Harper's Conservatives a long way from upstart Reformers

Two years out from the official date of the next election, the Conservatives' Calgary convention provided a peephole into the inner workings of the so-called "base" that will determine the political fate of both the prime minister and his party. Kady O'Malley has more.
Delegates vote on a resolution at the Conservative Party convention in Calgary, on Saturday. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Despite having been all but overshadowed by what ended up a drama-free vote to condemn gender selection, the most revealing glimpse into the mindset of Conservative party faithful may have come during debate on the only policy proposal to go down to defeat on the convention floor.

The thousand-odd delegates were rallying behind a resolution that directed a Conservative government to resist "any domestic or international pressure" that could encroach on its recognition of the "legitimacy" of private gun ownership.

And suddenly they found themselves facing a second proposal to reform Canada's current gun laws.

The motion would have called on the government to scrap the current Firearms Act and bring in a new law that would "recognize the right to own firearms unless that right is removed through due process of law on an individual basis."

After several interventions in support of the resolution — which had been endorsed earlier in the day by no less a legendary gun owners' advocate than Conservative MP Gerry Breitkreuz — a lone voice made his way to the NO microphone, where he began by identifying himself as a veteran.

He agreed with the substance of the motion, he said, but was concerned by the wording, specifically, the use of the word "right."

Gun ownership, he told the crowd, "is a privilege, not a right."

The intervention elicited audible boos, but when a vote on the motion was finally tallied it went down to a narrow defeat with 500 voting against and 477 voting in favour.

A good number of delegates, it seemed, were willing to remain hyper-vigilant against any possible resurrection of the loathed long-

gun registry, but reverse onus licensing rules was a step too far.

Or, considering what would likely have happened had a similar motion gone before a Reform Party convention back in the day, perhaps a step too far back into the party's pre-government history.

Revealing look at the 'base'

It has been nearly a decade since Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay brought the country's rival right-wing parties together under the Conservative banner. Since then, they've gone from opposition to government and from minority to majority.

Two years out from the official date of the next election, the Calgary convention provided a peephole into the inner workings of the so-called "base" supporters that will determine the political fate of both the prime minister and his party.

Here’s how it looks: they said no to gender selection, euthanasia, assisted suicide and mandatory union membership. They also voted to level the pension and benefit playing field between the public and private sectors, simplify the tax system and ban unions from using dues to fund political activities.

Not surprisingly, much of the ensuing media coverage depicted a party taking a sharp turn to the right, away from the more centrist legacy of the Red Tories and back to classic Reform-era turf.

But not everything that went down at this weekend's convention backs up that narrative.

Those same delegates backed calls to promote "international co-operation in marine science research for peaceful purposes," more aggressive patrolling and environmental law enforcement along Canada's coastline, full liability for pipeline operators and arms' length, independent management of private sector employee pension funds.

After Friday's workshop sessions wrapped up, they joined MPs, senior cabinet ministers and the prime minister's wife under the filled-to-capacity Fabulous Blue Tent, the hospitality suite hosted by "gay Conservatives and friends."

Little interest in Senate scandal

The debate to make future reports on the state of the Conservative Fund coffers a more interactive experience for members prompted a long-time party member to affectionately roll his eyes while recalling a similar provision at early Reform Party conventions. The resulting discussions resulted in marathon Q&A sessions as members took the opportunity to parse each and every line in the budget.

Although the motion did eventually pass, it's hard to imagine the card-carrying Conservatives at this weekend's confab grilling Senator Irving Gerstein, chair of the fund, over the party's reported involvement in the Mike Duffy/Nigel Wright repayment deal.

They seemed almost gleefully incurious, proclaiming loudly to journalists their complete and utter lack of interest in the ongoing Senate expense scandal — beyond, of course, the plot threads involving former Liberal Senator Mac Harb.

The anti-authoritarian spirit that so often characterized Reform Party politics wasn't completely absent from the convention floor.

Those who were able to watch the voting process during Sunday's plenary sessions likely noticed that virtually no policy resolutions were passed unanimously. Even the most innocuous proposals — a statement on the party's continued support for international trade, for instance — seem to trigger a smattering of NO votes. Amid the sea of like-minded delegates, there are always a few who don't want to see anything go through entirely unopposed.

Most of the card-carrying Conservatives who formed the captive audience for the PM's keynote speech seemed satisfied, for the moment, to sit quietly and clap when spoken to. But if the mood on the ground — and, more crucially from the perspective of the party, the grassroots — changes, even the most loyal foot soldiers can go from keeping the flame to carrying a torch.


Kady O'Malley covered Parliament Hill for CBC News until June, 2015.


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