Permanent campaign means no rest in target ridings

The MPs who survive a rough and tumble election race may be inclined to relax, but in the permanent campaign, they won't be able to do so for long.

Fighting for seat in Parliament no longer confined to weeks before election

Liberal MP Irwin Cotler has been the target of a permanent campaign to unseat him in Mount Royal, including flyers he calls slanderous, phone calls implying he was stepping down, and a former opponent being given a job representing a federal cabinet minister. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The Conservatives are undoubtedly effective at targeting and winning swing seats, taking two-thirds of the ridings they set their sights on in 2011.

The opposition MPs who beat them back may be inclined to breathe a sigh of relief. For at least a day, anyway. And then the unofficial campaign begins.

If the intensity of that campaign is a sign of how badly the Conservative Party wants a riding, Liberal MP Irwin Cotler's Mount Royal may be the most coveted riding in Canada.

Last year, a company working for the Conservative Party called people in the riding and suggested there was a byelection coming, even though Cotler, now 72, had just won re-election.

Cotler has complained twice in the House of Commons about how the tactics, including another campaign back in 2009, undermine his ability to do his job as an MP.

There are good reasons why the Conservatives might focus so strongly on Mount Royal.

A win there would be their first in Montreal since the Progressive Conservatives took the seat in 1988. And it is a riding with a large Jewish population – 38 per cent of the riding – giving the Conservatives the opportunity to do what they do best: target their message in hopes of convincing enough voters to push them over the top.

MPs in waiting

Cotler hung on to his riding on May 2, 2011. But after the election, what he calls "the permanent campaign" began. The government hired the defeated Conservative candidate, Saulie Zajdel, to represent Heritage Minister James Moore in the riding.

Targeting victory

The Conservative Party's success in identifying and targeting vulnerable swing ridings went a long way to bringing about its 'strong, stable' majority victory in the 2011 election. Our series looks at the strategy behind its success — and what it's like to be a target.

Part 1: Success in 'very ethnic' ridings 

Part 2: The 'permanent campaign' 

Zajdel met with groups there and accompanied Prime Minister Stephen Harper to events in Mount Royal last March.

Zajdel declined to comment on his work for Moore and says he is no longer working for the government.

"Now, that's long in the past.… I do not want to talk about that. That's why I got out of it. I'm not interested," he said.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, middle, listens to then Conservative candidate Parm Gill at an event in the Brampton-Springdale riding in 2011. (CBC)

It's not the first time the party has given prominence to a former candidate between elections.

Conservative Parm Gill, who finished second to Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla in Brampton-Springdale in 2008, had a reputation for handling immigration and visa issues for people in the riding.

He appeared at Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's side during events and said at a public gathering that he had three people working full-time to process immigration files. He also accompanied Kenney on a 2009 trip to India and appears in photos of Kenney, Conservative MP Tim Uppal and one of Kenney's staff members on the Citizenship and Immigration website.

In 2011, Gill defeated Dhalla by 10,397 votes.

'It's hockey, it's not figure skating'

All campaigns have their share of negative messages, personal attacks and even mischief.

It can get bad enough, in fact, that a number of Conservative candidates filed receipts with Elections Canada for security guards for their campaign offices the night before voting day.

A source who worked in the Conservative war room says all's fair in love and politics.

"It's hockey, it's not figure skating, right?" the source said, adding that other parties do the same thing.

Last spring, Liberal MP Frank Valeriote admitted his campaign office was behind a call to voters slamming his Conservative opponent for being anti-abortion. The call didn’t identify Valeriote's campaign as the source, resulting in a fine from the CRTC.

That call, for which Valeriote apologized, came just days before election day.

But in the permanent campaign, an attempt to influence voters with suggestive messages can come at any time.

Three years ago, the Conservatives sent flyers to Jewish homes in Mount Royal. The flyers claimed the Liberals had participated in a UN conference known as Durban I that descended into anti-Semitism. They also said a Liberal MP had shown support for Hezbollah, a designated terror group.

Cotler says he was at Durban I and stayed to speak out against the hateful speeches against Israel, and that it was a Liberal government, on his motion, that put Hamas and Hezbollah on the Canadian list of terrorist entities.

"I have no problem with the Conservatives putting, as they did, their record with these three issues on the left side of the [flyers]. What I took issue with was the false and misleading characterization of the record of the Liberal Party," and therefore, of him, Cotler said.

A Conservative source, again, compared the party's tactics to those of their political opponents.

"Are you telling me the Liberals would never use an ad with something our guys say?"

"We have a record and we compared it to the Liberals ... part of the Liberal record is hanging out under the Hezbollah flag."

"People believe the charge because it sticks."

'Lies have long legs'

Despite Cotler's work as a lawyer and longtime human rights activist, including advocating for Israel, the Conservative campaign against him left a mark.

He recalls speaking at a seniors home when a woman who knew him well asked when he'd become so anti-Israel and anti-Jewish. Cotler says he was shocked and asked where this was coming from.

The Conservative government hired their defeated candidate Saulie Zajdel after the 2011 federal election. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

"She then pulled out this flyer and I began to see that lies have long legs and people can begin to internalize these things. And that was a very painful moment, and to me just suggested the kinds of prejudice that can accompany such false and indeed slanderous accusations," he said.

Zajdel declined to comment on the flyers.

A letter with similar allegations was used in Winnipeg South Centre against incumbent Liberal Anita Neville, distributed by Conservative Joyce Bateman's campaign.

Bateman's Elections Canada file shows she sent out a letter from a prominent lawyer and businessman. The letter included examples identical to the ones used in the Mount Royal flyers and concluded with a plea to vote against Neville.

Bateman beat Neville by 696 votes. Bateman declined an interview request.

Speaking last February to Evan Solomon, host of CBC News Network's Power & Politics, one of the war room communications strategists said local campaign managers run their own campaigns, but admitted the central party does the messaging.

"The national campaign runs its own campaign. It also provides candidate support. Mostly communications, but also in making sure that they've got literature and things like that," Jason Lietaer said.

Permanent campaign creep

More than a year later, the outcome of the last election is still being fought on several fronts.

The Supreme Court on Thursday wrapped up months of waiting for the former candidates in Etobicoke Centre when it ruled in favour of Conservative MP Ted Opitz, whose win was challenged over voting irregularities. A lower court judge had overturned the election result, but Opitz appealed that ruling. Had the Supreme Court upheld the Ontario Superior Court’s decision, voters in the riding would have been sent back to the polls in a race between Opitz and former Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj.

Another challenge is still working its way through Federal Court. A group of voters, backed by the Council of Canadians, is asking for judicial review of six Conservative wins. They say widespread reports of mysterious calls may have affected the outcome of those close races. That case won’t be argued until December.

Elections Canada is investigating suspicious calls in more than 230 ridings after getting thousands of complaints. It's not clear how long that will take. The first publicized investigation, in Guelph, Ont., hasn't led to charges, despite rumours that a report is coming soon.

The permanent campaign, like politics, is often personal.

While Cotler had a few reasons for wanting to run again in 2011, after 12 years as an MP, he said one was that he didn't want a potential retirement to be used against his colleagues.

"One of the things that concerned me … is that if I didn't run the Conservatives might use the fact that I wasn't running to say 'You see, even Irwin Cotler can't stand the Liberal record [on Israel]'," he said.