VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail
Published Saturday, May 28, 2016 6:06PM EDT
The federal Conservative Party shed its official aversion to gay marriage this weekend as rank-and-file members voted to remove the traditional definition of wedlock from their policy book – part of an effort to recast the Tories after bidding farewell to founder Stephen Harper.
“It’s about telling Canadians that you can love whom you want,” Conservative MP and leadership contender Maxime Bernier said.
The 13-year-old party, now struggling to find its place in the political wilderness after nearly a decade in power, has yet to decide on who will lead the Conservatives against Justin Trudeau in the next election or precisely how to refashion their appeal to voters.
But a majority of delegates at a Vancouver convention agreed on what they don’t want: to be considered obsolete in a country that officially legalized gay marriage more than 11 years ago. The measure to effectively recognize gay marriage passed 1,036 to 462.
'Obsolete' was the same word former Harper lieutenant Jason Kenney used Saturday to describe long-standing Conservative Party policy which declared marriage was a “union of one man and one woman.”
The Calgary MP, long considered a standard bearer for the party’s conservative wing, was unequivocal about the need to jettison the traditional definition of marriage from Conservative doctrine.
“I think it’s a no-brainer. This issue was resolved 10 years ago. There is no point in having … obsolete language about something that was changed in law and society a decade ago,” the Calgary MP said.
“Welcome to a broad, national political party. There are always going to be different views on different issues but when we talk about unity it means unity in diversity.”
Conservative organizers and delegates, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the party’s social conservative wing appeared reduced in strength and voice at the May 26-28 convention which began with an official send-off for former prime minister Stephen Harper.
It will be a new leader, however, who will exert the most influence over what the new, post-Harper Conservative Party looks like.
Mr. Kenney, who would be a strong front-runner for the job should he choose to accept it, signalled several times this weekend he remains undecided.
He acknowledged publicly that he’s also seriously considering a pivot to provincial Alberta politics where two parties – the Progressive Conservatives, and Wild Rose, are splitting the right-leaning vote.
“I have got a lot of encouragement to run for the Conservative Party national leadership – which has been deeply reinforced at this convention,” Mr. Kenney said.
“I also have a lot of people encouraging me to contribute to uniting Albertans to defeat the NDP.”
Mr. Harper isn’t entirely fading from the picture. He is slated to soon become a director of the Conservative Fund – the party’s powerful fundraising arm.
There were clear signs of how the Tories are changing without the influence of Mr. Harper, known for secrecy and distrust of the media.
The Tories opened all their policy debate sessions at their Vancouver convention to the media. It was a first for this party, which has less to lose now from such a move now that it’s no longer in power. But it also meant that journalists were present to witness a Muslim Conservative supporter accusing party brass of unfairly targeting Muslims during the 2015 election campaign.
Urz Heer, from the riding of Brampton South in the Toronto area, told a Conservative Party executive director Dustin van Vugt Friday that the party made her feel like an outsider. She was referring the Tory promises on a public sector ban on niqabs and a snitch line for “barbaric cultural practices.”
Toronto area MP Lisa Raitt, another potential leadership contender, said she’s proud of how the Tories opened up their debates to journalists. “Think about it in terms of a workplace – we just did a performance review in public. Even publicly traded companies don’t do this.”
She said the Tories are learning to chart their own path without Mr. Harper, the man who created the party and ruled it for 12 years.
The leadership campaign is expected to pick up speed in the summer and fall this year.
Mr. Kenney has said he will make a decision this summer and people close to Peter MacKay, former justice minister, said he will also decide shortly but might not make an announcement for several months.
Former labour minister Kellie Leitch, Toronto-area MP Michael Chong and former small business minister Maxime Bernier have already declared themselves candidates.
Former Commons speaker Andrew Scheer is considering a run as is former treasury board president Tony Clement.
Ms. Raitt recounted a meeting she had with Mr. Harper three months ago where he told her she didn’t need his advice.
She had asked him how he would deal with weak economic growth if he were still in charge.
“He made it very clear to me when I had a meeting with him. When I asked his advice, he said I’m not going to tell you what do. That’s for you guys to figure out.”
Conservative delegates, however, also rejected a motion to support physician-assisted dying and they approved a policy change by 990 to 496, saying they support the rights of doctors and nurses and others “to refuse to participate in or refer their abortion, assisted suicide or euthanasia.”
Follow Steven Chase on Twitter: @stevenchase