Abortion issue is off the table as Conservatives launch pre-election policy convention

Conservative party delegates from across the country begin a three-day virtual policy convention today — likely the last before the next federal election. But some of the most contentious social issues won't be up for debate.

'I think our voice is being suppressed,' says spokesperson for anti-abortion group Campaign Life Coalition

Delegates vote on party constitution items at the 2018 Conservative Party of Canada national policy convention in Halifax. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Conservative party delegates from across the country begin a three-day virtual policy convention today — likely their last before the next federal election. But some of the most contentious social issues won't be up for debate.

A larger list of policy proposals was narrowed down by electoral district associations (EDAs) to a relatively concise 23-page booklet earlier this month.

The more than 3,500 elected delegates on hand will vote on party policies for everything from national standards for service dogs to small nuclear reactors and the CBC.

But efforts by the Campaign Life Coalition — a well-organized anti-abortion group that backed social conservatives like Derek Sloan and Leslyn Lewis in the last leadership race — failed to put at least one anti-abortion policy proposal before delegates.

Notably, an effort to dump an established Conservative policy pledge — that a future Tory-led government "will not support any legislation to regulate abortion" — did not make the final cut.

Socially conservative activists have made inroads in many EDAs in recent months. The boards of directors for some Toronto-area ridings left dormant after the last electoral defeat are now dominated by such activists, sources told CBC News.

As the Hill Times has reported, some high-profile Conservatives — 2015 election campaign manager Jenni Byrne, Ontario PC Party president Brian Patterson, former senator Irving Gerstein and investment banker Mark Mulroney — lost their bids to become convention delegates due to high social conservative turnout at riding-level delegate selection meetings, which are normally sparsely attended.

Groups like RightNow, an anti-abortion advocacy group, also briefed supporters on how to craft policy and get it through to the convention floor.

Despite those efforts, the individual riding association presidents — who voted on behalf of their local members and winnowed down the policy list that will go to the convention floor — avoided some of the more controversial social policy proposals.

One policy plank recommitting the party to opposing medical assistance in dying made the final cut.

'Dirty tricks'

Conservative sources familiar with the process said that some riding association presidents friendly to Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole were concerned about voting for divisive policies that could dominate press coverage of the pre-election event and drag on the party's electoral prospects. O'Toole has said he's pro-choice.

CBC News has obtained a letter sent to Atlantic Canadian delegates ahead of the convention by Darrell Fowlie, a prominent Conservative organizer in the region.

"Many interest groups across Canada have been organizing support for various policy and constitutional amendments for the Conservative Party of Canada's national convention," Fowlie wrote.

"To be a national party that can win in every part of the country, our party needs to be governed and have policies that respect every part of the country. A detailed guide follows with recommendations to vote either in favour, against, or according to one's own personal conscience."

Conservative leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Tuesday, March 9, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

Jack Fonseca, a project manager at the Campaign Life Coalition, said he believes the party engineered the policy process to stop social conservatives from getting their proposals to the convention for a vote.

At past meetings like this one, nearly 100 policy proposals were debated. This year, only 34 will be considered by delegates.

"The party slashed the number of policies that were allowed to advance. It's our belief that was for the purpose of eliminating socially conservative policies," Fonseca told CBC News.

"I think our voice is being suppressed. It's happened at previous conventions and it's happening now. The party establishment obviously doesn't want social conservative policies to make it into the policy declaration. They've done dirty tricks in the past and we believe this is another one."

The party disputes this version of events.

In a media statement, Conservative spokesperson Cory Hann said that, in past in-person policy conventions, there were smaller "breakout sessions" where delegates themselves could debate the policies and vote to narrow down the policy list to be sent to the larger "policy plenary" for a final vote by all delegates.

This lengthy process is just not possible when the convention is being conducted over Zoom, Hann said.

"It's a virtual convention. We couldn't gather people. Instead, it was completed online where EDAs voted on their preferred policy," Hann said. "There were over 6,400 votes cast on Ideas Lab for policy, and the top 34 went forward, with the 34th ranked policy receiving 88 votes. Anything less than 88 votes simply didn't have the support of our members." (Ideas Lab is the website where EDAs review policy proposals submitted by party members.)

At the 2013, 2016, and 2018 conventions, Hann said, delegates debated 30 policies at the plenary — four fewer than the number on offer this year.

Tensions in the Conservative ranks

There have been reports of tensions in the Conservative ranks and disaffection among social conservatives. Many social conservatives ranked O'Toole as their third choice after Sloan and Lewis in the 2020 leadership vote.

The Toronto Star has reported there was "a lot of anger" in caucus after Sloan was ejected from the parliamentary group in January after accepting a donation from a white nationalist.

Publicly, MPs brushed off reports of trouble in the ranks.

"We're seeing keen interest in our conservative movement and it's always good to have a robust exchange of ideas. We're very much looking forward to this virtual get-together. It's unsurprisingly that people are looking for issues where there aren't any," Conservative MP Michael Barrett said Wednesday.

"We have a united caucus and a united party."

'Progressive social policy'

The policies up for debate at the convention this year are relatively moderate in tone.

While past conventions have debated doing away with birthright citizenship to stop so-called "passport babies," declaring pornography a "public health risk," restricting marriage to a man and a woman and ending foreign aid funding for reproductive services, this year's policy portfolio will likely be less quarrelsome.

In fact, at least one riding association — Vancouver-Granville — is proposing that the party's constitution be rewritten to state the party stands for "fiscal responsibility" and "progressive social policy," replacing the current wording that calls for "compassionate social policy."

One proposal, backed by the Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier riding association in Quebec, would add green-friendly language to the party's policy book. The backer is asking delegates to affirm that the party "recognizes that climate change is real" and that "the Conservative Party is willing to act."

"We believe that Canadian businesses classified as highly polluting need to take more responsibility in implementing measures that will reduce their GHG emissions and need to be accountable for the results," the proposal reads.

Another proposal, backed by the South Shore—St. Margarets riding in Nova Scotia, would commit the party to supporting "the protection of marine biodiversity through the creation of marine protected areas."

A policy plank supported by the St. John's East riding in Newfoundland and Labrador stipulates "that clean drinking water is a basic necessity of human life" and says that a Conservative-led government must work with First Nations communities "to deliver access to safe and affordable potable water to all Canadian communities."


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

With files from the CBC's Catherine Cullen

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