Wells' good question
Paul Wells discusses the Conservatives' resolution P-90, stating plainly that Conservative MPs will have free* votes on everything except budget matters. (*I take this to mean "no expulsion for voting the wrong way"; they will certainly still be whipped etc., I'm thinking of the U.S. House & Senate model.)
Paul's leading question: How immune will this position be to the kind of attack that was the centrepiece of last year's Liberal campaign?
I wrote about this on July 2, 2004 - 4 days after the last election. Here's the relevant graf:
The CPC, for the unknown duration of this minority government, has a tremendous opportunity to lead by example and get their message out. Jack Layton accused Stephen Harper in the debates of “hiding behind free votes in Parliament”. This statement is an obnoxious oxymoron, but no wonder it strikes a chord with many Canadians – we’re totally unfamiliar with the concept! We are so used to MPs unflinchingly voting the party line that the alternative seems radical. Stephen Harper should move to normalize it, unilaterally, and declare that CPC MPs are free to vote as they wish on every bill, without fear of expulsion. The first few times selected MPs vote against Harper (i.e. with the Liberals), the media will cite it as evidence of internal divisions in the party. But eventually, it will be known as the way the CPC does business, and Canadians should expect the same when they are in government. It may even shame the other parties into imitation. If this happens, the result is a more democratic federal government, with the added bonus of dispelling any perception that individual MPs’ views are something beyond what they are – 1/308th of Parliament’s decision-making apparatus.
Here's my direct answer to the question:
The CPC adopting P-90 at their convention doesn't really help them in and of itself, but living it could help them tremendously - and it's really the only thing that can.
Say Cheryl Gallant has an interview with her church newsletter, and says something like, oh, supporters of SSM will burn in the fires of hell. Every hack in the Ottawa bureau runs to Stephen Harper for reaction. If P-90 passes, and Harper is committed to it, he says something like:
"That's not the view of the majority of our caucus, but we are a big tent. Like the other parties, we have different members who have different beliefs on a variety of issues. Unlike the other parties, we don't pretend otherwise.
If the CPC members in Cheryl's riding are unhappy with the way she is performing, they are free to nominate someone else prior to the next election. If the voters in Cheryl's riding are unhappy with the way she is performing, they are free to elect someone else. Democracy is a wonderful thing.
There are 308 MPs in Parliament. Give the views of one of them exactly as much weight as you think they're owed."
This answer would be repeated essentially verbatim every time someone connected with the Conservatives says something offensive/divisive/weird.
You are free to accuse me of hopeless naivete, but here's what I think is naive: hoping you can run a pre-election and election campaign without a single one of your candidates or hacks saying something potentially offensive, all the while assuring everyone that you don't have a hidden agenda. There's an expression referring to a plan that will only work at all if it's executed absolutely perfectly by hundreds of people for several months - "a bad plan".
"Republican senators still think the key to their success is making sure they are purer than Caesar's wife so that the mainstream media can't possibly attack them. That's never worked before, so let's try it again!"*