There are five big halls in the BMO Centre at the Calgary Stampede grounds. For the duration of the Conservative Party’s biennial convention, reporters and news photographers are permitted to enter Hall D. It’s a lovely hall. It will be empty of official party activity until Friday night, when Stephen Harper will give a big speech. Also those of us who cased the joint learned that if we want to stroll up and down the hallway outside Hall D, we’re free to do that. But if we cross into the part of the venue that contains halls A, B, and C, we are soon stopped by warily smiling volunteers in blue shirts who hastily remind us that our presence is requested back in quarantine. NOW.
“I’m glad I don’t cover federal politics,” a Calgary newspaper writer said to me. I won’t say who it was, but read Rick Bell tomorrow. “Is this what it’s always like for you?” Well, no, because I normally don’t bother to try, but this is what it’s normally like in my absence.
This is how Stephen Harper likes to run a shop, especially given The Current Troubles.
The polls, even in often-clement venues, are discouraging. Conservatives of one sort and, well, another are offering the PM advice or, as the case may be, walking papers. The Ottawa Citizen demanded Harper resign the other day, which started a clock ticking, I suppose, because that paper’s editorial paper called for Jean Chrétien’s head in 1998, and five years later, by God, they had it.
So things are medium-tense out there in the land, and the blue-clad volunteers at the BMO Centre are doing a pretty good group imitation of the prime ministerial sphincter: a little tighter than usual. Which is perhaps unfortunate, because when I buttonholed nearly a dozen delegates over a couple of hours this afternoon (all in the Approved Hall D Hallway! Back off, blue guys), they said the sort of things I’m pretty sure the Conservatives would want reporters to hear, mostly.
No names. What’s your mood heading into the weekend, I asked two Southern Alberta delegates. “Better than a lot of columnists tell me it should be,” one said. He was glad the party was finally holding a convention in the west. It’s true, I said: the party’s first policy convention was in Montreal in 2005, then Winnipeg in 2008 and Ottawa in 2011. So except for Winnipeg, this is the first. “Winnipeg’s not the west,” the other fellow said. “It’s the centre.”
How were they feeling about the Senate business? Mixed. The first delegate doesn’t trust Mike Duffy as far as he can throw him, and he wondered why we’re all treating the ex-CTV Senator’s stories with such credulity. The other wondered why Nigel Wright got into trouble, since all he did was to make sure private money replaced the taxpayer money Duffy had pocketed. I said there are rules against that sort of thing, and I reminded everyone that the PM’s line on much of what happened has changed, and they agreed that’s so.
So these delegates could fit among the 2011 CPC voters in the Sun/Abacus poll I linked above who aren’t sure they believe the PM on the Senate stuff. But that doesn’t mean they are eager for him to stop being prime minister. They’re nowhere close to that upset at him. Nowhere close.
A third delegate regaled me with tales of Ralph Klein, his common touch, his skill at surrounding himself with smart advisors, his confidence. “Now tell me about Stephen Harper,” I said.
She stared into the middle distance for several seconds, pursed her lips. “Well, Stephen Harper is — interesting,” she said, after a while. There was a general sense that the party structures are distant from the concerns of grassroots members, and everybody I told about the media-control stuff here was amazed to hear it and thought it a bit silly, even though they were mostly willing to believe that reporters would rather report on the Senate conflict than anything else. In other words, the delegates I talked with were capable of entertaining complex notions: that the press might be a bunch of Ottawashed lefties and that we still might be permitted to wander about and do our jobs.
Various delegates have various preoccupations. Some were buried deep in the policy book, preparing to debate a bunch of resolutions Friday (in reporters’ absence) and again at the plenary session Saturday (in our presence). Others are keeping an eye on Conservative Party National Council elections. One, wearing a John Walsh button, told me there could be a move to replace Walsh as party president. “He’s aloof, he’s Toronto,” this delegate said, even as she prepared to defend him. (It’s always fun to note that the Conservatives’ president could probably not be named by most Conservatives, whereas the Liberals have had a succession of presidents who used the post to self-aggrandize. The latter party’s current president, Mike Crawley, is a relatively self-effacing exception to that Liberal trend.)
I found nobody who thinks Harper should be out as leader. (I hear there are some such delegates here.) The ones I talked to draw a distinction which is pretty clear to them: they worry about the Senate mess and wonder why Harper can’t put it behind them, and they think the message discipline is a bit silly, but they notice they’re close to eight years in power with Harper and they do not think he’s played out his hand yet.
When the great moment comes on Friday night that reporters and delegates are invited by the party into the same room, and the blue volunteers hold hands and sing, and Harper begins his speech to delegates, his task will not actually be all that daunting. Outside the hall, across the country, are millions of voters who are pretty sure, in many cases, that a Conservative government is a bad idea. But inside the hall will be a few thousand who think a Conservative idea is a good idea, and Harper needs to speak to them. He needs to make the generic case he would make to any audience — economy and trade — and the narrower case that works best with Conservatives — Wheat Board, long-gun registry, resource exports, crime. He needs to tell them the news they haven’t been getting in the newspapers for a while. My hunch is that they’ll leave the hall in a pretty good mood tomorrow night. We’ll still be grumpy. Harper can live with that.