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Calgary a chance for Harper to reboot party

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper, at the Stampede with wife Laureen, speaks to Conservatives in Calgary today.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper, at the Stampede with wife Laureen, speaks to Conservatives in Calgary today.

CALGARY -- Calgary. Sanctuary. They hope.

After a bruising two weeks of relentless pounding in the Senate and in the media, the embattled Conservative Party of Canada and its strangely distant leader gather in home turf to regroup, lick their wounds and search for a way to recapture the agenda.

Calgary -- the home of modern conservatism, the birthplace of the Reform movement, the home of the very Calgary School of thought that shaped Stephen Harper -- is the place the Conservatives, at their party's convention, hope will enable the party to reconnect with its core and turn away from its mini-annus horribilis. If it can.

Of course, Mike Duffy, the talented storyteller who has shown hell hath no fury like a senator scorned, is not in the mood to give the prime minister a break. Depending on who you believe -- that is, if you believe either one of them -- somebody lied and continues to lie, and frankly it doesn't matter to the public right now which one it is. The PM or the senator -- either way, it's a black eye for the party in power.

And so, this scandal over inappropriate payments to the senator that originated in the PMO will cast a shadow over the merrymaking in Calgary, as the party faithful dutifully put on their brave faces and talk about the wonders of free trade with the Eurozone and other policy breakthroughs. It feels a bit like cracking a job outside the funeral home.

Meanwhile, sensing an opportunity to grab a bit of the spotlight, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is visiting the city as well, gleefully rallying Grits in a town that hasn't been friendly to the party in a generation -- never forgetting Dad's National Energy Program indiscretion more than three decades ago.

Will this finally be the beginning of a new chapter in the West for the Liberals? The answer, ironically, may rest with those grumpy moderate Conservatives who are in a foul mood over the fiasco on the Hill. The Conservative Party, after all, came to power on the moral high ground, a cleaner, more ethical alternative to a party that had become tainted by too long a term at the tiller. Now the tables have turned -- with the Tories tortured by the same sort of scandal that felled their predecessors. Their morals are in as much a shambles as their morale.

This convention is a watershed moment for Harper. The focused attacks from Duffy and, to a lesser extent, Senators Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau have stunned the party, left it disorganized and scrambling to contain the damage. If the Conservatives are to hold even a faint hope of pulling out of this nosedive, Harper must find a way in his keynote speech today to step forward and reassert himself as leader and give the party a fresh sense of purpose.

It is, to put it mildly, a tall order for a man not known for his public charisma.

If there were a sports metaphor for this circumstance, it might be a football game at half-time. Harper's team is down by two touchdowns, and they've gathered in the locker-room to regroup. The coach has to have a barn-burner of a message ready, one that will lift his troops out of their funk and put them back on the offensive.

A nation is watching, as is a hostile press. Unfortunately, it's a bad time for Harper to hope for a break from the news media, other than from the radical right-wing outliers at the Sun News Network. After years of treating the media establishment with disdain, shutting them out and challenging long-held conventions, the PM is not likely to find many reporters willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on this story. He has very few favours he can call in.

Instead, it all comes down to him and his team. If Harper can't turn the tide over the next few days in Calgary, then we may be witnessing the beginning of the end for this reign of new conservatism.

 

Doug Firby is editor-in-chief of Troy Media and national affairs columnist.

 

www.troymedia.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 1, 2013 A13

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