Thursday, November 13, 2008

Sore Thumb Chronicles, Day One

Fear and loathing in Winnipeg

I got down to the Winnipeg Convention Centre in plenty of time: registration didn't officially begin until noon. It was easy to find, because the immediate area was chock-a-block with police. Inside the Centre, why, more police, and numerous yellow-shirted security folks as well.

My credentials were hard to locate at first, but
a kindly official whom everyone seemed to recognize led me past a security checkpoint to a media table. They were waiting for me (the credentials, not the police), and off I went to the media room, after paying a stiff price for wi-fi.

Three more uniforms passed by. I asked the nice woman at the door if this level of security was usual. Oh yes, she said. We have RCMP and city police here. And dogs.

> Why. Are you expecting trouble?

> No, it's just to be secure.

> Have there been problems in the past?


Around two o'clock or so, I got a mite peckish. The nice woman at the door told me to "go through those curtains." Security stopped me. No access to media. I explained to one of them what a "blogger" was. I was directed down the hall and to an elevator, after being assured that a cafeteria here at the Centre would serve the hunk of meat that I suddenly wanted.

I took the elevator, sharing it with two curly-wire-to-earpiece types in suits, to the ground floor. I walked down long corridors and found myself at the escalators. More security bore down on me.

> Where are you going?

> I'm hungry.

> Sorry, the cafeteria is off-limits to the media.

Meanwhile, delegates wandered around with their little white plastic suitcases, convention kits like I have never seen before--I'm used to those burlap bag thingies
. Two of them introduced themselves to me as I drank a beer at the Elephant and Castle across the street.

The holding pen

3:35: The curtain to the second floor across from the media room is still made of iron, it seems.

> We've been told to let no media through.

> What's there?

> To tell you the truth, I don't know.

But the nice woman at the desk tells me that she's sorted things out with the head of security, and tomorrow we can access the cafeteria.

The mood in the media room is sombre. I heard one fellow refer to "Siberian exile."

Jim Flaherty emerged to talk to the media in our little ghetto. Tough economic times, he said, and we haven't bottomed out. The sale of Crown assets came up, and he joked about selling off the CN Tower. What about the CBC? No intention of touching that, he said--the cost to the taxpayer is $1 billion or so, but it's "part of Canada's fiscal framework." What about the AECL? He left without answering. So is there a suggestion behind all of this that public assets are on the table? The media folks near me were speculating in the affirmative.

Around 4:30 or so I heard that the media could move to the third floor by way of the North-West elevator. Up I went. There was the convention hall, nearly deserted. I took a seat near the podium and listened to Stephen "Jap Bastards" Fletcher, our new Minister of State for Democratic Reform, rehearse his speech.
He's sprouted a truly magnificent beard. Everyone will be asked to wear red tomorrow to support our troops, he said, even if that hue is associated with the Liberals.

"It's time to take the colour back," he said, " since the Liberals have done nothing for our brave men and women in uniform."

That ought to be a crowd-pleaser, I thought, whatever the heck he meant by it.

Just then Ryan Sparrow caught sight of me, and came over to suggest that I "go get a bite to eat and come back at 6:30." I can take a hint, and returned to the pen.

Let's get this party started

I sat among the delegates, waiting for the opening ceremonies. I watched endless slides on the big screens at the font of the room: Harper hugging a child, Harper pushing a baby carriage, Harper at the piano, Harper plucking a cello, Harper with his family. Only one shot left him out--four attractive girls wearing T-shirts reading "I've got a crush on Harper." Now, that's really pushing it.

I wondered if the delegates were being given a message--kinder and gentler is in. A pretty good tape was playing, too: "Taking Care of Business," "Crabbuckit":

No time to get down cause I'm moving up
No time to get down cause I'm moving up
No time to get down cause I'm moving up
Ahh, haa... check out the crabs in the bucket

The crowd was fairly ordinary, and white for the most part, and dressed in everything from pinstripes to shirtsleeves. I was the only one wearing a Stetson--are you supposed to take it off indoors or something? About half an hour late, the festivities began.

We watched two acrobats climbing giant tassels, and then we listened to an spectacularly awful song by some girls in blue that appeared to be an example of the new Christian music that the fundies love--something about "You will never take away my name," followed by endless Hallelujahs.

The first speaker opined that there is "Nothing finer than a roomful of Conservatives." Personally, I disagree with that statement. I'll avoid coming up with counterexamples, but reader comments are welcome. Then: "four beautiful words--Prime Minister Stephen Harper."

The mayor of Winnipeg welcomed everyone, and some MP on-stage told us that the mayor had booked Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones into Winnipeg back in his entrepreneur days--"just warm-up acts for Stephen Harper," he had the colossal crust to say, and then, "he plays a mean piano." Careful with that axe, Eugene.

Fletcher appeared, and laboured through his speech, and the crowd surely did love the reference to taking back the colour red, and chuckled appreciatively at the dig about the Liberals.

This was followed by "our secret weapon," Laureen Harper, who performed competently, assuring us that Stephen is a really nice guy. Meanwhile people in the audience waved signs reading "Real Plan," and "Un Vrai Plan." I have no idea what they were on about. Someone had a sign that said "Harper Rocks." I thought that was pushing it, too.

Then the Headman arrived, and made his way to the stage while people chanted, "Harper, Harper, Harper...." On the stage, his hair was gray, but on the screens it somehow was made to look brown. He performed well, led the crowd through the ascendency of the party from those dark days in the wilderness, and talked about how inclusive the party
, now "Canada's party," had become: a party that had the first Black MP, the first Muslim MP, the first Hindu MP, the first Chinese MP, the first Japanese MP....

Again, that message of moderation to the base, although some dogwhistles were blown: "register sex criminals, not the property of farmers and duck-hunters," he said, to thunderous applause. The Conservative Party supports childcare, he said,
"not to replace the family but to support the family." That got one of the loudest cheers of the evening.

And, at the end, he underlined what had been his underlying message all along: we need to be tough and pragmatic, he said, not ideological.

Tomorrow, the debates on policy resolutions. We'll see just how well Harper's message of moderation went down.

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