Rob Anders once again represents a peculiar conundrum for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
After 17 years as an MP, the controversial Mr. Anders lost his Conservative nomination over the weekend. Already, there's speculation he'll try to run again somewhere else, like the neighbouring riding of Calgary Rocky Ridge.
For Mr. Harper, that would represent a dilemma.
A prime minister doesn't want to be seen to be suddenly turning his back on an incumbent MP he has endorsed, because that might make his other MPs nervous. But when a veteran MP loses a nomination in one safe Tory seat, and moves to run in another, it sends another signal – that old, entrenched members of the party will be helped back to a comfy chair in Ottawa.
The latter is the bigger danger for Mr. Harper. The last thing he and his Conservative Party need is to promote the idea that the one-time outsiders are now insiders, enjoying the spoils of power after eight years in office – and that there's a privilege of incumbency, rather than renewal.
It would be ironic for Mr. Anders, an iconoclastic MP who came to Ottawa with the Reform Party in 1997, to become a symbol of entitlement.
He has embarrassed his own party by calling Nelson Mandela a terrorist, and by falling asleep during a session of the Veterans Affairs committee and then calling the veterans who complained "NDP hacks." There were always a number of people in his own riding eager to see him ousted. But he has also, on more than one occasion, been willing to speak up to say the things other Conservative MPs thought – he expressed early concern about Chinese state companies buying up Alberta oil properties, and occasionally tweaked his own government for not being conservative enough.
And the man who beat him, Ron Liepert, hardly has the resumé of an outsider: he served as a provincial cabinet minister under former Alberta premiers Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford.
But look what happened in this nomination contest: Mr. Anders received an endorsement from Prime Minister Harper, and the most powerful cabinet minister in Alberta, Jason Kenney, campaigned on his behalf. Mr. Anders was the party establishment candidate. And he was given the heave-ho by the Conservatives of his own riding after 17 years.
(It's a mere sidenote here that Mr. Anders' Calgary West riding was being re-drawn, and he actually lost the nomination for the new riding of Calgary Signal Hill. It also makes little difference that nomination battles are at best 19th-century democracy, based on getting more people to sign membership cards and having them show up to a meeting. Mr. Anders lost by the party's rules of grassroots democracy.)
There's a good chance that Mr. Anders, a veteran of the Calgary nomination battles, could muster enough support to win a Conservative nomination in neighbouring Rocky Ridge, which, like most of Alberta, is usually a safe ticket to a seat in the Commons. But it won't look good for Mr. Harper to have an establishment candidate shopping for another safe riding when the grassroots have already turfed him.
Mr. Harper just cashiered the party's executive director, Dimitri Soudas, because he was sticking his nose into the nomination campaign of his fiancée Eve Adams, the Mississauga MP seeking to move to an Oakville riding that is a safer bet for a Conservative. It's not good for the Conservatives to allow the perception that the Ottawa gang are helping their own keep their entitlement to places in the Commons.
That's because it could be a narrative that extends beyond the confines of Calgary or the Golden Horseshoe suburbs, and it's the last storyline Mr. Harper's Conservatives want to see. Like Mr. Anders, they came to Ottawa promising to shake things up, and courted the outsider image. Their support base, already shaken by the Senate scandal and the wear of eight years in power, would soften if Mr. Harper lets people think insiders are entitled to stay in. He won't be helped by symbols of how much Reformers have changed.
Mr. Anders, of course, has other options after his current term ends next year. He might, one Conservative suggested, join a conservative lobby organization, because he is a believer in conservatism as a movement. He might seek to run provincially for Alberta's opposition Wildrose Party, which has some of the rock-ribbed conservatism and outsider attitude he cultivated. But moving to another federal riding will only put Mr. Harper in a bind.
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