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Renewed leadership-selection debate rekindles tensions within Tory ranks

Defence Minister Peter MacKay (left) is warning the Conservative Party against tampering with its leadership-selection rules, which currently give equal weight to each riding association, regardless of its size.

FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Defence Minister Peter MacKay is warning against a resurrected effort to change the way the Conservative Party picks its leader, saying the Tories shouldn't mess with success after more than seven years in office.

A chronic dispute that exposes underlying fault lines in the Harper Conservatives is returning to haunt them when the party faithful gather in Calgary near the end of this month for their convention.

Once again, some Conservatives are trying to alter the leadership-selection process to give more clout to riding associations with bigger memberships – benefitting Western Canadian and Ontario ridings.

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The debate is as old as the Conservative Party itself and revives tensions present in 2003 when the Red Tories in the Progressive Conservatives agreed to merge with the right-wingers in the Canadian Alliance.

Mr. MacKay, the Progressive Conservative side's architect of the merger, warns changing the rules would allow contenders to ignore certain parts of the country in favour of wooing more populous riding associations.

"Altering this system would have a very deleterious effect on Quebec, Atlantic Canada, the North and, more broadly, rural ridings," warned Mr. MacKay in an interview Tuesday from Brussels, where he's attending NATO meetings. Mr. MacKay is also a possible candidate the next time the party seeks a leader.

The Conservative leadership-selection battle resurfaces regularly because of lingering dissatisfaction with rules established at the party's inception. The deal that brought the PCs and the Canadian Alliance together gave all ridings equal clout regardless of membership numbers.

The agreement put populous Western Canadian riding associations – full of former Canadian Alliance supporters – on equal footing with those in Quebec or Atlantic Canada, where membership numbers might be smaller.

Mr. MacKay said this debate should finally be laid to rest.

"This will be the fifth time, if you include the original negotiations on the founding principles of the party, that this subject has been brought up or debated in one form or another," he said.

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"We're talking about altering a formula that wins. This is a formula that has taken us to increased electoral count in successive elections. This is a formula that is equal, that is fair and that is inclusive and keeps the party and the country whole."

The list of resolutions to be debated at the Calgary Conservative convention in late June does not say which ridings sponsored the two proposals to change the leadership-selection process. But the rules say a resolution can be brought forward only if backed by at least four riding associations in two provinces.

The Defence Minister said as one of the two signatories to the founding principles of the party, he believed there was never any intention of rewriting these rules.

"In order to win the leadership of the Conservative Party you should be able to win the entire country, not just a portion of it," Mr. MacKay said.

"Anybody who aspires to win a national party has to be able to reach out and represent the entire country."

Proponents for changing the selection process want a system for electing future leaders that rewards riding associations with higher numbers of active members by giving them more weight in picking the next party chief. Some want to move to a one-member, one-vote system.

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Conservatives are scheduled to debate dozens of other resolutions at the convention – which takes place every two years – and other proposals, including chopping funding to the CBC, scrapping the protectionist supply-management system and reducing the power of unions, among others. One proposal would call on the government to more independently assert Canadian sovereignty in the North.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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