After Getting Whipped by Trudeau, Canada’s Conservative Party Is Soul Searching

James Moore, a one-time leadership contender who announced that he didn’t intend to seek re-election, says the Conservatives need to “stare down the image that we’re a pretty aggressive party.”
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA
October 29, 2015, 8:35pm
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

As Canada prepares for its first new leader in a decade, the Conservative Party is trying to pick up the pieces and figure out how to counter the popularity of prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau.

The Conservatives, led by Stephen Harper, only garnered about 250,000 fewer votes in 2015 than it did five years prior. Still, it lost 60 seats across the country; knocking off ministers, rising stars, and stalwarts of the conservative movement in the country.

The loss could have been worse, but it was still devastating for a party that was, just a week before election day, projected to cling to government. Still, sources within the party who spoke to VICE News say the party needs to face some hard facts, and begin the process of rebuilding.

Anatomy of a Loss

Nearly three million more Canadians voted in this election than in the one held in 2011. It appears as though the vast majority of those votes went for Trudeau.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, are — much like their Republican cousins in the United States — facing a demographics problem.

James Moore, a one-time leadership contender who announced that he didn't intend to seek re-election, told VICE News that the Conservatives need to "stare down the image that we're a pretty aggressive party."

Many believe the Conservatives' campaign offensive on cultural wedges — like banning the niqab at citizenship ceremonies, or their promise to set up a "barbaric cultural practices" hotline — hurt the prime minister's chances, although by how much is unclear.

"When we're a party that is negative, or is seen as the angry party, we lose," said Moore. "Perhaps the niqab and other issues played into that." He believes the party needs to focus on becoming a "big tent" again, and get ready to do battle with Trudeau's Liberals on their plans to legalize pot and to repeal parts of the country's anti-terrorism laws.

Ultimately, he summed up the Conservatives' loss pretty simply: "I think the ballot question crystallized to change." He added that, tactically, there was little for the party to do.

Other Conservatives echoed the sentiment. Senior cabinet ministers like Jason Kenney, who remains minister of national defense until his Liberal successor is chosen, called for his party to become "sunnier and more optimistic." British Columbia Member of Parliament Dan Albas said the party needs to be "a positive option." Erin O'Toole, the veterans affairs minister who is vying to be interim leader of the party, told media that the party needs to show it has a "new approach."

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But the demographics problem should trouble the Conservative leadership. The party's fabled ability to reach and mobilize cultural and ethnic communities — especially Canada's sizeable Sikh and Chinese communities — appeared to fall apart in certain areas of the country. In some heavily ethnic ridings, the Conservative vote collapsed by as many as 5,000 votes.

That, coupled with the party's poor performance with youth and females, spelled disaster.

A poll published a day before the election by Forum Research, and released to VICE News, showed that, amongst 18 to 34 year-olds, the Conservatives polled a dismal 24 percent (15 percent behind Trudeau), 28 percent with women (11 percent behind the Liberals), and garnered the support of just 20 percent of native French-speakers (putting them in fourth place.)

But while many in the party are talking about how to rebuild, other staffers and strategists began pointing fingers, a notable break for a party that has long been notorious for its tight message control.

Infighting

In interviews with the Canadian Press, several anonymous Conservatives laid the blame squarely at the feet of campaign manager and longtime Harper aide Jenni Byrne, accusing her of fumbling the campaign, failing to effectively counter Trudeau's rise, and surrounding herself with "sycophants, interns and family members."

But two staffers who spoke with VICE News said simply that the urge for change was strong, and the party didn't know how to counter it.

The sniping at Byrne, say staff, comes from the upper-level boy's club who were not working directly on the campaign.

One war-room staffer, who had also worked under Byrne in the 2011 campaign, said Byrne's hands-on style might've rubbed some the wrong way, but was generally popular inside the campaign. Another campaign staffer said she found the central campaign to be responsive and effective.

That long-time Conservative and former Parliament Hill staffer, who worked on a local campaign this time around, told VICE News that their re-election bid faced two hurdles: "one was the collapse of the NDP, and one was that our campaign was flat."

Targeting the NDP may be the largest regret for the party. While early polls put the left-wing party in front, their star quickly faded as the campaign hit the halfway mark and ended up propelling the Liberals to victory throughout Quebec. The Conservatives are likely to blame for that, thanks to aggressive ads targeting NDP leader Thomas Mulcair.

The decision to target the NDP, said the war-room staffer, came from Guy Giorno, the campaign chairman. Byrne was offside, telling staff: "the NDP is not our opposition."

The Bloc Quebecois and Liberals also can take responsibility for slicing into Mulcair's popularity in the province.

The local campaign staffer told VICE News that the national campaign "wasn't horrible or bad. But it was flat." She says the longer-than-usual campaign — 78 days, which is roughly twice as long as a regular writ period — exacerbated that problem.

She adds that hanging the albatross around Byrne's neck is ultimately a case of misdirected blame.

"If we want to be mad at somebody, we've got lots of other somebodies," she says.

Ultimately, she says, the campaign failed to offer the goods that captured Canadians imagination.

New Blood

This bout of the blame game marks the last days of the Tory era — most departing staffers will walk out with sizeable severance cheques at the end of this week, while those remaining will be tasked with preparing the party for a December return to the House of Commons.

But first on the agenda is selecting an interim leader.

That decision will be made on Nov. 5, a day after Trudeau swears in his cabinet. The party will meet to hash out their loss, elect an interim head, and decide on rules on how to select their new leader.

The question mark over the meeting will be if the party's unelected senators get a vote.

The confusion arises because of a piece of legislation — dubbed 'the Reform Act' — introduced by a Conservative backbencher and adopted earlier this year.

Under the Conservative constitution, both MPs and senators are given a vote for the leader. But the Reform Act changed the rules, forbidding senators from voting for a party leader. The Conservative Senate leadership balked at that idea, insisting that its 47 senators should be allowed to cast their ballot.

For the Reform Act to come into effect, however, a majority of the caucus — not including senators — needs to vote for its application. That sets up an awkward fight.

Currently, the Conservatives will have to choose between Rob Nicholson, who has served as minister of justice, defense, and foreign affairs; Diane Finley, a long-time partisan who managed the improbable task of running the government's procurement office without major scandal; Erin O'Toole, who readily took over as the minister of veteran's affairs after his embattled predecessor was shuffled out; and Candice Bergen, a popular minister and an effective communicator.

The wildcard in the race is Michelle Rempel, the brash minister in charge of Western economic development projects who hinted at her intention to put her hat in the ring for some sort of leadership job.

Next's week choice will set the table for the longer leadership race where Harper's formal successor will be chosen.

The rules are relatively simple: each of Canada's 338 ridings receive 100 points. Those points are allocated proportionally based on how the members of that riding vote.

While no candidate has formally declared their intention, the two front-runners are thought to be Kenney, the socially conservative minister of national defence; and Lisa Raitt, the moderate and capable minister who has held various roles in the Harper government.

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Kenney has spent years preparing for his run, hosting events and transferring money to local campaigns and Conservative riding associations. He may however, been seen as too similar to Harper — a problem Raitt doesn't have. While a knock against Raitt's run has long been her lack of French skills, she began taking French classes more than a year ago in preparation of an eventual run.

Maxime Bernier, one of the only Conservatives from Quebec and a low-tier minister in the Harper government, is said to be putting a campaign together. Bernier is known as a loose cannon — a libertarian maverick who almost ended his political career after leaving secret documents with his Hells Angels-linked girlfriend.

"I would place my last nickel on him being interested. More than interested," said one organizer. "You can take that to the bank."

Kellie Leitch, minister of labour, is also eyeing a run. One source said she is aggressively pursuing organizers and donors already, another confirmed noted that she was "very active" travelling the country during the campaign, possibly sowing the seeds for her leadership bid.

Employment Minister Pierre Poilievre is also said to be eyeing a run at the top job. At 36, Poilievre is one of the younger members of the party who has rapidly rose through the ranks of the party. Alongside Rempel, they represent a new wave of conservatism that will be vying to unseat the representatives of the old guard — and may be seen as an effective way to improve the party's reputation amongst youth.

Rona Ambrose, who has served in a slew of ministerial roles, and Michael Chong, author of the Reform Act, are also said to be organizing.

A cast of other characters, including popular figures like John Baird, Peter MacKay, and James Moore — all considered moderate elements within the party who have all left politics in the last year — have ruled out runs.

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @justin_ling