Dimitri Soudas and the PM’s future

Paul Wells on the work awaiting the new executive director of the Conservative Party
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Director of Communications Dimitri Soudas answers questions in Riviere du Loup, Quebec on April 20, 2011. Soudas’s impromptu scrum at 12:30 a.m. Thursday morning, April 21, 2011, was sparked by reports that quoted a Conservative Saskatchewan backbencher bragging in a weekend speech that International Planned Parenthood Federation had its funding blocked because it supported abortion. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Plus ça change

OTTAWA – Jean Chretien, the Prime Minister, sent yet another signal yesterday that he intends to lead the Liberals into the next election by announcing the formation of the party’s campaign committee.

Mr. Chretien had been expected to announce the committee on Friday, at the party’s biennial convention, but did so yesterday instead, a day after three Liberal backbenchers said their constituents want him to retire before the next election….

The electoral team will be co-chaired by David Smith, a prominent Ontario Liberal organizer, and Claudette Bradshaw, the Labour Minister who represents the New Brunswick riding of Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe.

John Rae, a senior executive of Montreal-based Power Corp. and one of the prime minister’s closest friends, will act as the national co-ordinator, while Gordon Ashworth, a former chief of staff to David Peterson, the former Ontario premier, will direct the campaign.

— National Post, Wednesday, March 15, 2000

Welcome back, then, to Dimitri Soudas, who guided the communications for Canada’s Olympic effort almost all the way to the Olympics, then announced he was launching his own PR firm — a day before the PMO announced his appointment as Conservative Party executive director.

Just as in 2000, one gets the impression that things have been hurried a bit, and for the same reason: unhelpful speculation about the leader’s longevity.

The simple fact that Soudas’s appointment was publicly announced (by the PM’s spox Jason MacDonald on Twitter) is a novelty: if you don’t know whom Soudas is replacing, you’re hardly alone. The answer is Dan Hilton, sort of: Hilton, who had been executive director of the party since 2009, was sent home with love in October, after a new election-readiness database called C-Vote imploded under the weight of its own, uh, cumbersome-osity. It fell to Dave Forestell, former chief of staff to Joe Oliver, lately a floater at party HQ (“Senior Advisor to the Leader” at Conservative Party of Canada), and finally, “acting executive director” of the party, to announce takebacks on C-Vote.

None of that was announced to reporters, although reporters have been able to piece much of it together. It has obviously been a chaotic year in the Conservative Party as well as at PMO. Hilton, incidentally, knew about Nigel Wright’s payment to Mike Duffy before the rest of the country did: after Wright told Irving Gerstein, Gerstein told Hilton. None of them, we are told, told Stephen Harper. This may help explain why Bob Fife and John Ivison were told that Harper had “personally intervened” to get Soudas back in Ottawa: it helps spread the joyful news that sometimes, when things happen in Ottawa, Stephen Harper actually knows about them.

Soudas will be busy: after years of effort and millions of dollars spent, the Conservatives don’t have the updated and functional database they wanted; they have 338 candidates to nominate; and they are not sure what their message for an election is supposed to be. There was speculation that Soudas’s arrival signals the possibility of a snap spring election (the Harper-departure narrative has already vanished down the memory hole), but the party has a stunning amount of heavy lifting to do before it will be able to snap much of anything. I have never been willing to bet that Harper would wait until October 2015 for an election, no matter what the never-obeyed “fixed election date law” might say; my belief that he could well jump the gun played a big role in deciding when to publish my book about him. But neither does he seem to be in any shape to call an election in the next few months.

Having said that, before the Conservatives’ opponents start to moonwalk and high-five in celebration of the party’s disarray, they should remind themselves that in the summer of 2005, the party HQ was in a similar mess. That’s when Ian Brodie and Doug Finley swapped places at the leader’s office and the party HQ, and six months later, Stephen Harper had defeated Paul Martin.