So, that's what a Conservative Party of Canada convention looks like.
You couldn't really be sure, before a couple thousand Tories assembled in Vancouver over the weekend for their first gathering since losing power last fall. Not when their party grew increasingly secretive through the Stephen Harper era, to the extent that the last time it held a national convention – in Calgary in 2013 – debates and discussions were held behind closed doors while journalists were essentially locked in a corner of the convention centre, as far from delegates as possible.
This time, over the objections of a few members of the old guard that had been around Mr. Harper, the Conservatives conquered their fears and put themselves on display. Nothing was off limits to those of us trying to understand what makes their party tick.
Afterward, they had to ask themselves: What had they been so afraid of?
This convention might have had more potential to embarrass them than previous ones. Following last year's election defeat, delegates felt emboldened to question the way their party is run, criticize people who had run it, and advocate for positions that had been deemed out of line with Mr. Harper's attempts to hold together a fragile national coalition of conservatives. The event's unofficial theme was moving on from the only elected leader the party has known, clearing the way for whoever proves his long-term successor, and that required awkwardly unloading some baggage.
As it turned out, doing that out in the open actually minimized potential controversies, by not playing into fevered imaginations about what happens when Conservatives meet behind closed doors – something demonstrated by how the convention's most emotional moment played out.
In a Friday afternoon postmortem session that turned into an airing of grievances about the Tories' dysfunctional 2015 campaign, a Muslim-Canadian woman named Urz Heer stepped to the microphone. In tears, she spoke of how upset she was by the way the party made all people of her faith feel like enemies during that election. "Not so!" came a cry from the audience near her.
Even if the doors had been closed, word of this exchange probably would have leaked out. And the story, as told to Canadians outside the room, might have been along the lines that one of the very few Muslim-Canadians in attendance had been shouted down as she tried to voice her concerns.
Instead, media saw that the heckling of Ms. Heer was isolated, most of the several hundred people in the room applauded when she was done, a few hugged her as she stepped away from the microphone and others approached her at the end of the meeting to tell her they appreciated her coming forward. It actually reflected quite well on the party's process of learning from its mistakes, which would have been hard to believe if it had been doing its best to prevent anyone from knowing it had happened.
There were other, smaller moments that similarly did not take on lives of their own because they could be viewed live and with perspective. A proposed constitutional amendment put forward by MP Scott Reid that would have allowed an interim party leader to seek that job on a longer-term basis, for instance, could have been portrayed as an attempted power play by Rona Ambrose, and its rejection as a sign of grassroots anger with her.
Instead, it was a virtual non-story because both in that room and in the halls outside it, Ms. Ambrose's staff and supporters made very clear it was an unwelcome initiative and credibly distanced themselves from it.
And when it came to housekeeping that the party is probably happy to have people know about, its overwhelming vote to formally end its opposition to same-sex marriage, having the doors open allowed observers to see the joy of Conservatives – gay or otherwise – who had long felt alienated by that policy.
But more than how it affected coverage of specific incidents, the openness itself might have been the story of this weekend, and one of the most important aspects of the Harper-era baggage dump.
Journalists have a tendency to overestimate how much people in the real world care about the level of access they are given. But in this case, the convention organizers – people who were very much Harper Conservatives – were unsubtly acknowledging they thought the secrecy had gone too far and caused their party problems.
Act like you have something to hide, and people will assume you do. Refuse to explain your motives, or provide context, and others will do it for you. Actively work to keep your caucus members and candidates and local activists away from the spotlight, and you'll miss the chance to have them tell their stories to the rest of the country – to highlight some of your more human and endearing qualities.
In a mind-bending role reversal, it was the Liberals, meeting concurrently for their national convention in Winnipeg, who now seemed to be flirting with furtiveness. Justin Trudeau's party is still much more accessible than the Tories were under Mr. Harper.
But by closing doors on discussions of strategy and their constitution – even as they pushed through moderately controversial changes to how their party is structured – the Liberals seemed to be suggesting it's easier to let it all hang out when you're not in government.
Maybe the Tories will start getting more clandestine again if they get another sniff of power and old inclinations toward hyper-discipline kick in. Or maybe they'll look back on the weekend as a reminder that they have less to be ashamed of than they used to think.