As The Interim reported online in early May, the National Policy Committee of the Conservative Party of Canada took it upon themselves, in a closed door meeting and under the influence of Conservative MP Michelle Rempel (Calgary Nose Hill) and interim party leader Rona Ambrose, to prevent numerous policy proposals popular with the grassroots from making their way to the party’s convention in Vancouver in late May.
One of them was a proposal that called for removing the existing policy that a “Conservative government will not support any legislation to regulate abortion.” The National Policy Committee had already unanimously allowed for this proposal to make it to convention, but at the request of Ambrose the committee reconvened on a conference call a few days later and nixed the proposal in a 10-4 vote.
A few days later a group of grassroots Conservative Party members, attempted to prevent this from ever happening again by creating a campaign dubbed Free Your Policy. The group called for the National Policy Committee to “facilitate, not filter” the grassroots policy process, and proposed a constitutional amendment — the Free Your Policy amendment — which, if passed, would allow for policies with broad based grassroots support to automatically make it to future conventions without being subject to a review by the party’s National Council or National Policy Committee, thus serving as a check and balance to the Committee’s work.
Under the party’s constitution, policy is not allowed to be introduced at the convention, although constitutional amendments are; Free Your Policy sought to amend the party’s constitution to apply the same standard to introduce policy at the convention as the rules allow for constitutional amendments, namely through a petition with the signatures of at least 100 delegates from at least 100 different ridings. It is a difficult standard to attain and requires broad support.
Coincidentally, since the idea for this amendment arose just four weeks before the convention, and thus after the party’s deadline for amendments to be submitted, the only way it could get to convention was as a “floor” amendment.
Jim Karahalios, Cambridge Conservative riding president and a member of the party’s National Policy Committee, led the Free Your Policy group and fundraised, including spending his money, to promote the initiative with a website, shirts, postcards, and buttons. Karahalios has a long history in conservative politics, having served as policy advisor and organizer for 2015 Ontario Progressive Conservative Party leadership candidate Monte McNaughton (who was leading the charge against Kathleen Wynne’s sex-ed curriculum) and as campaign manager for Ontario PC Party Willowdale candidate Vince Agovino (who campaigned against the mandatory inclusion of Gay-Straight Alliance clubs in Catholic schools) in 2011.
Karahalios had already submitted a constitutional amendment by the party’s deadline that sought to reduce caucus’ intrusion into the grassroots policy process by repealing section 13.7 of the constitution which gave caucus the unilateral right to periodically remove items of the party’s policy declaration without a vote amongst party members. He told The Interim that originally he expected to face strong opposition for this idea from delegates who only three years earlier at the party’s Calgary convention successfully added this section to the constitution.
An aggressive Free Your Policy campaign, caught the attention and irked many within the party. Karahalios — along with fellow National Policy Committee member Doug Hawkins — asserted that the “establishment of the party was at risk of becoming out of touch with its membership” and that they wanted a policy process that was “accountable, transparent and member driven.”
In the two weeks before the convention, the Free Your Policy amendment obtained over 225 signatures from delegates from more than 110 ridings across the country, far exceeding the threshold required for consideration in the constitutional breakout session.
Karahalios said he was able to gather the signatures because conservatives of all stripes that were “outraged over the meddling of the grassroots policy process by Rempel and interim leader Ambrose.”
In order to make their way to plenary for approval, the amendments had to pass by a majority of the room in the constitutional breakout session.
Karahalios’ previously submitted amendment that sought to remove caucus’ power to delete policies from the policy declaration flew under the radar and passed by a comfortable margin to get to plenary with approximately 225 delegates in attendance of the constitutional breakout session.
Predictably, the focus on the constitutional breakout session was on the Free Your Policy and the Draft Rona amendments (the latter would overturn the prohibition on an interim leader seeking the permanent job).
Karahalios was concerned when there was a sudden flood of delegates into the room for the two floor amendments, and speculates that party headquarters and staff may have coordinated efforts to ensure their desired outcomes. There were about twice as many people in attendance for these votes as other proposed amendments.
The first speaker against the Draft Rona amendment was delegate Andrew Carson from the riding of Dufferin-Caledon, who spoke to his disgust with the reports of Ambrose interfering in the grassroots policy process to block social conservative resolutions. He said he “doesn’t even agree with” the policies that were scuttled, but he maintained that the grassroots policy process should have been free from meddling by the party leader. This drew loud applause from the audience and the Draft Rona amendment was defeated, garnering the support of about one-fifth of the room.
By the time the Free Your Policy amendment was proposed, even more delegates entered the room. After an intense debate with two speakers for and two speakers against, and a show of green (for) and red (against) cards, the chair – former Stephen Harper chief of staff Ian Brodie – declared Free Your Vote defeated, but the crowd demanded a vote count. After the tally, Brodie reported the vote as being 253 against to 131 in favour, but following loud objections from the crowd and Karahalios’ request for a recount the correct vote was reported as failing 247 to 193. Free Your Vote was defeated, but narrowly. Karahalios noted that if 23 people changed their minds, it could have passed.
In an interview with Rebel Media’s Faith Goldy following plenary, Karahalios stated that although Free Your Policy did not make it to plenary, it seemed to serve its purpose in sending a message to the party to take the grassroots policy process seriously and it set the tone for his other amendment to succeed with little opposition. Karahalios told The Interim that he believes if the Free Your Policy amendment got out of the breakout room it would also have passed when considered by the full convention.
While the Free Your Policy amendment did not pass, the campaign put caucus and the leadership candidates on notice to stay away from intervening in the grassroots policy process. Karaholios said he will attempt to bring back Free Your Policy for consideration at the next convention.