Can we all agree right off the bat that this year’s Manning Networking Conference was weird? Not necessarily weird in a bad way, but weird in that way James Moore stares into your soul when he’s not wearing his glasses.
On paper, the conference was a gathering of top Canadian Conservatives, lobbyists, businessmen, staffers, and politicians uniting under one roof to engage in a collective pondering of the future of conservatism in Canada.
The delightfully vague theme was “Next Steps”, and it was under this banner that Conservative elder statesmen Preston Manning ambled onto the stage and mumbled something about the environment, municipal politics, and how the Fair Elections Act should be amended. He wrapped up his incoherent and disconnected oratory for an exit met with weak smiles and half-hearted cheers.
With that, the cerebral conclave was truly off and running!
Patrons gathered for shrimp and cocktails while they exchanged worried glances. Hushed conversations ensued about where exactly these alleged ‘next steps’ were leading, how many steps there were, and whether or not this dubious ascent was PMO approved.
With the weight of these questions hanging thick in the air, aspiring Harper successors awkwardly offered up their advice in what resembled an episode of Canada’s Next Top Conservative. Brad Wall strutted his stuff on foreign policy, Jim Prentice flashed his responsible pipeline development smile, and Jason Kenney, presumably beleaguered by Canada Job Grant negotiations, lazily backed income splitting in what was a slightly underwhelming display of pomp and pageantry.
As delegates ogled potential leadership hopefuls, a gentle breeze of dissent towards the Conservative establishment seemed to fill the air.
In what was slated to be a gentleman’s disagreement on policy, Michael Chong debated the Reform Act with Jay Hill, a former Conservative Whip. It all went pear shaped, however, when they ended up accidentally agreeing with each other on disagreeing with the government. Oops.
Meanwhile, down the hall, Hill reporters had a round table on media access (or lack thereof) in Ottawa, which contrasted the pen/cage/pit/naughty corner that was graciously demarcated for them at the Conservative Party convention in November. To nods of approval and murmurs of agreement, Bob Fife balked at the unprecedented level of information control the government had over the media, and the tense relationship between the two. A measured discontent appeared to be the temperature of day.
It was all a bit strange.
For those weary of all the step climbing, backslapping talk of fiscal prudence and quiet grumbling by the base, there was still some comic relief to be had. By that, I mean you could literally make your own comic starring Octopus debt monsters, horse riding liberals, and ogre-like Duffy creatures.
In the end, when the sumptuous conservative splendor subsided, throngs of conference goers aimlessly wandered away into the cold Ottawa night, no doubt off to do a variety of, you know, conservative next-steppy things.
The only question left unanswered from the whole affair was, “What the heck just happened?”