Harper says Tories must prepare Canada for larger international role

OTTAWA — The purpose of the Conservative Party is not just domestic political dominance but preparing Canada to take a bigger role on the world stage, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Friday.

OTTAWA — The purpose of the Conservative Party is not just domestic political dominance but preparing Canada to take a bigger role on the world stage, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Friday.

Addressing a crowd of raucous delegates at Tories’ policy convention, Harper’s address was largely a celebration of his majority victory on May 2.

But while clearly still energized by the win, his joyous tone darkened as he reflected on the state of the world.

“If, in 50 more years, we wish our descendants to celebrate Canada’s 200th anniversary, then we must be all we can be in the world today,” Harper told over 2,000 delegates at his party’s policy convention in Ottawa.

“Therefore, my friends, our party’s great purpose is nothing less than to prepare our nation to shoulder a bigger load, in a world that will require it of us.”

Canada’s purpose, Harper said, is no longer to get along with everyone else’s agenda.

“It is no longer to please every dictator with a vote at the United Nations,” he said.

Meanwhile, Harper urged his party stalwarts to keep up the work, saying the best days lie ahead.

But he noted that was going to include some harder work in Quebec.

The surge of New Democrat votes in the province in the May 2 election saw the Tories lose prominent cabinet ministers and left their Quebec wing in tatters.

Harper singled out the five remaining Quebec MPs by name, saying they would be counted on to build the party’s fortunes anew.

“In the next election, once the honeymoon with the NDP is over, Quebecers will turn to our party,” Harper said in French.

Quebec represents about 10 per cent of the delegates at the convention.

It wasn’t just Quebec spirits he was trying to bolster.

Current members of the Tory rank-and-file remain upset about the current deficit and increases in government spending by a party elected to do just the opposite. Several urged Finance Minister Jim Flaherty on Friday to slash spending much faster than the current budget proposes.

But Harper reached out to them as well, stressing in his speech that the spending increases were only temporary and that the lower tax rates were permanent. He also reminded delegates of the party’s platform and subsequent budget, promising to make the age-old Tory dreams come true: the end of the gun-registry, Wheat Board and per-vote political subsidies.

The love-in was in stark contrast to the scene outside where several hundred protesters gathered at barricades set up in front of the Ottawa convention centre where the conference was held.

A number of protesters held up “stop Harper” signs, a tribute to the Senate page who held up such a sign in the Senate chamber last week when the government brought in the speech from the Throne.

The demonstrators protested everything from the seal hunt to the end of vote subsidies.

At one point, crowd broke into chants of “Harper, you suck.”

They were also directly yelling at people making their way into the convention.

One youth tried to jump the barricade but quickly turned back when confronted by police.

Delegates at the party’s convention are spending three days celebrating their May 2 majority but also hashing out the future of party policy.

Among the resolutions is one that says any Canadian who takes up arms against the military of this country or one of its allies should be automatically stripped of citizenship and be tried for “high treason.”

But the key issue on the floor is how the party should elect its next leader.

The fault lines of a future power struggle between the most ambitious of the party’s politicians is starting as well as some of the old cultural differences between former Progressive Conservatives and Canadian Alliance members.

Ontario MP Scott Reid had mounted a campaign to alter the party’s constitution to give bigger riding associations more weight in a leadership race.

The current formula, a key condition of the deal that brought the Progressive Conservatives and Canadian Alliance together in 2003, treats all riding associations in the country equally.

Theoretically, a system that awards bigger ridings more weight would favour leadership candidates from Ontario and western Canada — like Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, for example.

Delegates discussed the issue in the corridors of the Ottawa Convention Centre, and wore buttons revealing which camp they supported. Evening hospitality suites, with free food and wine for hundreds of delegates, were run by each campaign.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay has been the standard bearer for the “equality” campaign. He sat in a room packed with Conservatives as they debated Reid’s amendment, as well as three other similar proposals that would have moved the party closer to a one-member, one-vote system.

Sources said Reid and Conservative Senator Don Plett spoke about the desire to change the rules. The crowd booed partway through Plett’s comments. Quebec Senator Pierre-Claude Nolin and a delegate from Hamilton, Ont., both spoke against the resolutions from Reid and the others.

Ultimately, the four resolutions were handily defeated in the workshop votes. MacKay expressed frustration that Reid has brought up the debate at three successive conventions.

“I really believe that three strikes, you’re out,” MacKay told reporters.

“It’s time that we focus on party policy, on governing, on turning our eyes away from things that divide us and focusing on what we have now, which is a national, inclusive party that includes all regions, big cities, communities large and small. We don’t want to have a two-tiered party system.”

But Reid’s proposal is not dead yet. The MP was able to gather enough signatures to have his resolution sent directly to the convention floor. He’ll still have to get a double majority of votes: a majority of all delegates, and a majority of delegates from each of the provinces, and the three territories in a bloc.

Nolin said he was preparing to speak to delegates Saturday and argue that Reid’s motion should not be allowed to make it to the convention floor.

Meanwhile, supporters of the status quo were moving ahead with their own proposal that would enshrine the concept of equality of ridings into the party’s governing principles, rendering all future attempts to change the leadership rules out of order.

Currently, each riding association is awarded 100 points in a leadership vote. Every party member casts a ballot, but it forms part of the percentage of points in each riding. Reid wants bigger ridings to get more points, up to 400.

Kenney said he would like to see a straight one-member, one-vote system like in the Canadian Alliance and Alberta Progressive Conservative parties, but recognizes there’s no consensus for going that far.

“I think what Scott’s trying to do here is craft a middle-ground, compromise position that people from different perspectives can settle on,” Kenney said.

“It respects both the principle that some ridings are going to be limited in how many members they can recruit, but it can also give them an incentive to sell memberships.”

MacKay disagrees.

“I would argue quite the opposite. I think it punishes ridings that are having difficulties, that are struggling to get members and tells them if you don’t — it’s a very condescending attitude — if you don’t get more members, you’ll be at the little table,” MacKay said.

MacKay, widely believed to be a future leadership contestant, would potentially be at a disadvantage with a base of support in Atlantic Canada, where ridings are smaller.

The same is believed of Quebec, where the Conservatives have struggled for years to keep riding associations and the party’s grassroots alive.

“In certain regions, it’s very easy to find members for a party such as the Conservative party,” said former cabinet minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn.

“In other regions it’s not so easy to sell membership cards. In that context, you have to take that reality into account, and you shouldn’t devalue one riding versus another.”