CALGARY – A flood postponed their convention in the spring — now Conservatives are facing a deluge of political challenges as they gather in the party’s heartland.
The ongoing Senate expenses scandal and allegations of a coverup at the most senior levels was a hot topic in the convention corridors, even if the upper chamber is not officially on the agenda.
“This reality show unfortunately is going to be an ongoing distraction, and that’s a cause for concern,” said former Conservative minister Stockwell Day.
“There’s a lot of anxiety about what that issue is doing to the party and its popularity, and it’s a no win, there’s really no win for anyone, it’s dragging everybody down and it would be nice to be able to move on from it,” said longtime party member Rick Perkins of Nova Scotia.
Retired Conservative Senator David Angus said he flew in from New Jersey specifically to hear what was going on with the issue, and was rankled by the suggestion that senators shouldn’t show up.
Former colleagues Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau are facing a Conservative motion to suspend them from the Senate without pay, but divisions inside the Tory Senate caucus and motions from the Liberals have delayed a vote.
“I guess it’s turned into something that’s grown way out of proportion by mishandling and the unfortunate dealing with something that is now totally out of control,” said Angus.
“God only knows where it’s going to go.”
Caucus members and veteran Conservatives have expressed similar concerns that the Senate issue is not being handled well by Stephen Harper’s office. Information about his former chief of staff Nigel Wright’s $90,000 repayment of Duffy’s contested expenses has been revealed through the media, the police and Duffy himself, putting the party constantly on the defensive.
Angus added that he has concerns that the prime minister is not getting enough advice from seasoned hands, and is surrounded by too many inexperienced younger staff.
“You can’t have them running the country,” Angus said.
“The Nigel Wright thing, I was quite pleased when he came to Ottawa, I consider him a friend, but what experience really did he have? Did he have a team?”
Other delegates streaming into a convention centre at the Calgary Stampede fairgrounds said they hoped there was a way to get past the controversy.
Scott Lamb, a Vancouver delegate running for the party’s executive, said he felt Harper has been absolutely right about saying the senators should not be in the Senate.
“And these people haven’t taken the honourable way out and realized that Canadians do not want you in the Senate,” said Lamb. “The polls show that, the prime minister’s on the right side of the issue, and he’s been consistent throughout.”
Cabinet ministers who mixed with the rank-and-file in the room echoed the hope the party and the government could move on once a vote to suspend the three senators from the upper chamber concludes.
Junior Minister Maxime Bernier called the Senate issue a “grey cloud,” over the convention, that was monopolizing attention.
“I’m really anxious for the vote to take place and for there to be consequences,” said Heritage Minister Shelley Glover, who said she’s heard from people in her riding association about the Senate.
“The Canada-European Union trade deal has been overshadowed and it’s the greatest deal we’ve ever had, it’s going to offer so many opportunities…”
The roller-coaster ride in Ottawa hasn’t appeared to put a damper on registrations for the convention.
Party president John Walsh says despite the change in dates due to this spring’s flooding in Alberta, he predicts a record 3,000 people will attend Stephen Harper’s keynote speech Friday night.
Conservatives, particularly those with roots in the Reform and Canadian Alliance parties, have been known to be keen debaters on the party’s internal rules and on its policies.
In a departure from previous Conservative conventions, media were severely restricted from mixing with delegates at the convention centre, with security guards and volunteers enforcing reporter-free zone areas.
Several proposals for changes to the party’s constitution would put more power in the hands of the grassroots, including more oversight over the candidate nomination process.
A preliminary list of policy resolutions, to be debated in private sessions throughout the day on Friday, touched on a number of areas — notably on labour issues.
One proposal would require federally regulated unions to report annually on how much they spend on political donations and campaigns, and allow members to opt out of those expenses. Another would declare opposition to mandatory union memberships.
The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers held a protest outside the convention centre in response to the proposals.
“We’ve been villanized as unions time and time again by this government like we’re not taxpayers,” said President Kevin Grabowsky.
Some more controversial resolutions include one condemning sex selection during pregnancy — viewed by some as a tactic for reopening the abortion debate. There is also a motion to have the party rule out support for legalizing euthanasia or assisted suicide.
There are several motions regarding firearms, including one that would allow Canadians to own any type of firearm — including handguns — unless the right is removed through due process.
Walsh says members are also anxious to start focusing on the election in 2015, the kind of field work in which the party has excelled in the past.
“This is an excellent refresher for our members and our movement to get together, talk ideas and get retooled in our thinking toward that election,” Walsh said in an interview.
“We pride ourselves in having the best (riding) ground organization in the country, and getting all of our key activists and volunteers in one place for discussions, for training, for resources…is extremely important for us as we gear up.”