Senate scandal doesn't distract grassroots as Tories meet

Conservatives say the Senate scandal isn't going to distract them as MPs, senators and grassroots members meet to set policy in Calgary.

Conservative Party gathers in Calgary with Senate suspensions unresolved

The Senate scandal hangs over the Conservative Party as its members meet for the biannual convention in Calgary today. Above, Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivers his keynote address at the last Conservative convention in Ottawa in June 2011. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Conservatives say the Senate scandal isn't going to distract them as MPs, senators and grassroots members meet to set policy in Calgary. 

As Conservatives streamed into a convention hall on the Stampede grounds, nobody seemed to have concerns about the Senate scandal that's engulfed the party and the government for almost a year.

Senators spent much of the past two weeks in Ottawa debating a motion by Senate government leader Claude Carignan that would suspend Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin without pay and benefits.

All three senators are under investigation by the RCMP over filing questionable housing or travel expense claims. None have been charged. Brazeau faces criminal charges over an unrelated matter.

MPs pointed to the tentative agreement on a comprehensive free trade agreement between Canada and the European Union as something to celebrate. 

Others talked about the economy.

John Ross, a party member from the Hamilton area, said he likes what Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty have done for the economy, and that Harper is doing what he can to reform the Senate.

"I don't think [the party's having a rough time]. I think the Senate's having a rough time. I don't think that has a lot to do with the governance of the country right now," said Ross, who feels the media are "looking for things that aren't there."

"I'm disgusted by the Senate nonsense just like anybody else is. It's irresponsible and at this point in time I'm extremely proud of the prime minister for what he's done, as far as you see a problem, you address it immediately," he said.

Whether Nigel Wright resigned or was fired, Ross said, is semantics. Wright, Harper's former chief of staff, left the Prime Minister's Office last May after it was revealed he gave Duffy $90,000 to repay Duffy's questionable expenses.

Harper and a number of cabinet ministers had said that Wright resigned over the deal to cover Duffy's expenses.

Harper, however, now says Wright was fired. In an interview that aired Monday on News 95.7 in Halifax, Harper said Wright "was dismissed" over an inappropriate payment to Duffy.

"The important issues were dealt with right away. That's true leadership," Ross said.

'We don't need that type of people'

The convention, which is expected to host 3,000 members, kicked off last night with a welcome reception that was closed to journalists.

Ron Dancey, president of the Cambridge, Ont., Conservative riding association, said he's at the convention to meet people and discuss the policy resolutions.

Dancey said he wants to see Brazeau, Duffy and Wallin removed from their Senate seats.

"They've gotta go. We don't need that type of people in our party," he said outside the convention hall.

Dancey said staff in Harper's office who allegedly knew about the deal between Wright and Duffy were trying to solve a problem, and that he can't second-guess what they did. 

"I think [Harper's] on the offensive now, which is what he should have been some time ago, I think," Dancey said.

'He had to know'

In Harper's Calgary Southwest riding, it was harder to find people who have closely followed the twists and turns of the Senate scandal.
A delegate leans on a sign as people gather at the Conservative convention in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Loretta Schaufele said she voted for Harper, but doesn't believe he wasn't aware of the deal between Wright and Duffy.

"He had to know something was going on," she said. "As far as I'm concerned, if he is the boss, he should know what's happening, right? And if he doesn't know what's happening, maybe he needs to be more aware of what's going on."

Schaufele said Harper needs to be more open.

"[Tell us] this is what happened, this is where I screwed up personally, this is where my office screwed up. Own the issue, basically, [do] not try to sweep it under the table and hope everybody forgets about it."

Some Conservatives said they fear a split over the questionable spending and how the Prime Minister's Office has handled it so far.

Tasha Kheiriddin, a columnist with iPolitics.ca, said the Senate scandal, and the ability of the Prime Minister's Office to handle it, are raising questions.

"People are nervous, they are upset. Are they walking away? No. But they're going into this convention feeling that they want to get some resolution to this," Kheiriddin said in an interview with Anna Maria Tremonti, host of CBC Radio's The Current, earlier this week.

'A mess'

"The Prime Minister's Office has gone in like a bull in a china shop throughout this entire thing and the result has been a mess," Kheiriddin said.

Alise Mills, a Conservative Party communications consultant in Vancouver, said she thinks Harper's performance in question period last week helped ease people's concern leading into the convention. 

"I do see that the tides have turned out here … the anger is really directed at Mike Duffy," Mills told Tremonti.

"Nobody's buying into his comments, and I think the prime minister's going into the convention stronger than he would have been three weeks ago."

Brent Rathgeber, an Independent MP from Edmonton who quit the Conservative caucus last spring, agrees that there's "virtually zero" support for the actions of the three senators.

"But the other, I think, bigger issue in my view and amongst the view of the Conservative base that I've talked to in the last few weeks, is how the Prime Minister's Office has handled this. I think most Conservative loyalists believe that this [suspension] motion has been a terrible strategy. There's going to be a dark cloud over the convention, I suspect, and the delegates that I've talked to are concerned about that," Rathgeber said.


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