Prime Minister Stephen Harper pauses for a moment as he listens to the closing ceremonies of the Conservative Convention in Calgary on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013. Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press
Conservative delegates left Calgary with their trust and pride in Prime Minister Stephen Harper intact, despite polling numbers that suggest many Canadians aren't satisfied with his response to the Senate scandal.
After nearly a year of controversy over spending by senators Harper named, and bombshell allegations about the involvement of staff in his office in the weeks leading up to the convention, Harper was expected to face more criticism by the party's grassroots.
Instead, delegates stood by the prime minister, praising his and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's devotion to creating the conditions that have kept the economy strong.
Recent polls all suggest the party trails the federal Liberals. A Nanos Research poll released Friday show 76 per cent of Canadians aren't satisfied with the prime minister's explanation of how little he knew of the scandal. The same poll showed Harper's credibility hovers around the same level as Senator Mike Duffy, who Conservatives are emphatic must be expelled from the Senate over housing expense claims he filed for his Ottawa home.
Delegates say they trust the prime minister and that the media is blowing the situation out of proportion. They argue Duffy's $90,000 in questionable expenses were repaid, which is better than the Liberal Party did during the sponsorship scandal of 10 years ago.
They also argue that Nigel Wright, Harper's former chief of staff who wrote the cheque that covered Duffy's expenses, was concerned about taxpayers when he offered the money. That Duffy didn't have to repay the money out of his own pocket is beside the point, some said, because in the end it didn't cost Canadians.
Two other senators named by Harper, Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin, as well as former senator Mac Harb, who was named by the Liberals, are under investigation by the RCMP for their expense claims.
'Nothing to see here'
Matt Altheim, a delegate from Edmonton, called Harper "squeaky clean."
"We have one staffer wanting to pay back the public purse $90,000.... a staffer decided to do that," he said.
"I think it's an issue to be aware of and to be concerned [about] ... but I think people here, the issues for them are good governance, the economy and some of the crime legislation that's coming forward. The things that are going to change this country," Altheim said.
Conservative MP Brad Trost says the hardcore party activists know Harper and trust him more than Canadians who only see him on television.
"If you know Stephen, you know he has totally no sympathy for anyone who steals a penny. And honesty with fiscal matters is one of his underlying values... so people trust him completely when he talks about anything like that," Trost said in an interview with CBC News.
Asked whether the party is underestimating the impact the scandal is having on people outside the convention hall, he said he doesn't think so.
"I don't think we're done communicating on this one. I think we as party members, we as caucus members, I think the prime minister wants to know more, what in the world was going on with these people and their expenses."
Jim Armour, a former director of communications to Harper, said Conservative convention delegates have their eyes wide open about the potential consequence to the party of a long-running spending scandal — although they may not share those concerns when approached by journalists.
"When they're speaking to you, they're going to be putting on their best face, 'Sure, there's nothing to see here,' " Armour said.
"I think the delegates, they know what the score is and they know the potential political damage of what's been going on in the Senate. They're fully aware of it, but they're going to fight through."
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