As The Interim reported 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 scuttle socially conservative proposals from making their way to the party’s convention in Vancouver in late May.

One of the proposals was a policy proposal that called for removing the existing policy that a “Conservative government will not support any legislation to regulate abortion” based on the rationale that its inclusion contradicts another position in the Conservative Party’s policy declaration that states “on issues of moral conscience, such as abortion, the definition of marriage, and euthanasia, the Conservative Party acknowledges the diversity of deeply held personal convictions among individual party members and the right of Members of Parliament to adopt positions in consultation with their constituents and to vote freely.”  After the National Policy Committee had already unanimously allowed for this proposal to make it to Convention in Vancouver, at the request of Ambrose the Committee reconvened on a conference call a few days later and stopped the proposal from making its way to convention based on 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, proposed a constitutional amendment — the Free Your Policy amendment — which would allow for policies with broad based grassroots support (expressed through the signatures of delegates from at least 100 ridings) 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 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 one 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. Free Your Policy was not the only floor amendment at the Vancouver convention, although the other one gaining considerable media attention;  a the Draft Rona movement that sought to amend the party’s constitution to allow for an interim leader to run for permanent leader; the rationale given my many supporters of the rule change was that Ambrose has been a good interim leader and that she should not be prevented from running for the full-time job if she wanted it.

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 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 in 2011 served 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).

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 right to remove items of the party’s policy declaration without a vote amongst members or delegates at convention.  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. Karahalios said that perhaps “the Free Your Policy amendment seemed to serve as the shiny object distracting many at convention who in Calgary supported the idea.” The amendment passed with overwhelming support in both the constitution breakout session and the plenary, a strong sign that the party needed to trust the grassroots.

An aggressive Free Your Policy campaign, caught the attention and irked many within the Conservative Party and party headquarter staff. 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 there was a need to ensure the grassroots policy process remained “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 in such a short period of time because of the uproar amongst not only social conservatives, but 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.  The constitutional break out session at the party’s convention took place from 9am-12pm on Friday May 27 — the first full day of the convention — and was open to all of the 2000-plus delegates attending at convention.

Karahalios’ previously submitted amendment that sought to remove caucus’ power to delete policies from the policy declaration, came up on the agenda 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. Karahalios complained that Ian Brodie, a former chief of staff to prime minister Stephen Harper who was chairing the session, labeled the floor amendments as “wild card” amendments. Karahalios wonders Brodie’s commentary, noting they made their way to the breakout session as floor amendments “instead of through the normal process outlined by the National Constitution Committee” perhaps biased some delegates against Free Your Vote (and the Draft Rona amendment) or set the tone of the debate.

Karahalios was also concerned that 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 a desired outcome. There were about twice as many people in attendance for these votes as other proposed amendments such as repealing section 13.7 of the constitution or establishing a youth wing for the party.

Around 11:15, after a brief coffee break, the Draft Rona amendment was presented. Interestingly, the first speaker against the resolution was delegate Andrew Carson from the riding of Dufferin-Caledon, and he 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 from the party leader. This drew loud applause from the audience and the Draft Rona amendment failed terribly, 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 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 after 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.

By the time the Saturday morning constitutional plenary began, convention chatter from the constitutional breakout session on how both the Draft Rona and the Free Your Policy amendments debates centered on Ambrose and Rempel’s involvement in the policy process. As a result, in the plenary when Karahalios’ original amendment was presented that called for the removal of caucus’ power to delete policies from the declaration away, only one individual spoke against it — Wildrose Party spokesperson Vitor Marciano – even though two were permitted, and the amendment passed with a majority of delegates from all provinces supporting the solution.  Prior to debate Marciano could be seen having his request for someone to speak against the amendment being denied by three caucus members including Rempel herself. (Marciano also spoke against Free Your Policy in the breakout session.)

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. He stated to The Interim that he believes if he were able to get his Free Your Policy amendment out of the breakout room it would also have passed when considered by the full convention.

While the Free Your Policy amendment did not succeed in passing, 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.