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Decision on how Tories will pick their next leader heading to open debate

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen at the Conservative convention in Ottawa, June 10, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand.

Stephen Harper’s future is secure within his party for the next few years at least, but Tories will decide today how they’ll pick the person who replaces him.

The debate is also exposing fault lines of a future power struggle between the most ambitious of the party’s politicians as well as some of the old cultural differences between former Progressive Conservatives and members of the Canadian Alliance.

The current formula to select a leader, a key condition of the deal that brought the Progressive Conservatives and Canadian Alliance together in 2003, treats all riding associations in the country equally.

But Ontario MP Scott Reid mounted a campaign to alter the party’s constitution to give bigger riding associations more weight in a leadership race.

Currently, each riding association is awarded 100 points in a leadership vote. Every party member casts a ballot, but it forms part of the percentage of points in each riding. Reid wants bigger ridings to get more points, up to 400.

Theoretically, a system that awards bigger ridings more weight would favour leadership candidates from Ontario and western Canada — Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, for example.

That spooks party members in Quebec, where the Conservatives have struggled for years to keep riding associations and the party’s grassroots alive.

“In certain regions, it’s very easy to find members for a party such as the Conservative party,” said former cabinet minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn.

“In other regions it’s not so easy to sell membership cards. In that context, you have to take that reality into account, and you shouldn’t devalue one riding versus another.”

Four resolutions connected to changing the system were handily defeated in the workshop votes on Friday, but that didn’t kill the idea.

Reid was able to gather enough signatures to have his resolution sent directly to the convention floor.

He’ll still have to get a double majority of votes: a majority of all delegates, and a majority of delegates from each of the provinces, and the three territories in a bloc.

Quebec Senator Pierre-Claude Nolin said he was preparing to speak to delegates Saturday and argue that Reid’s motion should not be allowed to make it to the convention floor.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay has been the standard bearer for the “equality” campaign and expressed frustration that Reid has brought up the debate at three successive conventions.

“I really believe that three strikes, you’re out,” MacKay told reporters.

“It’s time that we focus on party policy, on governing, on turning our eyes away from things that divide us and focusing on what we have now, which is a national, inclusive party that includes all regions, big cities, communities large and small. We don’t want to have a two-tiered party system.”

Delegates have been discussing the issue in corridors and closed door meetings throughout the Tories’ policy convention. Some wore buttons clearly declaring their support, others say they’re waiting to see what happens in Saturday’s debate.

Kenney said he would like to see a straight one-member, one-vote system like in the Canadian Alliance and Alberta Progressive Conservative parties, but recognizes there’s no consensus for going that far.

“I think what Scott’s trying to do here is craft a middle-ground, compromise position that people from different perspectives can settle on,” Kenney said.

“It respects both the principle that some ridings are going to be limited in how many members they can recruit, but it can also give them an incentive to sell memberships.”

MacKay disagrees.

“I would argue quite the opposite. I think it punishes ridings that are having difficulties, that are struggling to get members and tells them if you don’t — it’s a very condescending attitude — if you don’t get more members, you’ll be at the little table,” MacKay said.

MacKay, widely believed to be a future leadership contestant, would potentially be at a disadvantage with a base of support in Atlantic Canada, where ridings are smaller.