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Cancelled convention a blessing in disguise for Harper & Co.

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper attends a news conference after a G8 summit at the Lough Erne golf resort in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland June 18, 2013.

REUTERS/Ben Stansall/Pool

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The cancellation of this week's Conservative policy convention in Calgary because of the flood is a quiet blessing for this troubled government.

Yes, there was a great deal riding on the event, especially Stephen Harper's Thursday speech. But in fact there was too much riding on that speech. The whole thing was best deferred.

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The convention was intended to be the first tranche of a fabled "reset" on the government's agenda, an exercise aimed at re-energizing the political base of the Conservative Party. These faithful followers are troubled by allegations of Senate sleaze, failing trade talks, rebellious backbenchers and the increasing absence of any clear governing agenda, much less a conservative one.

So yes, there is danger that the cancellation could reinforce the sense of drift and disillusion–another blow to a government that just can't seem to win for losing, these days.

But there is another way to look at it.

For one thing, this fabled "reset" has reached dangerous levels of expectations. The Gettysburg Address couldn't do the job that Mr. Harper's speech needed to do: turn the page on the scandals; silence the dissenters; show the way forward to the next election. It was almost bound to disappoint.

Besides, if the mood of the base is as bad as everyone says it is, then now is hardly the time to put 3,000 core supporters in one room and ply them with drinks. Things are bound to look better in September. They could hardly look worse.

Beyond that, with Parliament recessed and the convention cancelled, federal politics may disappear from the national agenda for a few weeks. That downtime could give the Conservatives a chance to monitor the public mood. Will the Senate expenses scandal start to fade from public consciousness during the summer doldrums? How permanent is the hit that the government has taken over the imbroglio?

Internal polling and reports from MPs in their constituencies will give the Conservative Party a sense of its standing among Canadians.

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Freed from daily damage control, the Prime Minister and his advisers will be able to spend the summer on concluding the negotiations over the free trade agreement with Europe, and nailing down the July cabinet shuffle.

If the trade talks fail, a major priority for the government will be accounting for that failure and limiting the political damage–though it will be severe, regardless. The shuffle will offer substantial, rather than merely rhetorical, evidence of Mr. Harper's governing intentions. Who goes where will tell us something about what happens next.

If the Conservatives are able to hold their convention in September–though that is by no means certain because of reconstruction and other demands on facilities–then that convention will act as a curtain raiser for the return of Parliament and a new throne speech. There are worse ways to reset an agenda.

In the meantime, the Alberta floods have everyone's attention. Co-ordinating the federal response to the disaster has been a major priority; putting together a relief package will be a major priority going forward.

But more than anything else, what the Conservatives need in the short term is quiet. The cancelled convention will offer that. Of all the things that have happened to them, lately, this is hardly the worst.

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