Members of the Conservative caucus squirmed in public and seethed in private yesterday, trying to come to grips with Prime Minister Stephen Harper's two controversial cabinet appointments.
"This looks like expediency, even hypocrisy," a veteran Conservative MP from Western Canada said of the appointments of David Emerson, who was elected last month as a Liberal, and Conservative campaign co-chairman Michael Fortier, who didn't run but will get a Senate appointment.
"This is shocking. It's just unbelievable. Who was Stephen talking to? We campaigned against this kind of stuff," the MP said.
A rookie MP said: "I'm not sure how I'm going to explain these appointments to my constituents. It's bewildering."
The MPs did not want to be identified because of caucus secrecy, but wanted it known that other Conservatives also question the political wisdom of the appointments.
The caucus meeting was described as unusually quiet, with Mr. Harper doing most of the talking. "Everybody was in shock," the western MP said.
Mr. Harper reportedly explained at length why Mr. Emerson, a Vancouver MP, and Mr. Fortier, a Montreal lawyer, are needed. The Conservatives failed to win seats in either city on Jan. 23. Mr. Harper made Mr. Emerson Minister of International Trade. Mr. Fortier is Public Works Minister, and will sit in the Senate and run in the next general election, Mr. Harper said.
The appointments set off a flash fire of criticism on radio talk shows and conservative-oriented Internet blogs, with many people noting that Mr. Harper had promised Senate elections. Dozens of Conservative MPs in the last House supported a NDP bill that would have required defectors to seek a new mandate in a by-election.
The Liberal riding association in Mr. Emerson's Vancouver Kingsway constituency asked him yesterday to return nearly $100,000 he received to fight the recent election.
"You would not have received those funds . . . if you ran as a Conservative," association president Ivan Curman said in a letter to Mr. Emerson first obtained yesterday by CTV News.
"Countless people donated money to support the election of a Liberal candidate in our riding. Some gave what little amounts they could afford to support the election of a Liberal MP," Mr. Curman said.
The local riding association transferred $96,755 to Mr. Emerson's campaign, he said.
"That money was spent to elect you as a Liberal, not as a Conservative," he reminded Mr. Emerson.
He said that Mr. Emerson can put the ideals of honour and integrity in politics -- that he spoke of often in the campaign -- into action by returning the money, resigning and running in a by-election.
"Let the voters have the opportunity to choose a Liberal to represent them as they did only two short weeks ago."
He said that Mr. Emerson benefited from countless hours spent on his campaign by 300 volunteers.
"Your actions have made their gifts of time meaningless."
One radio talk-show caller said he was almost speechless at what he called a "brazen display of anti-democratic behaviour.
"I mean, I've still got newspapers in my recycling box that have David Emerson slamming the Conservatives," he told CKNW host Bill Good.
Most Conservatives were furious last year when Belinda Stronach moved to the Liberals and took a cabinet job.
Saskatchewan Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott, who said Ms. Stronach was prostituting herself, described Mr. Emerson carefully yesterday.
"I understand the pragmatism of it," Mr. Vellacott said. "But to be honest, I feel a bit uneasy about it."
Alberta MP Myron Thompson also said Mr. Emerson's appointment caught him by surprise. "When I get back home, I'll probably get an earful."
Mr. Thompson said he still believes MPs who cross the floor should face their voters, but this is between Mr. Emerson and his constituents.
As to Mr. Fortier's appointment to the Senate, Mr. Thompson said, "The Prime Minister we have right now, I trust him so much, whatever he decides, I support him 100 per cent."
Several of the 39 Tories who supported the anti-switching bill, including Lynne Yelich, Ken Epp, Pierre Poilievre and Brian Jean, made it clear they did not want to discuss Mr. Emerson's move yesterday.
"You're not going to pin me down on that," Mr. Epp said.
Mr. Jean gave the comment that most of his colleagues were making.
"I think David's going to be a great addition to our team and we need somebody to represent Vancouver," he said.
Ontario Tory MP Helena Guergis was set to issue a press release yesterday morning reaffirming her support for the anti-crossing legislation.
However, Mr. Harper made her parliamentary secretary to Mr. Emerson yesterday afternoon, and the press release was not issued.
Journalists were allowed to cover Mr. Harper's opening remarks to the caucus meeting. He joked about the "power of appointment" and went on to welcome Mr. Emerson and Mr. Fortier to the caucus. "Their presence here is the sign of my determination to make sure we have the strongest national government possible."
Earlier, Mr. Fortier said he would not seek a seat in the House before the next general election even if there is a Montreal vacancy. "My job is to focus on Public Works."
Mr. Fortier also said it never occurred to him to run in the last election. "I didn't run in the election because I didn't want to run in the election. I had a great career, five young kids, and so it wasn't the right situation for me to run when the election came around. That's just the simple truth."
In the end, he said, he decided to take a cabinet post "because the Prime Minister phoned me and there was this gaping hole in the Montreal area."
The fact that the minister of Public Works is not a member of Parliament is not a perfect situation, Mr. Fortier said.