Tories to Liberals: pay up, or don’t come to our convention

The Conservatives are doing their best to make Grit observers feel unwelcome at their leadership confab

Maxime Bernier, Member of Parliament (MP) and Conservative Party leader candidate, speaks during the final Conservative Party of Canada leadership debate in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on Wednesday, April 26, 2017. The Canadian Conservative party leadership front-runner, celebrity investor and reality-TV star Kevin O'Leary, withdrew from the 14-way race and threw his support behind rival Maxime Bernier in an effort to beat Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2019. (Cole Burston/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Liberal observers must pay $199 plus tax for the honour of watching the rival Tories elect a new leader. (Cole Burston/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

The Conservative Party of Canada is breaking age-old tradition and not welcoming Liberal MPs to attend their convention this weekend free of charge. In an e-mail exchange Thursday night, Liberal communications officer Braeden Caley had lodged a request for observer access with Conservative communications officer Cory Hann, saying:

“..we are wondering if the Conservative Party will continue previous practice of allowing a limited number of observers at your leadership convention this weekend … We are looking to have 2 Liberal Members of Parliament and 1 party official join for parts of the event, and as you will know, a number of media outlets are hosting perspectives from a variety of parties on site. We would appreciate you clarifying this tonight—and like I mentioned, we would continue to reciprocate on the same number of observers for Liberal conventions.”

Hann denied the request. “The Liberals requested free passes,” he told Maclean’s by email on Friday. “I did not have free passes to provide. Standard practice is to trade passes for policy conventions.” Still, as the e-mail exchange shows, the Liberals offered to return the gesture at future policy conventions or leadership events like the one this weekend. The two Liberals planning to attend were MPs Adam Vaughan and Francis Drouin. Hann says they could buy passes to the event like members of the public, for $199 plus tax. The Grits say it’s absurd for the Tories to demand one party to pay another party—an unprecedented move that discourages them from attending.

“I’m at a loss for words, and I’m not normally at a loss for words,” said Vaughan. “The Conservatives sort of like to turn turtle, and look inwards. They have a history of trying to operate in a secluded environment all the time, and I guess they haven’t been able to shake that.” He explains that observing helps gather information on competitors. “You’re always curious to see the up-close workings of the opposition to see where they’re going, so you can get there before they do.” 

Canadian politicians have long had the freedom to snoop at each others’ gatherings. Granting cross-party “observer” status is considered a gesture of transparency. Conservatives including Jason Kenney and James Moore have attended national Liberal conventions since 2004, as have NDP Olivia Chow and Nathan Cullen. At the 2016 national NDP convention, the Liberals’ Randy Boissonault kept watch.

In this case, the Conservatives seem inhospitable solely toward Liberals; New Democrat Alexandre Boulerice will attend the Conservative convention on Saturday with his press secretary, Sarah Andrews, who says they’ve been told they’ll have free passes waiting for them when they arrive. “They are reversing a long precedent and closing up shop even more than Harper did,” says Braeden Caley of the Liberals. “It makes one wonder about the more extreme agenda that the party is bringing forward with these leadership candidates and what they have to hide.”

RELATED: The highs and (many) lows of the Conservative leadership race

Sometimes, inter-party spying goes too far. In February, an undercover caucus member of the B.C. Liberals was accused of attending an NDP youth meeting and videotaping the gathering of 10 young people. “She then secretly recorded these youths, using a cell phone she tried to hide on her lap,” David Eby, NDP housing critic, told The Tyee after the fact. Eby accused the operative of pretending to take a phone call when it came time for a group photo. He said she posed as an NDP youth when really she was “trying to dig up dirt for the election.”

But official observers are generally a symbol of civil democracy, and Vaughan notes that they provide in-person access to alternative opinions for journalists. The phenomenon predates the Internet, when it would’ve been more difficult for the media to talk to opponents who weren’t on site. As a former reporter, Vaughan says, “I’m not sure whose lives they’re trying to make miserable.” With access to Liberals at the Tory convention, he adds, “we [would] have less cranky journalists hanging around.”

Vaughan is still scheduled to speak in a TV panel discussion and do interviews with several news outlets inside the venue this weekend. “I’m assuming I’ll be able to be escorted through the crowd,” he says.

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