Manning conference delegates quietly eye post-Harper era
NationalPost.com – Full Comment
February 28, 2014. Andrew Coyne
So this is what a Conservative convention looks like. After that bizarre lockdown in Calgary last fall — reporters harassed and penned in at every turn, the prime minister’s defiantly empty speech, the air heavy with self-congratulation and paranoia — the annual Manning Networking conference exudes an altogether different spirit: thoughtful, open, introspective … and conservative.
Of course, the Manning Center is avowedly non-partisan: It’s supposed to be conservative, not Conservative. But then, the Conservative party is supposed to be conservative. If the Manning conference has gotten more overtly partisan over the years, it may be because the party has gotten less overtly anything, other than unpleasant. Or rather, the leadership has. But looking at the contrast between this ostensibly non-partisan convention and its partisan predecessor, the thought occurs: this is the real Conservative convention. It is a gathering, if you like, of the Conservative party in exile.
The party that met in Calgary was not so much the Conservative party as the Harper party. It was run by and for Harper loyalists — think Pierre Poilievre — people who are happy to do whatever the leader wants done, say whatever the leader wants said, even if that means abandoning every core conviction the party has ever held. In its place is Harperism, less an ideology than a set of behaviours: the nastiness, the ruthlessness, the almost universal gracelessness, of which the decision to exclude the opposition parties from the mission to Ukraine was only the latest example.
It has struck me of late that some Conservatives, even some members of the cabinet, have begun detaching themselves from the Harper party, if only in style. The willingness to recite the same government talking points, no matter how boorish or moronic, to launch any attack, no matter how outlandish, is a sign of the hard-core Harperite: whether a jaded veteran like Rob Nicholson, or eager newcomers like Chris Alexander or Kellie Leitch, once highly regarded for their accomplishments, now unrecognizable in their servility. But not everyone has been so willing to play the game, and this conference seems almost a gathering of those who place a higher price on their souls.
If last year’s conference was notable for its cognitive dissonance — speaker after speaker laying out a robustly conservative vision, followed by effusive praise for the government that has discarded virtually all of it — this year’s edition seems marked more by a deliberate, if unstated parting of the ways. Nothing was said out loud, no knives were unsheathed, but this had the feel of a group of people preparing for a post-Harper party. From the title (“Next Steps”) to the speakers, a banquet of potential leadership contenders, the tone is of serious people who want to talk about serious ideas, stripped (mostly) of the hyper-partisan rhetoric and name-calling: the grown-ups, the good faith Conservatives.
Who is not here? No one from the Prime Minister’s Office, it appears, nor any member of the party hierarchy, nor any member of cabinet, other than those invited to speak. The speaker’s list, by contrast, features Jason Kenney, the Employment Minister; Brad Wall, the premier of Saskatchewan; Jim Prentice, the former Industry and Environment Minister; Michael Chong, the backbench MP and author of the Reform Act.
It would be hard to categorize them as a group, except that they are all from outside the circle of Harperite hyper-partisans. And they have not been shy about expressing their discontent with the party’s direction, albeit in the coded, indirect language that politicians employ when they do not want to be accused of disloyalty.
Mr. Prentice, for example, admonished Conservatives to “take back the environmental debate,” saying “we cannot be in the business of providing our rivals with the opportunity to portray us as being out of touch” with environmental concerns. As a resource-exporting nation, he reminded them, “we rely on our international reputation. … If we are serious about being a global superpower in energy we have to be a power in advancing the environmental discussion.” That means, he said pointedly, “working in good faith with people who agree with us, and with people who don’t agree with us.”
Mr. Chong’s interest in a more civil, less leader-dominated Parliament is well known. But there, too, was Jay Hill, the former party whip, denouncing the “abuse” of members’ statements to make “poisonous personal attacks.” As for Mr. Kenney, after a speech largely given over to celebrating his achievements, first at Immigration and now at Employment (apparently there’s some sort of deal with the provinces), he was asked if he had anything to say about income-splitting, the subject of some disagreement in the party of late.
Given the sensitivities around the issue, after the prime minister’s flip-flop-flip of recent days — first abandoning the party’s long-standing promise, to stay onside with his Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, then hastily reviving it in the face of an incipient caucus revolt — I half expected him to offer some sort of non-committal answer: looking at all the options, premature to talk about it now, etc. But no. “I’m in favour of it,” he said simply. “I was delighted we made that commitment to Canadians in the 2011 platform.” Where Mr. Flaherty had insisted the policy needs a “long, hard, analytical look,” Mr. Kenney pointed to a study in support by “Canada’s leading tax policy expert,” the University of Calgary’s Jack Mintz.
He had the look of a man who had just won an important fight. And was in the pole position for a race that has not yet begun, but is already well under way.
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