Winterpeg weekend

November 18th, 2008
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It was déjà vu all over again for a few of us last weekend in Winnipeg. My third political convention there, this last one albeit for a different party – and that perhaps makes it significant.

After all it was almost 21 years ago to the week that the Reform Party was founded in that same building, almost exactly 20 years since the 1988 election that followed. What a difference a generation makes. But more on that in a minute.

The weekend was upbeat, if not quite as stirring as other political conventions I’ve attended. There was a significantly different mood in the room compared to the first Conservative convention in Montreal three and a half years ago. While there were still heated debates, with strong opinions expressed on either side, there was no petulance when delegates lost votes, no storming out of the room to complain to the media. People seemed happy to have their say, and understanding even if they lost a point.

Those of you who saw the media coverage probably read or heard their concerns about being excluded from the policy break-out sessions. This is consistent with past practice, but didn’t prevent them from complaining anyway. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, delegates should feel free to debate without their words being spread and twisted by the media. Secondly, the media have shown every indication that they will spin and twist the most obscure comments by individual delegates.

The implication is that if even one delegate utters opinions considered politically incorrect by the media this can and will be broadcast to reflect commonly held views in the party. The practical effect of this is to stifle any open debate. In any case, the policy plenary sessions on Saturday were all open to the media.

The other comment floating around was that the policy content had been severely “sanitized” in advance of the convention. What I know from the members of the policy committee is simply that the several hundred policy submissions were discussed in regional meetings and boiled down to a manageable size for the convention. As it was, a number of “controversial” items were debated, including criminalizing the killing of a baby in utero, and polygamy.

A couple of issues also carried baggage from the “legacy” PC and Canadian Alliance. Old PCs fought again to allow ridings having a handful of members to receive equal weight in leadership contests (100 points) as ridings with thousands of members. They defeated a compromise motion by MP Scott Reid for such ridings to receive points proportional to the number of members who voted in the leadership (to a maximum of 100). Perhaps it hadn’t occurred to the boosters of rotten boroughs that some day a group or groups other than them might be able to take over these weak associations? Time will tell.

One idea that dates back as far as the founding convention of the Reform Party (where I moved a related resolution) was overwhelming upheld at the convention. It was about the number of un-elected delegates; that it be kept to a bare minimum. A motion proposing the 12 members of Conservative Fund be given automatic delegate status was defeated. The abhorrence to hundreds of ex officio delegates in the Liberal and old PC parties clearly resonates with Conservatives regardless of their earlier affiliation.

Lastly, I’ve only found one article that even mentioned the connection of last weekend to the founding Reform convention. The article emphasized the differences between the prime minister’s speech Thursday with the one he gave 21 years ago. Fair enough. Different rhymes for different times.

However, I think the validity of Reform’s message bears repeating and explanation. Despite significant representation in cabinet, the West’s concerns were not sufficiently understood or acted upon by the Mulroney government. Reform was originally conceived as a regional party (it didn’t expand nationally until 1991) and as such naturally presented strong policies favouring its region, ones that almost by definition would not resonate with other parts of Canada.

Reform’s reality check for Canadian conservatives still resonates today. Even policies like using referenda and recall at the federal level, that is anathema to the Canadian elite consensus, would almost certainly find support across the country. These have been at least partly adopted at the provincial level, notably B.C. and Ontario.

In human terms the connection to 1987 is tenuous. Other than me, there might have been another three or four people in Winnipeg last weekend that were there 21 years ago. It will be left to Reform’s ideas to provide inspiration for future Conservatives.

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By John Weissenberger