National Column: Conservative backroom suffered from myopia

by Chantel Hebert

On a week that marks the passing of Justin Trudeau’s 100th day in power, key Conservative and NDP insiders have been delivering some preliminary conclusions as to the causes of their October defeats.

Their findings are strikingly interchangeable – with the popular momentum for change somewhat conveniently fingered as a root cause of electoral failure.

In an op-ed piece published on Monday in the Globe and Mail, former Conservative campaign manager Jenni Byrne states: “The Liberals won because Canadians had an overwhelming desire for change, the extent to which wasn’t fully appreciated until after the campaign had started.”

In a memo summarizing the party’s campaign review to date, NDP president Rebecca Blaikie reports:

“Our campaign presented us as cautious change, which was out of sync with Canadians’ desire for a dramatic break from the decade of Harper’s rule, a desire we contributed to building.”

Those who have kept their ear to the opposition ground since the election will find the refrain familiar.

On the right, as on the left, there is no lack of party loyalists looking for solace in the notion that, in four years, the appeal of Trudeau’s change agenda will have faded, with the pendulum swinging back their way.

Indeed, Byrne does not exclude the possibility that her party could be back in power as early as 2019.

Over on the NDP side, Thomas Mulcair is counting on his prime ministerial gravitas to see him through a leadership review this year.

Fatigue with the ruling Liberals will eventually set in, although history suggests that could take more than a single mandate. But meanwhile, the Conservatives and the New Democrats, as they look back on their failed campaigns, should take care not to miss the forest for the trees.

I will come back in a future column to the NDP’s contention that it offered “cautious change,” but first, the myopic inside view from the Conservative backroom.

How is it possible that the party brain trust underestimated the potential force of the tide for change? It was a current running through public opinion polls for most of the life of the last Parliament.

Harper was seeking to win a fourth consecutive mandate, a feat for which there was no modern precedent at the federal level.

In provinces such as Ontario, British Columbia and Manitoba, the incumbent parties that had recently beaten the odds and stayed in power beyond a third mandate had all changed leaders along the way.

Not only was Harper staying put for a fifth campaign, there was no compensatory injection of new blood in his team. On the contrary, there was a pre-election bloodletting of government talent.

Byrne credits a strong ground game for the party raking in almost as many votes (5.6 million) in October as at the time of its 2011 majority victory (5.8 million).

But almost three million new or lapsed voters turned out in October, with the Conservatives ending up with a smaller share of an expanded election pie. Together the Reform/Alliance and the Progressive
Conservative parties lost to Jean ChrÈtien in 1993, 1997 and 2000 with a larger percentage of the vote than the unified party Harper led to defeat against Trudeau last fall.

The Liberals campaigned to the left of the NDP under a leader with none of the business or political credentials that had made Paul Martin and ChrÈtien appealing to many soft conservatives. It would be presumptuous for the Conservatives to assume the 2015 contingent of new voters is made up of people who lean to the right.

Byrne also asserts her party shot itself in the foot by tripping the NDP with the niqab issue in Quebec. (She makes it clear it was not her idea.) To win, she contends, Harper needed the NDP to do better.

Fair enough, but isn’t the absolute dependency of the Conservatives on a favourable Liberal/NDP split to win an admission that the party has been and is content to fail to thrive on its own policy merits with as much as two-thirds of the electorate? If that were the case, the Conservatives would – absurdly enough – have a bigger stake in a successful recast of the NDP than in their own post-election makeover.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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