Prime Minister Stephen Harper's approval numbers dropped through the fall as the Senate scandal raged, and on Tuesday in British Columbia he fell back on an old friend: the sweater.
A staple of the 2008 election campaign, the sweater was back and the tie was gone when Harper began 2014 with stops in Victoria and Inuvik this week.
The sweater and some of the time-honoured themes the prime minister’ struck are some of the signs the campaign for 2015 is already underway.
Patriotism, economic recovery and growth and the danger presented by political alternatives were on offer during his stops over the past few days. And there was nary a mention of the Senate scandal that dogged the prime minister for much of the past year.
The tone and tenor of those presentations suggest the Conservatives won’t wait the 20 months until the Oct. 19, 2015 fixed election date before beginning that campaign. A Conservative video newsreel of the prime minister’s week dubbed 24/7 posted onto YouTube also points to a determined effort to begin 2014 with a new PR push.
Harper hit the West Coast on Monday and Tuesday before heading to Inuvik to showcase the $200 million in funding the Conservatives have long-promised for an all-season highway to Tuktoyaktuk. In B.C., he donned a windbreaker to walk part of a hiking trail, met with Scouts and made a speech in front of a backdrop of high school students.
The visuals looked like the backdrops from Conservative election campaigns past. The sweater made its first appearance under a navy jacket during a speech to high school students and Conservative supporters — in a newly created riding — in Victoria.
Staffing up, raising cash
Conservatives have succeeded in waging permanent campaigns in the past when minority governments compelled them to constantly prepare for elections. The appointment of Bay Street titan Nigel Wright as chief of staff was thought to have signalled a more business-like and less partisan approach to government in 2011.
Wright’s resignation in the face of a scandal that still dogs the government as well as the election calendar may have prompted a return to an elevation of political readiness.
Signals of that change began in December. Dimitri Soudas, Harper's former director of communications, was hired as executive director of the Conservative Party. An email from the party's national council referred to Soudas's experience making him ideal for the role as the party prepares for the 2015 campaign.
A spirited fundraising duel between Liberals and Conservatives in the month of December foreshadowed the protracted battle expected in 2014 and paid truth to the notion that campaigns can be won – and lost – months before the writ is actually dropped.
The Conservatives campaign on their ability to stick to their promises. They renewed a number of their 2011 election pledges in last fall's throne speech, and have been touring the country to promote that fact ever since.
Harper's trip North allowed him to showcase one of those 2011 promises: completing the Dempster Highway between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk. The communities are now joined by an ice road in the winter, but the all-weather highway means better access, and joins the Arctic Ocean to the rest of Canada, the Conservatives say.
A string of other promises have been announced recently, or are expected over the next few months:
- A wireless spectrum auction, pitched as a way to promote competition in the cell phone industry.
- Inching closer to a balanced budget in 2015, which will trigger another set of promises the Conservatives said they'll only introduce once the deficit is cleared.
- Cyberbullying legislation meant to prevent non-consensual distribution of "intimate images."
- Legislation to update Canadian election law, which was about to be introduced last spring before the government cancelled the introduction.
- A tentative agreement on a trade deal with the European Union.
Moving off the Senate scandal
The Conservatives are undoubtedly eager to get Canadians thinking about issues other than the Senate scandal, which in the past year has enveloped Harper's office.
Pollster Nik Nanos is still betting on a 2015 election, but he says he now thinks there's a remote chance of an election coming in the next 12 months.
"Compared to three months ago, where there was very little likelihood of there being an election in 2014, I think there is an increased likelihood," Nanos said.
"But, you know, we're now in the realm of the personality of the prime minister and the government, and no one can really predict with certainty what they will do."
"I think there's a greater likelihood of the election being in 2015, but now there's a possibility now of there being what I'll call a wild card election in 2014," Nanos said.