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MacKay cheers as bid to alter Tory leadership-selection rules falters

Defence Minister Peter MacKay speaks with reporters at the Conservative Party policy convention in Ottawa ib June 10, 2011.


Divisive proposals to give bigger riding associations in the ruling Conservative Party more clout in picking its leader have suffered an initial defeat at the Tory convention in Ottawa.

But the fractious question - which reveals fault lines in a party created just eight years ago by a marriage of Red Tories and right-wing ex-Reformers - will be revived again Saturday.

Proponents for change say they've gathered enough signatures to force a second vote on the matter among the broader gathering of more than 2,200 Conservatives at the convention.

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These MPs and party members want to move beyond the leadership selection process agreed to in the 2003 deal that brought the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance together, an arrangement that gave all ridings equal clout regardless of membership numbers.

On Friday, four proposals to diminish the power of smaller riding associations were voted down in workshops that vet which suggestions for changes to the Tory constitution or policy should go to a vote of the whole convention.

The dispute is as old as the Conservative Party and this battle resurfaces regularly because of lingering dissatisfaction with rules established at the party's inception that gave all ridings equal weight regardless of their membership size.

The 2003 agreement to create the Conservatives put populous Western Canadian riding associations - full of former Canadian Alliance supporters - on the same footing as those in Quebec or Atlantic Canada where membership numbers might be smaller.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay, an opponent of change and one of the two signatories to the Alliance-PC merger in 2003, cheered the Friday defeats.

He argued against reviving the question, saying those who want a new formula should consider how many times their efforts have been defeated.

It's the third convention where efforts to undo the founding formula have met opposition.

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"I really believe three strikes, you're out. It's time we focus on party policy, on governing, on turning our eyes away from things that divide us."

Those who want change have proposed moving to a one-member, one-vote system - while another group led by MP Scott Reid is proposing what it calls a compromise that ensures tiny riding associations aren't drowned out by big ones.

Mr. MacKay, the key Red Tory architect of the 2003 merger, warned earlier this week of dire consequence for the Conservatives should they change the rules.

In an e-mail sent to Conservatives June 8, the Atlantic Canadian MP cautioned a shift away from "equality of ridings" could be corrosive for the Tories and ultimately lead to their defeat.

"If the Conservative Party makes compromises on this important founding principle, it will be a slippery slope back to Opposition," Mr. MacKay wrote.

On Friday, Mr. MacKay made light of repeated efforts to change the rules.

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"It's a bit like Groundhog Day at these conventions - it keeps coming back," he said.

"But I think the party membership have spoken very clearly against a formula that works, a formula that wins."

Mr. MacKay said there's no reason to alter the rules, noting it elected Mr. Harper, who went on win a majority government on May 2.

He said proposals to change the system would hurt regions where riding membership sizes are smaller. "We don't want to see Quebec, Atlantic Canada, the territories or any rural ridings marginalized - which is what happens when you have unequal ridings."

Mr. Reid, an Ontario MP who was one of Mr. Harper's envoy in the 2003 merger talks, has argued forcefully for change. He says the agreement-in-principle that brought about the Conservative Party created what the deal called a "one-time process for leadership selection" that "need not be used for later leadership elections."

Mr. Reid and nearly 30 other Conservative caucus members, including Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Senator Doug Finley, are backing what they call a "balanced leadership" proposal for change.

This pitch would grant all ridings - even small ones - at least 100 points in the leadership selection process. Those with more than 100 members voting for leadership candidates would get more points, up to a maximum of 400.

Mr. MacKay said the idea that Mr. Reid's proposal is a compromise is false. He argued the compromise was the system set up in 2003 when the party is founded.

The Defence Minister sounded exasperated at repeated efforts to undo the original deal. "It's a bit like referendums in Quebec: How many times do we have do this?"

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