Stephen Harper looked calm, even confident, as he took the podium last Saturday evening to deliver the closing speech at the Conservative party convention. He had every right to feel good, with 84 percent of convention delegates having just voted against a leadership review. "O Captain! My Captain!" they were saying in essence, "Where you go, we go." This was a leader pulsating with confidence, ready to save a country crippled by years of lacklustre and, at times, inept government. And all the media wanted to talk about was the chair.
After his speech, Harper ambled backstage to give a brief press conference. It began with somebody asking him, "What's your problem with the media?" The reporter was referring to a criticism Harper had made in his speech-a comment about the coverage the convention was getting. Early reports had been negative, focusing on "the rift," tension unlocked by a policy dispute between MPs Scott Reid and former Progressive Conservative leader Peter MacKay. But Harper parried, saying he felt the mood was upbeat, and indeed by the end of the convention, most media were willing to grant him that. Two questions later, the same issue, this time in French-Did Harper have la gueule sure for the media? Though the question unhinged him slightly, as he struggled with the journalist's translation ("sour breath"), again he deflected it successfully, saying he was only joking in his speech. Then the bomb dropped. A CPAC reporter mentioned that their crew had seen Harper kick a chair, not once but twice, after rehearsing his speech on Friday afternoon. It was like throwing bloody meat to starving hounds. And it didn't help that Harper handled the comment badly: panic flared in his eyes, as he readied his answer. Instead of laughing it off, he looked even more uncomfortable trying to dodge the question, and, for a moment, it looked like all was lost. Harper made his excuses, leaving Dimitri Soudas, his press secretary, to clean up the mess.
And that's where I left the reporters from the big media outlets, circling Harper's handlers for more information about the chair incident. Was he mad at Reid? MacKay? More importantly, how was Harper's foot? Did he scuff his shoe? And my God, what about the chair? Was it okay?
Something was troubling me. Here, in Montreal's Palais des congrès, Canada's political tectonic plates were shifting. But the national media's attention was distracted, yet again, by Harper's sour relationship-and let's face it, it is sour-with the media. Meanwhile, the real questions that needed answering-those testing the image of a united Conservative party offered up by Harper just minutes before-were going unasked. Was it all just a charade? Had the Progressive Conservative wing from the East and the Canadian Alliance remnants from the West finally forged a coherent and electable national party? Did the Tories now have what it would take to win the next election?
The controlled circus of the Conservative convention had come to town three days earlier. Hundreds of delegates, les autres, flocked to Montreal, the least conservative city in the country. A political rite of passage for a party reborn just fourteen months earlier, finally given the chance to rally around its leader and figure out just what it stands for. And so they met, former Progressive conservatives and former Alliance members, many face to face for the first time. And in each other's faces they read lines of determination and anxiety.
Determination, because nobody here forgets just how close the last election was. The delegates can recite how many seats the Conservatives picked up, how many the Liberals lost. The party was a ragtag collection of conservative leftovers going into last June's election. There was no real sense of identity, and no one in the party seemed to know exactly what the new Tories stood for. Despite that, the Conservative party still won ninety-nine seats and knocked down a tired Liberal government to minority status. Moving into 24 Sussex Drive is no longer a dream for these Conservatives, it's a matter of time.
Yet the delegates here in Montreal know what everyone else already knows: the Conservative party at the eve of the convention, that jumbled mass of political families, doesn't quite have what it takes to overcome. It's good, but not good enough. And that's where the worry lines start to show. Something has to change, they say. They have a weekend to get things right, to prove the divisions within are lines of compromise and not cracks in the bone.
So, just how divided is the Conservative party?
The question was definitely simmering below the surface of the media's coverage going into the convention. Then, on Friday morning, Deputy Leader Peter MacKay stormed out of a policy workshop. Word got around quickly that fellow MP Scott Reid had proposed cutting the number of delegates that ridings with fewer than one hundred members can send to conventions. If passed, the proposal would have broken a promise made to nervous Progressive Conservatives in the lead-up to the merger. The fear was that Reid's proposal would tip the balance of power in favour of Western and more conservative factions of the party, where ridings often have large memberships. MacKay, who hails from Nova Scotia and was a key figure in the merger, was pissed, and he made that clear.
The headline for the front-page story in Saturday's Globe and Mail read, "Fissures open in Tory ranks." The Alliance and the PC wings of the party, its right and centre respectively, were threatening to ruin the weekend. The party was in jeopardy. Or so the media had us believe. Saturday afternoon, however, Reid's motion was soundly defeated. He was even booed heavily, as he stepped to the microphone to try to defend his proposal. MacKay's flash of anger had been just what reporters were waiting for: justification for their theory that the party is divided between moderates and radicals-a nice storyline, if they could just make it work. And they tried, ignoring the fact that many of Friday's policy workshops finished early, because, as one delegate noted, there was simply that much consensus among the participants.
Still, the MacKay-Reid fiasco shouldn't be downplayed entirely. It belies an uneasiness toward the notion that the party must develop a more moderate platform, if it is to break into Ontario and Quebec. The progressive wing of the party, represented by MacKay and to a lesser extent by Belinda Stronach, is behind this re-engineering effort, understanding quite clearly that the centre equals votes. But whispers of skepticism were flowing through the convention halls, expressing concern about changing simply to win an election, of changing for them.
These whispers evolved into rhetoric when delegates voted down a resolution to create a youth wing, an initiative supported, incidentally, by Stronach. The motion, defeated only narrowly, upset many former Alliance members leery of attaching privilege to any one group. The argument ran that every other political party in North America has a youth wing, so why not us? The answer was, that's fine, but why must we be like them? Bending to the will of the electorate amounts to a certain kind of moral defeat in the hearts of many stalwart Conservatives. You win an election, but at the cost of selling out. As one delegate put it, "You can't be wishy-washy. If you're principled, if you have values, you can't screw up ... We lose elections because we're inconsistent in our message. If you say, 'This is what I am, this is what I believe in, vote for me or don't vote for me,' people will respect that."
Stephen Harper gave two dynamite speeches during the three-day convention, speeches that did much to dispel his image as a well-oiled robot. They were short on specifics, but long on passion. Harper often began his sentences entreating "My friends..." looking out warmly into the crowd. The speeches were good in that classic convention tradition: rousing "We're gonna get them" rhetoric; balloons and confetti tumbling down from the rafters; "Eye of the Tiger"-type music spurring the collective adrenaline.
But, for Harper, and the context that the convention took place in, the speeches did much more than call his troops to arms. They were forceful arguments for a united Conservative party. He was sending a message, in particular to the media, that, come Monday morning, this will be a different party, a more coherent party, a party ready to move.
After Harper finished his speech on Saturday and left the podium (for his ill-fated backstage scrum), the convention hall emptied quickly, as though delegates were literally rushing out to fight the election. Or maybe not. After three days of policy workshops, an interminable plenary and, yes, even some parties, everyone might just have been rushing out to get some sleep.
After leaving the scrum behind, I wandered aimlessly among the empty tables, voting cards strewn about the floor, and I thought about how the other political leaders would be sleeping on this night, as the Conservative convention came to a close.
Gilles Duceppe would sleep well, I imagined. The convention had been a tale of more downs than ups for Quebec conservatives. The party did create a Quebec wing, and passed a motion promising to address the fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces. A cursory motion supporting bilingualism was also passed. But, all in all, this was hardly the stuff to send droves of Quebecers running from the flexed arms of the Bloc Québécois. When it comes to social issues, the Bloc is simply more in tune with Quebecers' attitudes and beliefs.
I assumed, on the other hand, that Jack Layton wouldn't sleep a wink. A successful Conservative convention-and it was a success-is bad news for New Democrats. The Liberals will use a popular Conservative party to scare people away from voting for the NDP. A vote for the New Democrats, they will contend, will amount to a vote for the Conservatives-a chilling distortion of logic that will rattle all but the most devout left-wingers.
Paul Martin would sleep, I supposed, but he would grumble and mumble through the night. The Conservative convention will make it difficult for the Liberals to sow fear of a Conservative "hidden agenda" among voters. Instead, they might just have to impress the electorate with their own accomplishments-something the Martin Liberals have yet to do. They have a year, likely no more than that, to get people excited about the prospect of another Liberal government. That's a pretty formidable task for a party facing daily airings of the worst scandal in a hundred years of Canadian politics.
And what about Harper? That night he probably fell fast asleep reading the anger-management guide supplied by one of his aides. And that's fine, because he'll need the rest. As well as the convention went, Harper still has his work cut out for him, if he's going to take his party to the next level. A Conservative victory depends on the Tories being able to get two questions into the heads of Canadian voters. One, Why are we letting the Liberals touch taxpayer money after the Gomery inquiry? And two, the perennial, Isn't it time for a change in Ottawa anyway?
At first, whatever concern some Grits had about calling an inquiry into the sponsorship scandal seemed unfounded. A parade of bureaucrats in front of a barrage of lawyers, discussing highly technical aspects of how work was done in the bowels of the Ministry of Public Works didn't really hold the nation's interest. For a while, Martin looked like a genius: hold an inquiry into the scandal, then bore everyone with it; in the end, no one will care, and you can't be accused of skirting the issue.
But Jean Chrétien's testimony changed all that. Prime Minister Martin may have applauded the p'tit gars' performance before the inquiry, but the day Chrétien appeared marked the end of whatever control the party had over public perception of the sponsorship scandal. Chrétien's golf-ball trick left a bad taste in mouths across the country, and in the end, it just served as a perfect illustration of that electoral cancer, Liberal arrogance. Here was our former prime minister showing contempt for proceedings looking into how his party had squandered millions of taxpayers' money. Unbelievable.
The Gomery inquiry has since relocated to Montreal. Now 200,000 Quebecers watch the proceedings daily on TV as a slew of public-relations executives make it more and more apparent that the sponsorship program was a giant kickback scheme for an underfunded Liberal party. Big splashy headlines are printed in the national papers and angry pundits are appearing on TV, because people care about this. And yet, so far, the Tories have only been able to get limited mileage out of the entire fiasco. Harper's path to victory, should it come, will be paved with the gold the Gomery inquiry has mined for him.
Ultimately, winning an election comes down to being able to take charge of the public debate. A party that can author the frame of reference on any given issue, that can define it for the public, will always have the upper hand. If the media, and by extension the public, talk about issues in the terms that you have given them, then your issues become the issues. The public's understanding of the issues is dependent on your definition of them, and the understanding draws consequently closer to your viewpoint.
The Liberals have lost control of the Gomery inquiry; it has grown beyond their ability to harbour its benefits or dilute its poisons. But the Tories have not yet been able to frame the issue for Canadians either. Right now, we're watching out of morbid curiosity. For Harper to leverage the inquiry's full potential, he has got to give it meaning, to tell Canadians what to think about this disaster of accountable government. Harper has to own the Gomery inquiry, and he has to do the same for at least one or two other issues. An obvious starting point is fiscal responsibility. Harper will have to make sure Canadians are asking, "Why not tax cuts?" "Why not pay down the debt?" Something other than "When's that daycare program going to be ready, anyway?"
On the eve of the convention, Rick Anderson, a long-time political strategist for the Reform party and the Canadian Alliance, in an op-ed piece in the Globe, called for the weekend to mark the beginning of a new conservative movement in Canada, a centre-right version of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton's Third Way. Anderson may be getting ahead of himself a little bit. What happened in Montreal definitely wasn't the beginning of a movement. It was something far more modest and pragmatic. The Conservatives established themselves as a party, and gave themselves an identity built upon a moderate yet conservative platform of policies and principles. They've become contenders again.
This will bring relief to many and terror to others. Among those singing sweet mercy is Cyril Cooke, a retired, sixty-two-year-old railroad worker from Nova Scotia. "What's happening to this country?" he asks me, his voice hard as steel, his accent carving significance into every syllable. "The same-sex marriage thing, the Gomery thing... ahhh, you know, all these things..." Cooke is not a man given to bandying about apocalyptic visions of the country under the Liberals, which some delegates are so quick to launch into. His disgust and, ultimately, his confusion at the whole democratic process isn't rooted in ideology, but in an I-can't-stand-it knot somewhere deep inside his stomach. It's visceral. He doesn't understand why he's so disaffected, only that he is, and that he might as well do something about it. I find there is something comforting about this. It's a sign of a hunger for something better. Canada's hunger for something better.
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