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Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivers his keynote address at the 2013 Conservative convention in Calgary on Nov. 1, 2013. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivers his keynote address at the 2013 Conservative convention in Calgary on Nov. 1, 2013. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

At Tory convention, Harper establishes himself as a leader set to fight Add to ...

Stephen Harper fired up the troops, played Johnny Cash on the piano and applied a fresh coat of paint to his carefully cultivated image as an outsider in a political capital he’s ruled for close to eight years.

One thing he didn’t do at the Conservative Party convention that wrapped up this weekend in Calgary was apologize for the Senate scandal mess. Or look back.

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If anything, the overall impression left after this gathering of 3,000 party faithful is that Mr. Harper and the Tories are spoiling for a fight: with recalcitrant senators, with their critics, and perhaps most importantly for the weeks and months ahead, with public-sector unions.

Conservative political advisers described the convention Saturday as a “family gathering” where the key imperative is not broadcasting messages to Canadians at large but rather reassuring party faithful that their Leader is unbowed and ready to fight the next election.

Mr. Harper’s chief goal, they said, was to assure them he’s got the mettle to lead them into the next election. This included his efforts to assure him he hasn’t lost touch with the grassroots despite close to eight years at the levers of power and notwithstanding a corrosive scandal involving people he appointed to the Senate.

The Conservative grassroots, through their votes at the convention, signalled they want their anti-elitist-in-chief to keep up the battle against favourite targets. Motions passed by delegates sent a strong message to the Harper government that they’re pretty happy to see the Tories go after public-sector unions, for instance.

At the party’s convention in Calgary on Saturday, delegates made it party policy to support a law requiring federal unions to explicitly detail what money they use for political donations or activism – and allow members to opt out of paying dues to support political activism.

Another new policy calls on the government to switch its civil servants to defined contribution pension plans from more lucrative defined benefit plans where the level of payout at retirement is guaranteed.

It’s far from certain the government will act on the Conservative policy changes but Treasury Board President Tony Clement already made it clear in October that Ottawa is out to change the balance of power in relations between the federal government and its unions.

A budget bill tabled in October will give federal employers the power to unilaterally designate parts of the bureaucracy as an essential service that cannot strike.

Mr. Clement said he’s confident many Canadians will back the Tories.

“We’re not here to buy labour peace through caving in to every single public-sector union boss’s demands. We’re not here to do that. We’re here to represent the taxpayer,” he said Friday.

Some Conservative delegates and observers said privately they would like to have seen Mr. Harper spend more time explaining his government’s role in the Senate scandal – perhaps expressing regret at what had happened or how the party had used donations to cover beleaguered PEI Senator Mike Duffy’s legal expenses.

But Mr. Harper’s message to grassroots Conservatives didn’t dwell on the past. He championed his drive to suspend without pay the three Tory appointees accusing of padding their expenses – and attacked those who faulted him for taking this action even though the senators have not been found guilty or even charged.

“I could care less what they say,” the Tory Leader said of those who suggested he was abusing due process.

While they may not have publicly criticized their party, delegates made it clear they want to be kept abreast of party spending, passing a resolution to make financial reporting mandatory at their conventions.

Mr. Harper appears to have charmed party rank-and-file Friday night with his musical prowess, when he and his backup band Herringbone took over a local bar to play a set for Conservatives, many of whom spent hundreds of dollars to travel to the Calgary convention.

Ken Charko, a B.C. delegate from the riding of Vancouver Quadra, said he was happy with Mr. Harper’s message to delegates and has no beef with the way the convention unfolded.

“My biggest complaint about the convention? The food sucked and I lost five pounds. That’s my biggest complaint.”

He said he relished watching Mr. Harper perform. “He did a fantastic job on the piano. That’s him really comfortable in his skin. ... He was jamming and having a good time and everyone was having a good time.”

For all the talk of unity at the convention, the party was clearly divided on some hot-button issues.

A motion that said the Conservatives would not support any legislation to legalize euthanasia or assisted suicide passed, but only after a close vote.

Another motion that would have called on the government to pass a law enshrining the right to own firearms was narrowly defeated.

A third motion, calling on the government to split funding for CBC TV and radio passed by a small margin.

The convention wrapped up after a presentation from chief party fundraiser Senator Irving Gerstein, who assured them the donations are still rolling in to the Conservatives, who still lead in political fundraising in Canada.

The carefully-constructed message from Mr. Gerstein, who joked that it’s honourable to be a party bagman, was that supporters are happy with the Tories – although he warned rank-and-file not to rest on their laurels.

He told delegates the party has $14-million in the bank and is debt-free and said money collected so far this fiscal year is up over the previous one.

Mr. Gerstein said the Tories still attract more donations than any other party – an accomplishment that occurs “to the chagrin of our critics” in Canada.

“The size of each party’s coffers is always a reflection of which party has the best ideas for the country,” he said.

“Message creates momentum creates money. It’s never the other way around.”

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