As It Happens

Conservative campaign spying allegations not 'that big a deal,' says party insider

Conservative insider Jenni Byrne downplayed the seriousness of campaign spying allegations in the Conservative leadership race, saying: "I think we are in what you call the, I guess, silly season."

Leadership candidate Erin O'Toole accused rival Peter MacKay of stealing confidential campaign data

Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidates Erin O'Toole, left, and Peter MacKay are seen during an English-language debate in Toronto on Thursday. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)
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Conservative insider Jenni Byrne downplayed the seriousness of campaign spying allegations in the Conservative leadership race, saying this is what happens when you have a hard-fought race between powerful front-runners.

Erin O'Toole's campaign has accused rival Peter MacKay's campaign of stealing confidential campaign information — including recordings of private video teleconferencing meetings. MacKay's team has denied the allegations.

The RCMP says it's "examining" the allegations, and Toronto police say they're working with the Mounties on the file. 

On Tuesday, Calgary Conservative MP Greg McLean announced that he fired a summer student working in his office for committing a "breach of trust" related to the alleged theft.  

Byrne was an adviser to former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, and principal secretary to Ontario Premier Doug Ford. She told As It Happens host Carol Off that whoever wins the race will give the Liberals a run for their money.

Here is part of their conversation. 

How seriously do you take these allegations of campaign spying in the Conservative leadership race?

July 2nd is the date that the ballots are supposed to be mailed out to the members, and that's when candidates get the final membership list. So I think we are in what you call the, I guess, silly season. So we're into the end of this leadership race for the most part.

I think that from the looks of it ... listening in on Zoom calls is the equivalent of candidates and campaigns showing up and taping their opponents' speech speeches with their iPhones.

I'll be honest, I don't think it's that big a deal.

Conservative strategist Andrew Brander says the Erin O'Toole camp's accusation of theft by Peter MacKay's campaign should be taken seriously, even if it could be politically motivated. 5:47

How often do the police get called in for these kinds of activities?

Not very often.

There's a difference from a campaign calling in the police to the police actually deciding they're going to do an investigation, which there has been no indication that they're going to.

But what does this say about the party itself [that] these two front-running leadership contenders, that there's finger-pointing and all this heat. Even if it doesn't come from anything and it doesn't go anywhere, what does it say about the campaign?

There are two sword lengths between the prime minister and the leader of the Opposition's seats. It's an adversarial nature of politics.

So I don't think it says anything other than this has been a hard-fought campaign. You have two front-runners, Erin O'Toole and Peter MacKay ... and it's also been a very challenging time for everyone.

And so as we adapt to — I hate to use the term "new normal" — but as we adapt to how life has changed in the last three or four months, that adds to a elevated stress level as well.

Jenni Byrne has worked for both Stephen Harper and Doug Ford. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Is this Peter MacKay's race to lose?

I think that's fair to say right now. I think that he is the front-runner. I think from all accounts, he sold more memberships. And I think that he a very well-known person within Conservative circles, as well [as] outside of Conservative circles.

I think he had a very good week last week. I think he exceeded expectations for both the French and the English debates. So I think that if his campaign has sold the membership numbers that they have claimed they have sold and they get them out to vote, then I don't see a scenario where he doesn't win.

Erin O'Toole is trying to appeal to social conservatives. And it's clear from the phone call he had with the Quebec social conservatives that was leaked. The two people who might be kingmakers here, if it gets to be that close, Derek Sloan and Leslyn Lewis, both serious social conservatives, might they have a serious role in how this leadership campaign turns out?

Well, it's not a delegated convention. So the days of kind of bartering for second ballot support, I think, is a bit different.

I think social conservatives play a vital role in this Conservative Party coalition. But I think to simply say that everyone that votes for Leslyn Lewis or everyone that votes for Derek Sloan are going to vote for Erin O'Toole second, I think it's kind of a bit simplistic.

I think that the performances of all the leadership candidates, especially Peter and Erin ... were very good during the debates this weekend. And if I were the Liberal Party, I would not be taking whoever wins this race for granted.- Jenni Byrne, Conservative advisor 

But both Ms. Lewis and Mr. Sloan, they are against abortion. They are against laws that would limit conversion therapy. They oppose same-sex marriage. I mean, these are people who are bringing in other conservatives into the circle. Might they not have a large influence in how this leadership campaign turns out?

I think there are a lot of vital groups, vital opinions within the Conservative coalition. And I think that people that sign up for this leadership race ... regardless of who they signed up for ... I think they're going to be making their own choices as to who they're going to vote for first and who they're going to vote for second.

​Conservative Party leadership prospects Leslyn Lewis, left, and Derek Sloan. (Greg Bruce/CBC, Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The people who are going to determine which of these people is going to be the leader of the Conservative Party is one thing. I'm wondering how whoever becomes the leader, how do they excite the rest of us? I mean, these ideas that they're putting forward, we're not hearing many original views. I mean, a lot of it seemed like warmed over Stephen Harper. So when are we going to see something that might actually excite a wider range of Canadians?

I think there's not a wide range of Canadians paying attention to this leadership race, as I don't think a wide range of Canadians paid attention to the previous two Liberal leadership races as well. It's the reason that the vast majority of people in the country aren't political hacks or members — unlike people like me, who consume it on on a daily basis.

Once the leader's chosen, it'll be by August 27th of this year, I think then you're going to see a party that's going to put forward ideas.

And frankly, I think that the performances of all the leadership candidates, especially Peter and Erin, and very much Peter, were very good during the debates this weekend. And if I were the Liberal Party, I would not be taking whoever wins this race for granted.

But where were the ideas? What were the things that you think might actually stimulate interest in a broader cross-section of Canadians that we've heard in this debate?

As the world has now changed, I think ... Canadians are going to be looking at ... how we actually move forward, and this is not just from a health perspective, but from a financial perspective as well.

And I think that different plans that the candidates have — whether it's carbon tax, whether it's different programs — that is what people are going to be looking at. Not just Conservative members, but I think Canadians across the board.


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Edited for length and clarity. 

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