How the Conservative campaign got it so spectacularly wrong

From the niqab to C-24 and the Ford brothers, the Conservatives couldn’t put a foot right

Conservative party leader Stephen Harper walks off the stage from Calgary, Alberta on Monday, October 19, 2015. Harper will resign as Leader of the Conservative Party after his government was defeated in the 2015 general election. (Photograph by Chris Bolin)

Conservative party leader Stephen Harper walks off the stage from Calgary, Alberta on Monday, October 19, 2015.  (Photograph by Chris Bolin)

The mood in Markham–Stouffville, a riding northeast of Toronto, began to change as summer turned to fall.

It was in late September that news broke of the federal government’s efforts, under new legislation, to strip the citizenship of two individuals convicted of terrorism offences—in one case, as first reported by Maclean’s, for a Canadian-born citizen. First-generation Canadians in the riding expressed concern. “They feared the implications of the policy,” says Paul Calandra, the incumbent Conservative candidate. “I would have people calling me and say, ‘What if my child is convicted of drunk driving? Does that mean they’re going to strip his or her citizenship and send the whole family back?’ And you’re like, ‘Well, no, absolutely not, how would you get that?’ And then you’d get to the extremes. ‘What if I’m convicted of terrorism, does that mean my whole family’s got to go back?’ Well, why would you be convicted of terrorism, right?”

The Liberals capitalized with mailouts into the riding. But it was not just that. Two weeks earlier, on Sept. 15, the Federal Court of Appeal in Ottawa ruled against the government’s attempt to ban the niqab during the citizenship oath. And it was on Oct. 2 that the Conservative party dispatched two cabinet ministers—Kellie Leitch and Chris Alexander—to promise the creation of a hotline for the reporting of “barbaric cultural practices.” Individually, Calandra says, those policies might not have amounted to much. But in the confluence, Calandra’s campaign began to lose support. “All coming at the same time just led to confusion and fear,” he says. “They were just very difficult policies to explain to people and it got us away from the economy.”

Calandra was subsequently defeated on Oct. 19.

Paul Calandra stands during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Friday, May 3, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

Paul Calandra stands during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Friday, May 3, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

In that regard, Calandra was hardly alone. After winning 166 seats in 2011, the Conservatives were reduced to 99 last week with the conclusion of the 2015 campaign. The losses included several cabinet ministers and the Prime Minister quietly resigned as leader. An interim leader for the diminished caucus will be chosen next week and a full leadership contest will follow. The lessons of the 2015 election will no doubt be explored and debated in that process, but the autopsy began almost immediately, including various reports of internal strife within the national campaign. The old adage has it that victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan, but in the case of the Conservative campaign of 2015, failure can be linked to many and varied sources, from a simple desire for change to the niqab to Rob Ford to Justin Trudeau to a relatively obscure amendment to citizenship law.

Winning even a plurality of the country’s 338 seats was probably always going to be a significant challenge for the Conservative party after nearly 10 years in office. As Kory Teneycke, the campaign’s official spokesman, is quick to point out, no party has won four consecutive mandates with the same leader since 1908 (when Wilfrid Laurier led the Liberals to a fourth majority). But a particular fatigue with Stephen Harper, never particularly loved by the electorate, seems to have taken hold.

“Fundamentally, the problem was this: after basically 10 years in office, people were tired. Some of it was just ordinary ‘time for a change’ and some of it was [that] people were unhappy and they directed that very personally at the Prime Minister,” says Brad Trost, a Conservative re-elected in Saskatchewan. The Conservatives had spent more than a decade building their leader’s brand—famously restyling the federal government as the “Harper government”—but that asset became a liability. “People weren’t considering the candidates. It was the much larger issue of how the campaign unfolded and the successful ability of the other parties, and in part the media, to demonize the leader,” says Steven Fletcher, defeated in his Winnipeg-area riding by 6,000 votes after winning it by 15,000 in 2011. Adds Trost, “To a certain degree, we built that brand and that brand, in the end, swallowed us.”

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The emergence of the niqab as an election issue was perhaps a fluke of the judicial calendar, but the Conservative campaign still seemed to embrace the debate, distracting from its core message of economic and personal security. “When you’re going after big game, don’t chase squirrels,” Fletcher says. Consider one anecdote: Shortly before Labour Day, Steve Shanahan, a Conservative candidate in Montreal, ordered some campaign posters. “There was a screw-up, they couldn’t get them to me until right before the election, so I said to the party, ‘Give me your most popular handout and we’ll send it out,’” Shanahan says. In response, he received 10,000 flyers championing the Stephen Harper government’s efforts to ban the niqab from citizenship ceremonies. For Shanahan, it made the party all the more difficult to sell in the downtown riding. “We as a group allowed [the niqab issue] to become a distraction. I think it was the right policy, but it wasn’t the policy. We had so much more that was interesting, but I think by the applause meter that we heard, we just kept talking about it,” he says.

    C-24, the bill that allows the federal government to revoke the Canadian citizenship of dual citizens if an an individual is convicted of treason or terrorism or takes up arms against Canada, was a similarly problematic issue, unexpectedly raising concerns for immigrants and their families. “Somehow we missed stuff, because I would have been 100 per cent behind it,” says Trost, “but for some reason people who should’ve understood that it wasn’t [directed] at them were a little bit insecure.”

    In the Montreal riding of Mount Royal, a Liberal stronghold long targeted by the Conservatives, it was hoped that the Conservative government’s pro-Israel bona fides would help rally Mount Royal’s sizable Jewish community, while a surging NDP would help cut into the Liberal party vote. “We certainly felt three weeks ago that we had it. Our numbers were very solid,” says Robert Libman, the Conservative candidate. Yet the situation began to change for Libman in early October as the campaign became incrementally more negative. “We could’ve been a little bit more positive in highlighting the positive aspects of the admin over 10 years,” he says. As well, support for the NDP began to slip as the anti-Harper vote began to coalesce behind the Liberal party and its Mount Royal candidate, Anthony Housefather. “The wave of Trudeaumania was starting to crystallize. We felt it. There’s no doubt about that.”

    Former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, centre, accompanied by wife Renata, left, leaves a campaign rally following a speech from Conservative Leader Stephen Harper in Toronto on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015. Harper hasn't directly addressed whether having Rob Ford's very public support - given his past and the party's anti-drug policies - is a contradiction for the Conservatives. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

    Former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, centre, accompanied by wife Renata, left, leaves a campaign rally following a speech from Conservative Leader Stephen Harper in Toronto on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

    In Toronto, the Prime Minister made two appearances in the company of the Ford brothers, Rob and Doug, but according to a national Innovative Research poll conducted shortly after the election, that did far more harm than good. Almost 10 times as many potential Conservative voters were less likely (49 per cent) than more likely (6.4 per cent) to vote Conservative because of Harper’s appearance with the Fords, who have practically become a worldwide monument to bad behaviour. “It’s hard to see a more self-destructive move by a campaign,” says Innovative Research owner Greg Lyle. This was a bigger turnoff for these voters than the trial of disgraced former Conservative Sen. Mike Duffy (30 per cent), the party’s negative ads (26 per cent) or its anti-niqab stance (23 per cent.)

    In the immediate wake of last week’s result, no less than Jason Kenney, perhaps the second-most significant figure in the Conservative party, suggested that the party needed a “sunnier” disposition and the style of the Harper era will no doubt be cause for reflection. “In previous elections,” says Fletcher, “we did a pretty good job of pointing out pride in our nation and all the great things that Canada is and can be and I think that is where we will go in the future, if we’re going to be successful. People are always looking forward. ‘Okay, thank you for the income-splitting, but what’s next?’ The future needs to be something to look forward to.”

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    That the Conservatives should come away from the 2015 election sounding as if they wished they were a bit more like Justin Trudeau—he of the “sunny ways”—is perhaps testament to the leader and the campaign that just bested them. Indeed, for all the effort put into questioning Trudeau’s credibility, it did not keep voters from turning to him. “People were not scared of Trudeau,” Trost says. “We would have loved to have them scared of Trudeau, but people weren’t. That’s just the reality.” A desire for change thus found an acceptable outlet.

    When Calandra was re-elected in 2011, his margin of victory over the second-place Liberal candidate was nearly 21,000 votes. But that election was a historic low point for the Liberal party (and a historic high point for the NDP). Four years later, Calandra won 43 per cent of the vote, but lost the redrawn riding by 4,000 votes, part of a Liberal sweep that remarkably took all but two ridings in and around Toronto. Asked to reflect on his defeat, Calandra was quick at the outset to credit the victors. “I don’t think it’s as much what went wrong with our campaign as much as how good was the Liberal campaign,” Calandra says. “I think it was one of the best campaigns I’ve ever seen.”

    Suffice it to say, the Conservative campaign of 2015 will not be remembered as such.

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