Telegram from Calgary II: psychoconventionadelica

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to party faithful at the Conservative convention in Calgary Friday, Nov. 1, 2013.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

I hail you again from my first federal political convention. I have haunted a few provincial ones, and have covered many other kinds of political event, but I was unprepared for the hallucinatory quality of the clan gathering of a party that holds national power. The formal part of the convention involves a series of fights over elements of the party’s constitution; the fights over procedure have high stakes, but are mostly stage-managed in advance, whereas the fights over the electoral and legislative principles can be open and bitter, though they matter little. At the end of the day’s crafting of legislative argot, the formal convention crumbles into an archipelago of parties in hotel suites, bars, and restaurants. Here, the real power is expressed and exercised—or maybe the right word is “flexed”, to denote the way a bodybuilder shows off. (Key gun show this weekend: Jim Flaherty’s.) At the heart of it all is the leader’s keynote, to be applauded unconditionally in public and questioned endlessly in the heart of each delegate.

One of the secrets of political reporting, not that I am doing very much of that this weekend, is that a reporter’s leverage is never higher than after the keynote. The party rank and file already knows that their leader is the ultimate tonic for national greatness; they have nothing to learn talking about the speech to each other, not even if they could be totally honest and open. Even Conservatives need some semblance of a mirror of objectivity on a day like today.

It’s hard not to do more talking than listening in a situation like that. I gave delegates the Paul Wells line (you can’t go wrong!): the Senate material in the speech was paradoxically strong, in the sense that Harper offered no hint of remorse and pretty much invited critics of his conduct to smooch his big heinie, and weak, in the sense that he seems to have given up hope of Senate reform and doesn’t seem to have any other ideas about the Other Place. The word “abolition” is not in the speech, any more than it is on the agenda.

The funny thing is that delegates were mostly quite willing to accept this. The ones who liked the no-nonsense tough-guy stuff have to agree that no one really knows what to do with the Senate, and the Leader isn’t pointing the way. The ones who wanted to see more contrition know that Harper’s sadistically taciturn style of governing has a lot to be said for it, if only strategically. They will get over not being apologized to, even for appointing Wallin, Duffy, and Brazeau to the Senate. (Is that why the press is getting the “Tough darts, you’ll have to dry-swallow that medication” treatment this weekend? Are we paying for the naughtiness of trusted media pets?)

The more panicky Conservatives were complaining before the speech that they had nothing at all to take back to their ridings. The Prime Minister was careful to hand them a few zingers (Justin as “Canadian Idol”, etc.), and the value of this shouldn’t be underestimated. Harper’s keynote was successful to at least this extent: as I slouched around from party venue to party venue last night, I met civilians, ordinary Calgarians and visitors not wearing convention badges, who were talking about the speech in the street. Some were incredulous; a couple were slightly impressed; but they were all quoting the self-conscious flourishes to one another.

Some of you will not have read my column last week about Alberta’s Wildrose Party getting ready for the acquisition of power by “Echo generation” youngsters. If I hadn’t written those ruminations a week ago I might be writing them now, and about some of the same people, too. The federal Conservative Party has begun to identify a little more openly with the Wildrose; its leader, Danielle Smith, has been in Calgary as a badge-wearing delegate, as are many of her party’s most important younger workers and potential future candidates. Some of these late-20s and early-30s operatives, it turns out, were also part of Don Iveson’s crushingly successful Edmonton mayoral campaign.

Iveson’s victory last month was in many respects more impressive than Naheed Nenshi’s flood-assisted one in Calgary; there were 279 polling stations involved in the vote, from the suburbs to Skid Row, and Iveson was beaten in precisely three of them. The Wildrose-Iveson links may seem paradoxical, since Iveson’s goofball undergraduate flirtations with leftism briefly surfaced as an issue in his campaign. But grown-up 2013 Iveson was able to reassure Edmonton business interests pretty convincingly, and with the Wildrose heading toward the political middle, there exists the hypothetical possibility of an anti-PC popular front on big-city tax fairness issues. Watch this space.