National Affairs Column: House of Harper needs infusion of fresh voices

by Tim Harper – Toronto Star

The problems inside Stephen Harper’s campaign are real and they are deep.

They stem as much from the team around him in 2015 as the ghosts of architects of victories past who are no longer there for the Conservative leader.

Whether campaign manager Jenni Byrne was yanked off Harper’s bus is in dispute but may not be relevant because it is clear she is the target of internal grumbling, something that will grow only louder if there are not near-immediate signs that Harper is righting a floundering campaign.

The most common complaint is that Byrne has surrounded herself with a lean team of like-minded zealots, all cut from the same cloth, certain their way is the right way, unwilling to change course.

As one Conservative put it Thursday, “They’re all drinking their own bath water.”

Byrne, Harper’s chief of staff Ray Novak and his communications director Kory Teneycke all cut their teeth as young Reformers, enthusiastic kids riding the buses and spreading the gospel in the late 1990s.

Byrne has also brought aboard Lynette Corbett, a friend and former chief of staff to one-time Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak.

They and others on the team are all loyal to Byrne, but others say they lack the depth and mentoring that has been evident on previous Conservative campaign teams. There is an overreliance on pleasing the red-meat base that Byrne heartily embraces.

Gone are the voices that would bring different perspectives to a campaign team, whether it was belling Harper on an approach that was not working or reaching outside the campaign bubble and bringing a dose of reality to the effort.

There is debate within the party how much of a role Doug Finley (as opposed to Byrne) played in the 2011 campaign, but he was a Harper confidant and trusted adviser and the man who built the foundation for the Harper majority. He died in 2013.

Gone, too, from the war room of 2011 is Nigel Wright, who insiders credit for his strong voice, policy work and ability to keep a level head when things went sideways. In 2015, Wright’s testimony at the Mike Duffy trial knocked Harper badly off message and was the first sign this campaign was wobbling.

Others who were instrumental in Harper victories – not household names, but skilled political practitioners – are long gone, including Patrick Muttart (the author of the 2011 Michael Ignatieff “Just Visiting” campaign), Mark Spiro, Chad Rogers and former communications specialists Jason Lietaer and Andrew MacDougall.

Then there are the disappearing ministers.

In losing James Moore, John Baird and Peter MacKay, Harper lost anchors on the West Coast, central Canada and the East Coast, and although all three men are doing some campaigning, you cannot carry the same weight when your name is not on the ballot.

The loss of MacKay had a ripple effect. The Conservative party’s former director of political operations, Fred DeLorey, is trying to keep Central Nova for the Conservatives.

In losing the late Jim Flaherty, Harper is without an experienced economic voice during a campaign in which the economy is again central.

This campaign has been hurt by what one source called “clunky messaging.” Another suggested there was no excuse for the party to have been so ill-prepared to deal with the Wright testimony after having two years to prepare for that.

It has also been hurt by supporters heckling journalists – including one who likened the tragic death of 3-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi to Canadian kids drowning in swimming pools – because it plays to the perception of the Conservative base as the home of angry, old white guys.

The campaign, in fact, sounds like the remnants of the Reform base that spawned Byrne, a voting bloc that seemed eternally angry about everything.

Harper will stay with Byrne. Part of that is faith. Part of that is the political price to be paid for switching managers midstream.

There are signs that movement is afoot inside the campaign and a Byrne-led pivot may be at hand.

Harper hinted broadly Thursday that he would soon have more to say about expediting refugee claims and his campaign said they had speeded the process at an application centre in Winnipeg.

The Conservatives picked up a couple of points in overnight polling. The death rattle is not there yet because there is still time, but there is something ironic about the party that purposely lengthened the campaign talking about how the usual 37-day period is just beginning.

This has always been a campaign about change. Yet, the Conservative inability to change tactics is merely reinforcing that campaign narrative.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Twitter:@nutgraf1

Copyright: 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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