admit that there may be consequences for him and his party.

At a parallel conference happening at the Manning Centre this week, one self-identified "fervent" party member said, "I want to hear from my Prime Minister and government and have them be honest and straight." She continued, "I expect so much more of this Conservative government, but I've been disappointed."

According to Robert Murray of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Prime Minister Harper should take responsibility for the scandal. "The more the responsibility gets dodged the worse it gets. The best thing [Prime Minister Harper] can do is take responsibility."

Prime Minister Harper quickly changed the subject, moving onto the importance of the Canada EU Trade deal and committed to introduce balanced-budget legislation. He closed his speech with an affirmation to his base, reminding them, "ours is not the party of entitlement, not guided by power or privilege."

Whether the Prime Minister did actually appeal to his base or did enough to assuage the concerns of delegates and Canadians about the ongoing Senate scandal remains to be seen. If tonight really was a make or break moment for the party, Prime Minister Harper can only hope that his focus on jobs and the economy was enough.