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Energized Conservatives to get 'ground game going' Buoyant Harper emerges from convention with 'mainstream, moderate' agenda and both sides of his political house united

Buoyant Harper emerges from convention with 'mainstream, moderate' agenda and both sides of his political house united


hen Harper is preparing to sell his new "mainstream, moderate" agenda to Canadians and is looking more confidently toward a potential election after Conservatives set a policy doctrine that borrows from both their founding parties.

The nearly 3,000 delegates to a weekend policy convention also bridged fissures that threatened to keep their political house divided.

The success of the meeting "solidifies the underpinnings of the party, mainly the policy and questions that Canadians would have on where we stand on a whole range of issues," deputy leader Peter MacKay said yesterday.

"I think we are now in a much better position to fight back some of these allegations of black holes, hidden agendas and policy gaps."

The convention will energize Conservatives and "get our ground game going," said Mr. MacKay, adding that the party is now searching for candidates to run in the next election. While a nomination freeze remains in effect, he said, a criteria has been established for those nominations and work on the election platform will start almost immediately.

Mr. Harper is clearly buoyed by the outcome of the meeting -- 84 per cent of delegates supported his leadership -- and is tossing hints that he might be willing to take down the Liberal minority if the government introduces a bill he does not support.

Although Canadians do not want an election, he said, "we could find situations where it's difficult to avoid."

One of those situations may crop up this week, when the Liberals introduce a budget implementation bill that is said to contain, among other things, a clause that would put fossil-fuel emissions from big industry under the regulation of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act -- a measure the Conservatives have denounced. Budget bills are generally considered a confidence matter, so voting against it could put the government in jeopardy.

"We do expect to see a number of programs and proposals come forward, some of which we will be prepared to oppose," Mr. Harper said.

Delegates were told that the party is about $11-million short of the $29-million it would need to mount a campaign this year. But Geoff Norquay, Mr. Harper's communications director, said yesterday that finances would not be an impediment if an election had to be called.

"We have a very aggressive and successful fundraising arm and I think we have enough confidence in our fundraising capabilities to remove that as a problem," he said.

Mr. Harper also has the comfort of leading a single party, rather than two factions sitting under one roof.

In a critical show of unity, delegates soundly defeated a resolution from Ontario MP Scott Reid -- a close confidant of Mr. Harper's -- that would have undone a key element of the deal that brought the party together.

Before the resolution died on the convention floor, Mr. MacKay was livid at Mr. Reid's attempt to change a provision that gives equal representation to all ridings at future conventions by reducing the number of delegates that could be sent by any riding where there are fewer than 100 members.

Mr. Reid was subjected to a chorus of boos when he took to the podium to defend his stand -- and there were cheers when it was turned down.

"I'm feeling relieved . . . it does go to the very essence of building the future of the party in parts of the country where we have to build," said Mr. MacKay, who acknowledged the "St. Patrick Irish" in him may have caused him to be a bit emotional about the issue.

"I don't regret having made this an issue. It was an issue for me in the final analysis of whether there would be a reunion of the family, so I was quite passionate and quite adamant that we go forward and not go back."

Some delegates questioned why Mr. Harper did not prevent Mr. Reid from launching the politically divisive missile into a convention focused on unity. Some even suggested Mr. Harper may have been behind the plan that would have given more strength to his western arm of the party.

And he did not deny that allegation when it was put to him on CTV's Question Period yesterday. Instead, he said "I was perplexed by the intensity of the debate. I don't think there was anybody in the party who thought this was a make-or-break issue."

Mr. Harper would much rather talk abut unity than division -- and the appeal he believes the new policies will hold for Canadians.

Conservatives have put together "a moderate, mainstream program which reflects Canadian values," Mr. Harper said.

Delegates supported a resolution against same-sex marriage, which some critics, including MP Belinda Stronach, said would not help the party's efforts to appear inclusive.

But the Conservatives can go back into the political fray without the political albatross of abortion hanging over its head. Delegates approved a resolution that says a Conservative government would not support regulation on abortion.

Mr. MacKay said the decision was "a very significant milestone" in proving the party is "tapping into a zone where Canadians are comfortable" and will improve fortunes in places such as Ontario and Quebec.

The issues

Delegates to a Conservative policy convention in Montreal this weekend agreed, among other things, that a Conservative government would:

Not support abortion legislation

Define marriage as a union of one man and one woman

Ratify nominations of Supreme Court justices in the House of Commons

Review participation in the Kyoto accord

Allow provinces to put money into private health care

Support an elected Senate

Return to missile-defence negotiations with the United States

Bring in mandatory minimum sentences for repeat violent offenders and introduce a three-strikes-you're-out law

Remove all defences for possession of child pornography and raise the age of consent to 16 from 14

Repeal the gun registry

Make all votes except those on the budget and main estimates free votes

Support bilingualism

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