After months of grassroots engagement at the riding and regional level, the National Policy Committee of the Conservative Party of Canada took it upon themselves to scuttle socially conservative proposals to the party’s convention in Vancouver. One resolution was reportedly reconsidered and nixed after the intervention of interim Conservative Party leader Rona Ambrose.
The Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) has a National Policy Committee of 25 members and observers, but the party’s constitution gives it little guidance in how to conduct policy development, therefore leaving it to the members and especially the chair to decide as it proceeds each time the Conservatives prepare for a policy convention. For the 2016 convention, the committee decided that resolutions bringing forward policies for consideration had to go through meetings at both the riding and regional levels and if a resolution had sufficient support in a certain number of ridings in several provinces, it would make it to the Ideas Lab, a website where select individuals could vote on them. Resolutions that garnered the most support among those voting would be forwarded to the Vancouver policy convention where they would be considered in breakout working sessions where if they garnered 80 per cent of the vote of those present, be sent to the plenary for a floor vote where they would become policy on a simple majority vote.
One member of the National Council told The Interim the process is deliberately “onerous” to ensure that policies passed by convention have a “certain, broad level of support in the party.”
In early 2016, local electoral district association (or riding) meetings took place across the country where proposals for policy were brought forward. There were media reports that LGBTory, a gay rights activist group within the federal and provincial conservative parties, sought to remove language that stated party policy recognized marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Social conservatives groups mobilized too, although under the media radar. For example, Campaign Life Coalition alerted supporters about the process and encouraged those inclined to support the Conservatives to get involved.
Among the resolutions supported by pro-life and pro-family voters were proposals recognizing conscience rights for health care workers, supporting a Born Alive Infant Protection Act to give full human rights to children born alive after an induced abortion, adding the word “abortion” to an existing policy condemning gender selection, and removing the existing policy that a “Conservative government will not support any legislation to regulate abortion.” Other resolutions included adding a paragraph to the section on social policy that the party would not “support legislation on ‘gender identity’ or ‘gender expression’ which grants biological males the legal right to access female bathrooms,” and another recognizing the right of Canadians who “believe in the traditional definition of marriage” to be protected from workplace discrimination.
The socially conservative resolutions passed the first parts of the process, garnering enough support at the electoral district association (EDA) levels to make it to at least seven regional meetings in several provinces. Furthermore, the LGBTory resolution was defeated at several regional meetings. From there they went to the Ideas Lab, a website where MPs, candidates of record (Conservative candidates who lost in the last election), EDA presidents, EDA policy chairs, and EDA constitution chairs, could vote “yes” or “no” that the resolution be moved along to the next part of the process.
Despite the possibility of manipulating meetings at the EDA and regional level, the real shenanigans occurred behind closed doors when the resolutions came before the Policy Committee, which had to consider 378 resolutions introducing new policies or amending old ones. The committee is chaired by Wayne Benson, a member of the CPC’s National Council from Manitoba. The policy committee is given almost no guidance by the party’s constitution or rules on how to develop policy to bring to the national convention. Section 4.2 of the “Rules for Constitution and Policy Discussions: Conservative Convention 2016” states, “the National Policy Committee may bring new resolutions to the policy break-out workshops at Convention as it sees fit.”
The “as it sees fit” gets decided by the Policy Committee as it goes along, although several members of the committee told The Interim they would like the process more open and accountable including publicizing the rules they set in order to make changes along the way more difficult. The understanding in committee according to sources is that one-third of the resolutions to be considered in Vancouver would come from Ideas Lab based on most votes, one-third would come from the regional meetings based on which ones garnered the most support, and one-third would be decided by the policy committee using their discretion to pick resolutions that did not pass the other thresholds but were worthy of consideration.
Benson changed that and decided that the committee would consider the 25 resolutions that had the highest raw vote total in Ideas Lab and the 40 resolutions from regional meetings that received the highest percentage vote. Then the committee would vote on these resolutions and those with 80 per cent support among the 22 voting members were sent on to Vancouver. But Benson also ruled that the committee would send 60 resolutions to convention, so after scuttling several policy resolutions the committee considered resolutions that had much lower levels of support than the ones already nixed by the committee.
Yet not only was the process amended numerous times including changing thresholds of support and using one standard for some resolutions and another standard for others, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel (Calgary Nose Hill) attended the April 22 meeting in Ottawa where the committee was selecting which policy resolutions were to be considered at the Vancouver convention. Ostensibly present to giving a short talk on how any new policy would affect caucus members, she spoke against permitting the pro-life and pro-family resolutions from being considered at the national convention at all.
The problem, several sources told The Interim, is that there is no provision or mechanism for members of caucus to participate in the Policy Committee meeting. One member of the Policy Committee told The Interim that there is a separate mechanism for caucus to bring their policy suggestions to the convention. Another member of the committee, who would not talk about the specifics of the vote because the deliberations were supposed to remain private explained caucus members have a role to play in policy development but as members of the party not as MPs with special rights or access. MPs, the committee member said, can participate in EDA and regional meetings like any fees-paying member of the party and then have limited special rights in the policy resolution phase on Ideas Lab where MPs and candidates of record (losing candidates in the previous election or by-election) along with select members of riding executives, get to vote whereas the vast majority of other party members do not. MPs are also automatic delegates to the convention where they are free to speak for or against policy resolutions and vote on them, like any other member, although when an MP speaks he or she would likely carry more weight.
Former National Council member Mark Dotzert, who resigned his position in February for unrelated reasons, told The Interim that no caucus member “should interfere” in the deliberations of the Policy Committee. He said “the problem of meddling happens before every convention” and that Rempel, as a former member of the Policy Committee, “seems to feel entitled to interfere.” Dotzert said the committee “needs to be left alone to do their work.” He said that the party wants its membership to believe “the process is grassroots and democratic, but it isn’t.”
When the committee voted they scuttled the resolutions on protecting the employment rights of those who believe in traditional marriage, opposing transgender bathroom rights, and supporting the Born Alive Infant Protection Act. It allowed resolutions on conscience rights for health care workers and gendercide to proceed to Vancouver, but had not made a decision whether to allow a change to party policy that a Conservative government would not move to regulate abortion, Article 64 of the 2013 National Party Policy Declaration.
The Policy Committee also permitted the LGBTory-backed resolution rescinding the existing policy that states the party believes “Parliament, through a free vote, and not the courts should determine the definition of marriage,” and “we support legislation defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” to go to convention despite the fact it had little popular support at most regional meetings and the Ideas Lab.
Near the end of the committee’s deliberations, interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose called into the meeting and urged them to hold a special conference call to address Article 64 in order to scuttle the resolution. The conference call was held April 28 and only about a dozen committee members participated.
However, as several committee members told The Interim, there is no mechanism or process for the party leader to participate in the National Policy Committee, either. One party strategist said that when former prime minister Stephen Harper felt it necessary to intervene, it never did it directly. The strategist wondered why Ambrose, who has been praised for publicly changing the tone of the party, acted “so heavy-handed with the committee.” The strategist said the irony is that many of these resolutions were unlikely to make it out of the breakout working sessions if they were not popular, before the full convention gets to vote on it.
In its conference call, the motion to delete the resolution 503 to rescind Article 64 was passed by a 9-4 vote.
Ambrose reportedly rationalized her request to maintain Article 64 because she was concerned that Conservative leadership candidates would get bogged down in a debate about abortion if it was rescinded. The leadership convention will be held in May 2017.
The day after the conference call, the National Post published an article by John Ivison on its website reporting that several Tory MPs were launching an effort to rescind a constitutional stipulation that interim leaders of the party are banned from running for the permanent position. Ambrose has denied any interest in the job going into the next election in 2019 by pointing to the existence of the rule prohibiting her from doing so.
Ambrose did not return calls from The Interim to explain her involvement in the policy committee’s deliberations or her leadership ambitions. Her spokesman Mike Storeshaw told the Canadian Press his boss has been insistent she will not seek the permanent leadership. “Her decision … was made a long time ago, and it hasn’t changed and won’t change. She’s not going to be a candidate for it.”
Neither did Rempel return The Interim’s calls requesting information about the role she played in scuttling the pro-life and pro-family resolutions. Several news reports have Rempel considering a bid for the leadership after losing to Ambrose for the interim position last November.
A total of 60 resolutions out of more than 300 considered by the National Policy Committee were sent to the Vancouver convention where up to 2500 delegates will debate and vote on them in the working sessions on Friday, May 27 and, if passed there, the plenary the following day. One party strategist said there could have been as many as 90 resolutions proposed for consideration at the convention but for whatever reason the Policy Committee only sent 60. The strategist said the success of social conservatives in creating the conditions for two of six of the resolutions to pass was “impressive” but the larger issue is that the process “is neither transparent nor democratic and open to manipulation.”
One Conservative riding executive member told The Interim he wonders why he paid his $25 membership fee and gave up both an evening for a meeting in the riding and a full day on a weekend to participate in the regional meeting “if the Policy Committee is just going to ignore us anyway.”
Jack Fonseca, a political strategist for Campaign Life Coalition, told The Interim, he is disappointed the Policy Committee thwarted grassroots efforts to have social issues debated at the convention. Fonseca said, “the skullduggery perpetrated by the establishment is absolutely shameful,” explaining “the National Policy Committee told grassroots EDA members that their votes on the Ideas Lab would count. They led them to believe that the top ranked resolutions would advance to the Vancouver convention. So when grassroots EDA members finished voting, and six out of the top 10 resolutions ended up being socially conservative ones, that’s what they expected to happen.” Fonseca said “the socon policies won fair and square,” and scuttling these popular resolutions was, “an act of profound disrespect towards the will of the grassroots, the democratic process, and basic fairness.”
Conservative Party communications director Cory Hann confirmed with LifeSiteNews that “both Rempel and Ambrose provided input at the request of the committee” on which resolutions should be debated at the constitution but denied Ambrose called for the teleconference to nix resolution 503.
A version of this article originally appeared on The Interim’s website May 4.