Skip to main content

The contrast, rather vivid, is being noted. Two years ago at the Conservative convention, the party's control freaks were out in full force. The media were kept in a bullpen, cut off from talking to delegates. It was freedom of speech, Stephen Harper-style.

But at the Conservative conference this past weekend, journalists had access everywhere. Meanwhile, the Liberals, in their conclave in Winnipeg, were barring the media from workshops on controversial issues.

The Conservatives, meeting in British Columbia, stressed the need to rid themselves of the bunker mentality. The turn was such that Kellie Leitch, a snitch-line advocate under Mr. Harper, was now calling on the party to be open, inclusive, respectful – "to look like the face of the country."

The term glasnost was even invoked to describe the new way. It was odd. The party had lost power, to a Trudeau Liberal no less. But the conference mood was almost festive. It was like the Conservatives were unchained. Vlad the Impaler was gone.

Mr. Harper made many advances on policy that Conservatives can surely appreciate. But the low-grade character of his governance will haunt his legacy. As this newspaper editorialized last week, the autocratic Mr. Harper "wasn't on a team, he was the team." He "let an authoritarian nature overwhelm his own principles." In the end, his democracy of one, his culture of bossism, contributed heavily to his defeat.

The party is now only under interim leadership. Any improvement in integrity has yet to be put to the test of time. But there are strong signals the Conservatives have learned.

While they have to end the culture of bossism, the Liberals' challenge is to prevent it from taking root. Going into their convention, there were indications of how they could be arrogant and all-controlling. There was Justin Trudeau's crossing the floor to manhandle opponents. There's been his persistent refusal to consider a referendum for something as important as changing the country's 150-year-old voting system. There's been heavy-handed debate-limitation tactics.

There have been other more positive signposts. At the convention, they brought in a new party constitution that allows anyone to become a member, free of charge. The party is no longer a club. Time will tell whether this change, as Mr. Trudeau insists, will make the party more democratic.

The Liberals have brought in measures to prevent the government from using taxpayer money for political advertising. With exceptions, they have been far more open than the Harper government. When he took power, Mr. Harper's office put in place a vetting system through "message event proposals" that centralized power to a degree unprecedented. The Liberals have scrapped that system.

An advantage to Mr. Trudeau's inexcusable "Elbowgate" outburst is that it should serve as a warning to him to keep imperial instincts – which we saw with his father's 1970s expansion of executive power – in check. He surely realizes that given the image he has cultivated, the taking on of trappings of an authoritarian leader would be disastrous.

The Liberals' new constitution broadens their tent. The Conservatives showed some desire to do the same by finally backing same-sex marriage and softening their stance on marijuana usage. But there will be no broadening, especially in Quebec, if they continue to take a standoffish position against would-be leadership candidates who speak little or no French. While winning two minorities in five electoral outings under Mr. Harper, the party won only one majority in those five campaigns. That should tell them they have to expand their pool of accessible voters.

In restoring Canadians' faith in politics the key for both parties is in the word respect. Respect for the people, for institutions, for minorities, for immigrants, for democracy. The trend in Europe is the other way – toward authoritarian-styled parties. The departing Barack Obama is a class act, but the trend in the United States has distressing similarities.

Thankfully here there is no such outlook. Here the outmoded bossist approach to politics is fading from favour.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe