Taking the party out of the Progressive Conservatives

Matter of opinion

By Jason Brooks

They still call themselves a party, but federal Progressive Conservatives are no fun. They’ve taken the excitement out of their leadership race by breaking a tradition dating back to 1927, when R.B. Bennett was elected Tory leader, and doing away with the leadership convention. They’ve taken the party out of the party.

In the good ol’ days when they chose a leader, thousands of Tories from across the country would cram into an arena for four days of drinking, waving signs, and cheering like idiots.

No more. In 1995, the party decided to democratize the leadership selection process. On October 24, about 85,000 party members will cast ballots in their home ridings, instead of sending a few thousand delegates to a convention. The voting works on a points system; every riding gets 100 points, which are assigned to candidates according to the votes in that riding. One member, one vote. No party.

It’s a travesty.

I have fond memories of the last Tory leadership convention, at the Civic Centre, in June 1993. As a wide-eyed Tory puppy, it was like going to the circus.

Almost 10,000 people came to town. We pumped an estimated $7.5 million into the Ottawa economy — a figure that would have been $300 less if not for me, I should add.

As a lowly volunteer assigned to poster mounting, I refined my tape-rolling skills. In the stifling heat, I stamped out Garth Turner buttons under a tent in the Lansdowne parking lot until my hands hurt. The “Party On Garth!” buttons were more popular than my candidate, unfortunately. He placed fourth in a field of five and dropped out after the first ballot.

Still, it was exhilarating.

Leadership conventions are important. “It’s an opportunity to bring everybody together,” says Peter Annis, the Tory candidate in the 1997 federal election for Ottawa Centre. They’re a chance for Tories to meet fellow Tories from across the country, an opportunity for eager nobodies to schmooze with big shots.
Leadership conventions have a carnival air — cheering, signs, posters, bands, loudspeakers and live performances — that can’t be replicated by voting from home.

“If a prison riot is ever done as a musical, the great convention week could be used as a model,” writers from the old Toronto Telegram wisecracked after the boisterous Tory convention of 1967 at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.

Journalists know leadership conventions are exciting. Almost 2,000 flocked to the 1993 convention. Conventions make the front page several days running.

But maybe the best part is the free stuff. Candidates collectively spend hundreds of thousands of dollars wooing delegates with alcohol, food, sometimes even hotel rooms. A retired high school principal and convention delegate, stamping out buttons with me in the Turner tent refused to wear one. When I asked why, he winked at me and said he got more free stuff when people thought he was undecided. Free beer. Vote-buying. That’s what politics is about.

Alas, there’s no drama this time. On voting weekend, the Civic Centre — home to the last three Tory leadership races — will be the site of the Ottawa ski and snowboard show.

Which I suppose is fitting given the direction the Tories seem to be heading.