Happy Conservatives meet in Québec City

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Pierre Poilievre has been trying to keep things cool at the convention, with good reason. This is his clan’s first gathering in five years, and likely their last national confab before a federal election where they’re hoping their guy will win.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on September 7, 2023.

OTTAWA—Party conventions are truly places to party. As a political party is a gathering of like-minded individuals, in a sense, it takes on the ethos of a large family.

In every family, there are those who don’t always agree. And sometimes high-octane gatherings like weddings, funerals and conventions can literally blow up.

Organizers for the Conservative convention in Québec City are hoping for what all political operatives seek: internal party peace.

During most of the year, the fighting spirit of a political activist is focused on the opposition. Their policies, their leadership, their direction are all fair game in the political battle for the hearts and minds of voters.

Conventions are the only place where the cannons are turned inward.

Party policy wonks fight for their favoured positions while volunteers try to support the issues that they think are important.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has been trying to keep the temperature down at the convention, with good reason.

This is the first gathering of his clan in five years. And it is likely to be their last national confab before a federal election where they are obviously hoping their guy will win.

As happens in every political party, the pragmatists will battle purists on the convention floor.

Some purists will have been pushing the party to adopt a stronger stance on the so-called “woke” agenda.

Three provincial premiers have already adopted some limitations on the use of pronouns in schools by students without parental permission.

Thus far, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has refused to go down that road, but she is under substantial pressure from her own base to do so.

And that base will be very active at the convention.

Journalists have pointed out that there are no abortion resolutions under discussion.

And some observers wisely explain that away as “The smell of power.”

In a pre-convention interview, Dmitri Soudas, the former communications director for then-prime minister Stephen Harper, put it perfectly: “When the polls are good, Members (of Parliament) have nothing but good things to say.”

Those who work for the current leader are hoping for the same serenity.

But the convention wild card is the volunteer base. Many who are not job-dependent on Conservative success at the polls are motivated by religious beliefs that transcend politics.

Some may do their darndest to get touchy issues like abortion and gender reassignment back on the agenda.

The one elephant in the room that convention-goers have not been able to avoid is a convention resolution on defunding the public broadcaster in French and English.

The current resolution calls for an end to funding the CBC and Radio-Canada. That caught the attention of journalists in the heartland of Quebec as Radio-Canada is seen as the lifeblood of Quebec culture and history.

Any party proposing to shut the place down would do so at their peril.

And the second element to the story is the Conservatives need to gain seats in Quebec to have any chance of forming the government.

A promise to abolish Radio-Canada would make Pierre-Karl Péladeau happy, but would not curry much favour with anyone else.

The billionaire owner of Vidéotron has been campaigning for years to abolish federal funding for the public news channel that rivals his own, but no one has yet been convinced.

Politically speaking, it is hard to get positive media from a news outlet that you are planning to put out of business.

One possibility could be a convention resolution to defund the English—but not the French—CBC.

But that would likely face significant backlash as well as a charter challenge.

Poilievre may believe he has managed to build his popularity through social media, and does not really need to care about conventional news services.

But his constant attacks on multiple news platforms, including The Canadian Press, make him vulnerable to a journalistic backlash.

Before elections, the mainstream messaging is most important on Parliament Hill.

But once the writ drops, the focus of the so-called “legacy media” will make or break the outcome.

A happy weekend in Québec City could set the stage for a march toward a Conservative government.

But if that march trashes the voices of journalists at organizations like Radio-Canada and The Canadian Press, Poilievre’s efforts could be stymied.

When then-Progressive Conservative leader Kim Campbell called the election back in 1993, she was sailing to a clear majority.

A few ill-chosen words turned victory into defeat.

Poilievre needs to take a history lesson before he declares victory.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.