Conservatives gather in Vancouver to 'refresh, not reinvent' defeated party

For the first time in a decade, Conservatives are holding a policy convention without holding the power of government. New MPs see it as an opportunity to learn from the past, while preparing for the year-long leadership race ahead.

'We're not, as a party … in the fetal position in the shower,' MP says. 'We've really picked ourselves up'

Former prime minister Stephen Harper will speak to Conservative delegates Thursday evening to kick off the party's 2016 policy convention. He's expected to resign his seat in the House of Commons this summer and pursue new roles in the private sector. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

For the first time in a decade, Conservatives are holding a policy convention without holding the power of government.

But don't assume that will cast a pall over the proceedings for the nearly 3,000 delegates, officials and observers heading to Vancouver's Convention Centre today.

"It's going to be fantastic," rookie MP Ziad Aboultaif told CBC News. "It's a great time to re-energize and put forward wonderful ideas."

The Edmonton MP is new to Parliament Hill but no stranger to political conventions, having attended as a delegate several times.

The view from the Opposition benches now? More relaxed, he says, offering a chance to think differently about strategy.

The Conservatives' regular policy conventions — the last one was held in Calgary in 2013 — are a chance for the party's grassroots to bring forward policy resolutions and amendments to the party's constitution.

And on Friday, declared and yet-to-declare leadership contenders will mark one year out from the party's scheduled leadership election on May 27, 2017, with a mainstage event to showcase their early pitches to prospective supporters.

So, the party's biggest decision still lies ahead. Far ahead.

For now, there are wounds to be licked. And lessons to be learned.

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'Normal' to place blame

Two rookie MPs — former Surrey, B.C., mayor Dianne Watts and former Action Démocratique du Québec leader Gerard Deltell — have been tapped as the masters of ceremonies. Both are political veterans on the municipal or provincial level, but new to the unique workings of the federal Conservative Party.

Deltell's last federal convention was with the former Progressive Conservative Party in Winnipeg in 1983.

"We need to learn from defeat," Deltell said, noting the convention is a chance for a "fresh new start with fresh new faces," particularly for his counterparts from Quebec, where the party gained seats amid its defeat nationally.

The party has to be proud of its heritage on things like fiscal policy and taxation, he said. Electoral defeat doesn't mean the party must move to the centre, per se. He prefers the word "modernization."

Delegates to the Conservative policy convention this week will weigh in on some 60 policy proposals and two dozen constitutional amendments. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Delegates will consider 24 pages of proposed constitutional amendments on how the party governs itself. There's frustration evident in the rationale offered by the electoral district associations advocating for change.

"People were very disappointed we lost power," he said. "It's normal after a defeat to seek to place blame."

The point of a policy convention is to let the grassroots express itself, Deltell said, out of respect for those who worked long hours on a losing campaign.

"If they don't do it there, when will they do that?" he said.

'We need to evolve'

A constitutional change championed by Ottawa-area MP Scott Reid would allow interim leader Rona Ambrose to run for the permanent leadership.

While many MPs offer high praise for her skills, it may be moot, as she has said she doesn't want the job.

But Watts gives Ambrose credit for pulling everybody together in the aftermath of the election. The party needs to pitch a wide tent from now on, she said. "I do believe that we need to evolve."

Watts said the party had done a lot of work in areas like the environment and climate change, but missed opportunities to communicate its ideas, allowing other parties to fill the gap.

"Green Conservatism" will be the theme of a Friday night event featuring former Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day and current Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown, both former MPs.

"This is a very rounded party. It's not just about two or three elements," she said. "I think the tragedy would be if we didn't seize upon the opportunity that presents itself. I think everybody gets that."

Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose, seen here with her Quebec deputy Denis Lebel, has been travelling across Canada and working hard in Ottawa to pull the Conservative team together since its defeat last October. But she says she's not interested in the job of leader on a permanent basis. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

"We could have won this election. Our communication was not as strong as it could have been," said rookie southwestern Ontario MP Karen Vecchio.

"We see the other parties out there feeling proud of being a Liberal, proud of being an NDP. And I think in the last few years we have felt like it's bad being a Conservative. No! It's not bad being a Conservative."

"We're not as a party laying in the bathtub in the fetal position in the shower," her Ontario caucus colleague John Brassard said. "We've really picked ourselves up and dusted ourselves off and we're providing strong opposition." 

Enough with the soul-searching?

Thursday evening's opening ceremonies will feature a farewell speech by former prime minister Stephen Harper, who, despite last October's loss, is expected to command a lot of respect in the room for what he brought to the party over its decade in government.

"I hope that there isn't too much backward looking," new Alberta MP Shannon Stubbs said. "There has been a lot of soul-searching and reviewing of the last election, over and over. That's probably sufficient."

"We're still in very good shape. We've got a really interesting team," she said, pointing out that one-third of the current caucus is new, like she is. (Well, sort of new: she joined the Reform Party as a teenager, and worked for its former interim leader Deborah Grey.)

"We may need a refresh as a party but not a reinvention.… I'm not a person who thinks the party needs a complete overhaul."

And she won't be supporting a new leader who is critical of the party's record or wants it to go in a different direction.

"I hope to see a focus on the priorities and the values that unite us," she said.

With the former Prime Minister about to leave politics, we try to assess his legacy with Postmedia's John Ivison.


Janyce McGregor

Senior reporter

Janyce McGregor joined the CBC's parliamentary bureau in 2001, after starting her career with TVOntario's Studio 2. Her public broadcaster "hat trick" includes casual stints as a news and current affairs producer with the BBC's World Service in London. After two decades of producing roles, she's now a senior reporter filing for CBC Online, Radio and Television. News tips: Janyce.McGregor@cbc.ca