Politics

Conservative Party officials get scathing review of 2015 election campaign

Australian strategist slams campaign management as party members assess what went wrong

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Former campaign director and strategic issues adviser for Stephen Harper, Jenni Byrne, listened to party members air their beefs about the Conservatives' failed 2015 election campaign. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

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An Australian strategist has condemned the Conservative Party's 2015 federal election campaign in a scathing report that will be passed on to the party's new leadership after its convention in Vancouver this weekend.

The in-depth post-mortem was prepared by Brian Loughnane, the former federal director of the Australian Liberal party, who has had a longstanding working relationship with Canada's federal Conservative party.

Loughnane, acting as a neutral third party, interviewed dozens of people involved with the failed campaign, including its chair Guy Giorno and director Jenni Byrne.

The conclusions of the extensive review will not be made public. But they will be passed on to the party's new leadership by outgoing president John Walsh.

Senior Conservative sources tell CBC News that the assessment is very critical of the campaign's preparation and management. The report has not yet been widely shared by Walsh. 

Conservative delegates will elect new members to the party's national council on Saturday afternoon. The new president will be chosen from among the new council members.

'Hard-hitting'

The damning indictment is meant to advise the party's next campaign team on strategy and necessary tactical changes. Sources say it wasn't intended to settle scores and was not written by someone with an axe to grind.

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Outgoing Conservative Party president John Walsh was honoured at the party's policy convention on Friday. The conclusions of a damning report on what went wrong in the last election campaign will be passed on from Walsh to the party's new leadership. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Sources say the content of the report reflects themes similar to those discussed yesterday by delegates at a special session hosted by the party's executive director, Dustin Van Vugt, where party members from across the country aired their beefs about what went wrong.

"Most of it is obvious," retired senator and veteran Conservative campaigner Marjory LeBreton told Radio-Canada, saying it was necessary after there was a very big disconnect between what was going on in ridings, at campaign headquarters and on Stephen Harper's tour. 

"It had to be hard-hitting because clearly things went wrong," she said. "I think it's a very honest assessment..."

The new national council, once they've digested the report, may share it with the riding associations, she said, as part of the new open process the party is pursuing.

Attacks on Muslims backfired

At Friday's session, The Canadian Press reports that Urz Heer, a turquoise scarf covering her hair, chastised her fellow Conservatives and party leadership, saying the campaign unfairly targeted her community.

"This party worked actively and aggressively against my people," she said, to cries of "not so" from the crowd.

"It did, it did," she said. "It didn't differentiate who Muslims were versus the enemy."

The election drove many Muslims who had never cast a ballot before to vote against the Tories, said Heer, who is from the Toronto-area riding of Brampton South.

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Conservative delegate Uruzurum Heer described how the party's approach to Muslims in the last federal election failed, during a post-mortem session at the party's convention in Vancouver Friday. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

"For the first time, I felt like I didn't belong here, and this was my country," she said, her voice breaking.

Her passionate statement was greeted with applause and she received hugs from some in the crowd. But it left party director Van Vugt stumbling for words.

The executive director noted the party lost nearly all its seats in the Greater Toronto Area but did pick up one with South Asian MP Bob Saroya.

He said the party needs to expand its outreach.

"Is there one answer I can give today? There's no answer I can give today other than we know we have to win and to win we need a very large tent that includes everybody."

'Good to get feedback': Byrne

Two issues — a ban on wearing face veils during citizenship ceremonies and a proposal for a tip line on "barbaric cultural practices" — were controversial policies put forward by the Tories during the campaign.

Former campaign manager Byrne — who sat through the entire campaign review session as delegate after delegate criticized strategies she would have helped craft — wouldn't explicitly address the choice to hammer those two issues so hard and often during the 11-week campaign.

She said the niqab issue came up because of a court decision during the election that overturned the Tories' policy banning them. She said the Tories couldn't have predicted the NDP vote would collapse during the campaign, which was a major factor that reduced the Tories to opposition status.

But one of the reasons it did was the niqab: the ban was popular in Quebec and NDP leader Tom Mulcair's decision to come out against it was widely seen as costing that party votes and allowing the Liberals to surge.

"It's always good to get feedback from the field in terms of what worked and what didn't work," Byrne said as she left the convention.

"The good thing is people were comfortable enough raising it, even when they were frustrated," MP Erin O'Toole told reporters Saturday morning. "That is helping us learn, and helping us heal after people were upset during the election." 

"We haven't hidden these things ... that's how we'll improve and that's how we will show Canadians that we have heard the message from October of last year," he said.

Interim Conservative leader on party's future direction 6:59

Recycled strategy

Former status of women minister Kellie Leitch, who is now running for the party's leadership, told CBC News Network Saturday morning that this kind of discussion makes the party stronger.

Leitch was one of two cabinet ministers sent out during the campaign to announce a barbaric cultural practices tip line, a move criticized by many and thought to have turned some voters away. Leitch said earlier this spring that if she could go back in time she would not have made that announcement.

"[Heer] had a very good point," Leitch told host Andrew Nichols, saying feedback like the party received yesterday will help it to grow going forward.

The Tories did an exhaustive national review after last fall's election, with Van Vugt and longtime MP Diane Finley criss-crossing the country and holding online sessions.

Van Vugt said the loss could be chalked up to big and little misses, everything from stale advertising to a decision not to allow candidates to do any public debates or give local media interviews.

He said the strategy deployed in 2015 was largely the same one used in the previous election campaigns because it had worked for them in those elections.

"We just kept doing things because we'd done them before. Was it the right reason? Was that the reason we won?," he said in a response to a question about why there was so much negative advertising.

"I don't know because we didn't actually figure it out."

Delegates are set to spend the day Saturday voting on proposed changes to the party's constitution and official policy document, including a controversial move to strike the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman.

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