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Tories quarrel over leader election policy

Prime Minister Stephen Harper goes over documents with Defence Minister Peter MacKay in the House of Commons on Nov. 18, 2008.

Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press

They've won a third consecutive election victory and now control the first Conservative majority in 17 years, but Stephen Harper's Tories have still found something to quarrel about as they gather for a convention in Ottawa Thursday.

The dispute is as old as the Conservative Party and hints at the fault lines in an organization that was only formed in late 2003 when the Red Tories in the Progressive Conservatives put aside their differences to merge with the right wingers in the Canadian Alliance.

The battle is over how to pick a leader - not a burning question right now, but one that resurfaces regularly because of lingering dissatisfaction with rules established at the party's inception.

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Some MPs and party members are proposing to move beyond the leadership selection process agreed to in the 2003 deal that brought the PCs and the Canadian Alliance together: an arrangement that gave all ridings equal clout regardless of membership numbers.

The 7½-year-old agreement 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.

Proponents for change want a system for electing future leaders that rewards riding associations with higher numbers of active members by giving them more weight in picking the next party chief. Backers will be buttonholing delegates at the convention, which runs through Saturday.

Some want to move to a one-member, one-vote system - while another group is proposing what it calls a compromise that ensures tiny riding associations aren't drowned out by big ones.

Peter MacKay, Defence Minister and the key Red Tory architect of the 2003 merger, warned Wednesday of dire consequence for the Conservatives should they change the rules.

In an e-mail sent to Conservatives, 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.

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The Defence Minister said those agreeing to the merger never contemplated moving away from a system that treated all riding associations as equals.

"As one of only two signatories to the founding principles of our successful, national, unified Conservative party, I assure you there was no intention to change these principles."

Ontario MP Scott Reid disagrees. He notes 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, however, called compromising the principle of riding equality "nonsense," and discriminatory.

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"Let's not open up old divisions, let's not destroy a winning formula," he wrote.

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