Ken Boessenkool: A successful convention is a key step on the path to victory
To win, you now need to plan, and run, a flawless campaign.
By: Ken Boessenkool
One of the most underrated events of the rise of Stephen Harper to prime minister was the founding convention of the Conservative Party of Canada in March 2005.
It came on the heels of a hectic year-and-a-half. The party itself was created in December of 2003. Stephen Harper emerged as the clear winner in its inaugural leadership in March 2004. It contested, and came close to winning, an election in June 2004. But in that election, Canadians decided that the party, and its leader, was not quite ready.
It had work to do.
Harper considered stepping down after the 2004 election. He went dark for most of the summer of 2004 following the election. During that time his team conducted a brutally honest evaluation of our failings in the 2004 election. That fall, a plan started to take shape on how to win the next election. Harper made some big adjustments to his team and to his approach. I left his office and the brilliant Patrick Muttart joined. Doug Finley arrived on the scene.
A key date in that plan was the founding convention of the party — which we didn’t have time to do in its hectic first year. I was asked to co-chair the convention committee and chair the policy committee. Harper decided to add to our challenges by hosting the convention in Montreal, a city we had virtually no chance of winning seats in. A city dominated by Liberals.
The external environment certainly helped. While the sponsorship scandal was part of the backdrop of the 2004 election (Sheila Fraser’s first report was tabled just a few months before that election), it wasn’t enough to overcome the anxiety Canadians had about Stephen Harper, the odd guy from Calgary who dressed weird (leather vest, anyone?) and had said some strange things in the past (third-rate socialist country, anyone?) and had bumbled a couple social conservative questions in the 2004 election.
That environment got even better when, in late 2004, the Liberals inexplicably created the Gomery commission. It went on to hold widely viewed television hearings through the early and middle part of 2005. Polling showed the Liberals tanking and the Conservatives rising.
By the time the convention was held, the Conservatives were high in the polls and Canadians seemed ready to do a re-evaluation of Harper. The Liberals were swinging and missing on the sponsorship scandal, and Canadians started looking elsewhere.
The convention went off virtually flawlessly. The party and the leader addressed some of the issues they had struggled with (abortion, gay marriage and direct democracy) and ran a large (3,000 attendees) national convention in a hostile environment at just the time Canadians were giving them another look. Internally, it gave the team an enormous boost of confidence in its ability to run a national campaign.
Why this tour down memory lane?
There are many similarities to the convention Pierre Poilievre and his team just pulled off in Quebec City. (Unlike Montreal, Conservatives have seats around Quebec City, but it is still in a province most think will be difficult for Conservatives to make a bigger dent in than they’ve made to date.) Poilievre and his team pulled off a large, well-organized, successful convention at the exact time that polls are moving in his favour, just as Harper did in March 2005. That will give his team the same enormous boost of confidence Harper’s team enjoyed almost 20 years ago.
The housing issue today is playing for Poilievre the way that the sponsorship scandal played for Harper. Poilievre is riding high in the polls by being laser-focused on housing and affordability just as Harper was riding high in the polls because Liberals were laser focused on the sponsorship scandal.
Poilievre is not a new politician, to state the obvious. But since becoming leader of the party last year, he’s undertaken a deliberate and, to date, effective media campaign. He’s reintroducing himself to Canadians, the same way Harper did, but without losing an election first. So far, it’s working — polls have shown not just that the CPC is leading the Liberals, but that Poilievre’s own standing with the public is improving. Modestly, so far, and there’s room to go yet. But the work the party has put into Poilievre’s reintroduction seems to be paying off.
If Pierre Poilievre becomes prime minister in the next election, the successful convention in Quebec City will be a key event on his path to victory.
But none of this is guaranteed, just as it was far from clear sailing for Harper from March 2005 to the prime minister's office in January 2006. The 2006 election was far from a sure thing as the Harper team started that campaign. The Liberals had regained a healthy lead in the polls. Through the middle and end of 2005 and through the first part of the campaign, the Liberals were in the high 30s or very low 40s while the Conservatives were in the low 30s or high 20s.
Which is why Stephen Harper’s admonition to his team at the beginning of the 2006 election is worth repeating today. Liberals, he said, can win Canadian elections with lacklustre campaigns. Conservatives, he continued, only win elections with flawless campaigns.
So well done, Poilievre and team, on the convention. You’ve taken a huge step forward. But the next election is far from a sure thing. Liberals have brand and leadership advantages that we Conservatives will never have.
To win, you now need to plan, and run, a flawless campaign.
It can be done. But it isn’t easy.
Ken Boessenkool is founding partner of Meredith Boessenkool Policy Advisors and has been in and around Conservative politics for 25 years.
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