Tory delegates to consider leadership vote change

The Conservative Party's national convention kicked off Thursday night in Ottawa, but the internal politicking has been going on for weeks as members prepare to battle over how power should be divided between local associations.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper along with his wife Laureen, daughter Rachel and son Ben wave to the crowd as they arrive on stage following his majority win in Calgary, Alta, May 2. Conservatives meeting in Ottawa this weekend are likely to celebrate that win. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The Conservative Party's national convention kicked off Thursday night in the nation's capital, but the internal politicking has been going on for weeks already as members prepare to battle over how power should be divided between local associations.

As many as 2,300 Conservatives will gather at Ottawa's new convention centre through the weekend to discuss policy and the party's constitution, including a proposed change to how the party will pick its next leader.

Top partisans, including cabinet ministers and senators, have been duking it out over whether larger electoral district associations should get more votes than smaller ones in how a party leader is elected. Right now, every association is allocated 100 points, no matter how many members it has, that get divided depending on how the association's members vote.

Conservative convention coverage

CBCNews.ca/politics covered the opening addresses  Thursday, and will have full coverage of the convention Friday, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper's speech, and Saturday.

But even as they're planning how to choose the next leader, they're making time to celebrate Prime Minister Stephen Harper's majority victory  in the May 2 election.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird kicked off the convention Thursday night with a welcome to delegates. He was followed by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney giving his analysis of the election win, and a keynote address by retired cabinet minister Stockwell Day

Harper will give a speech to delegates Friday night.

One member, one vote debate

One proposal for the revised leadership rules calls for a 100-point base plus one point assigned for each member over 100, but with a 400 point cap. Another calls for one vote per member, eliminating the points system.

The most prominent supporter for maintaining the current system is Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who comes from Nova Scotia and was leader of the Progressive Conservatives when they merged with Stephen Harper's Canadian Alliance. MacKay negotiated the rule because the PCs were a much smaller party than the Alliance. The change would marginalize Conservatives from less populated ridings and provinces.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper greets delegates to the Conservative Party convention in Ottawa June 9, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
In an email to supporters this week, MacKay said the party doesn't compromise on its principles, and pointed to the Liberals as an example of what happens to parties who do. The Liberal Party bent its rules in 2008 to allow former leader Michael Ignatieff to take over from Stéphane Dion without a race.

"If the Conservative party makes compromises on this important founding principle, it will be a slippery slope back to opposition," MacKay wrote.

"Our nation and our party were founded on equality first and foremost, not discrimination. The prime minister won the leadership of the Conservative Party under the current system with support from across the country. The party has grown its support nationally and our membership and finances are strong and stable.

"Equality is a winning strategy, not one where we marginalize people because of where they come from."

'Balanced leadership' splits cabinet

Conservative MP Scott Reid, who started his career in politics in the Canadian Alliance, set up a website to promote "balanced leadership," the name he's given to the compromise approach that would cap available points at 400.

"Right now we choose our leader by giving all members the chance to vote by mail in their home ridings. But once those votes are cast, they're not weighted equally," he writes.

"Some ridings are given wildly disproportionate weight. For example, a riding where only eight people bothered to vote is given as much say about who should be our leader as a riding where over a thousand Conservatives cast ballots."

The site lists prominent Conservatives like cabinet ministers Jason Kenney, John Baird and Diane Finley, and former party organizer Senator Doug Finley, as supporters.

Youth wing debate

The party may also see a debate over whether it should have a youth wing that would coordinate campus organizations and encourage participation of people under 30.

At least one opponent to the motion has set up a website, designed to look like a sandbox, that argues having a youth wing would marginalize younger supporters. The site lists high-profile Conservatives opposed to setting up a youth wing, including MPs in their early 30s like Pierre Poilievre and Chris Warkentin, and staffers like 34-year-old Jenni Byrne, who ran the party's national election campaign this year, and Ray Novak and Jeremy Hunt, Harper's top prime minister's office staffers.

Not all amendments will make it into the policy workshops, nevermind onto the main plenary on Saturday.

The convention is also drawing some side events, including the Fabulous Blue Tent, a hospitality suite aimed at gay and lesbian Conservatives playing on the Liberal Party's claim that their party gathers people under a big red tent.

And the Canadian Taxpayers Federation is parking its debt clock at the convention "to remind Prime Minister Stephen Harper and party delegates that the federal debt continues to grow by over $1,024 per second," National Research Director Derek Fildebrandt said in a news release.

LIVE BLOG: The Conservative convention