Stephen Harper's Conservatives are retooling their election campaign after a series of missteps that has driven the Tories to third place in the polls. The changes come as his government scrambles to unveil a plan within days that speeds up Canada's intake of Syrian refugees.
Canada's marathon 78-day election campaign has reached midpoint and the first half of the race has gone poorly for the Conservatives. Once experts in message discipline, they now struggle with control of a campaign that has been dogged by controversies. They include new revelations at the August fraud trial of Mr. Harper's Senate appointee Mike Duffy, poor economic figures and the dismissal of two Tory election candidates for boorish behaviour.
Immigration Minister Chris Alexander's awkward response to the Syrian refugee crisis compounded the problem, leaving the impression that the Conservatives are tone deaf on the tragedy.
The turmoil in the Tory campaign has shone a spotlight on campaign director Jenni Byrne, a diehard Harper loyalist who has found herself shuttling between campaign headquarters and the Conservative Leader's side, and raised questions about her adeptness in this race.
It emerged on Thursday that the Conservatives have sought the help of Lynton Crosby – a controversial Australian strategist, known as the Wizard of Oz, who masterminded British Prime Minister David Cameron's successful campaign earlier this year.
Conservative campaign spokesperson Kory Teneycke played down reports that Mr. Crosby is stepping in to take over the campaign or backstop Ms. Byrne, who has come under fire within Tory ranks for the string of missteps and in particular poor vetting of candidates.
Mr. Teneycke said Mr. Crosby has been offering limited advice for some time. A party source familiar with the matter said Mr. Crosby has been helping the Tories analyze polling, while a source close to Mr. Crosby acknowledged "very limited" interaction, but cast doubt on any current involvement. The rocky ride the Tories encountered during the Duffy trial prompted Ms. Byrne to leave the party's war room to spend weeks with Mr. Harper on the campaign trail in late August and early September – an unusual move for someone who's supposed to be heading the election machine from Ottawa.
Ms. Byrne is back in Ottawa now, as is Mr. Harper's chief of staff Ray Novak and national campaign chairman Guy Giorno, as Tory campaign officials refocus for the next stage of the campaign.
"I think the team's huddling a bit, making sure they've got their messages down," one Conservative insider said.
"They are looking at this weekend as the fresh start. I think you'll see a fresh launch coming over the weekend and into next week."
With a refugee announcement expected as early as this weekend, the Conservatives are crafting measures to expedite Syrian asylum-seekers. Options under consideration include pouring more resources into application processing, loosening the red tape affecting private sponsorships organized by five or more Canadians, and helping citizens who want to sponsor refugees or have been moved to donate to the cause. This could include matching private donations.
The Tory government is looking at how many refugees it can realistically bring in by the end of this year, among other things, as part of an effort to regain the upper hand on the Syrian file, a matter Conservatives privately acknowledge has been mishandled. "We've trying to figure how scaleable the effort is now," a source familiar with deliberations said.
Immigration department staff have been asked to work overtime this week in preparation, as evidence shows the public is eager for Ottawa to act more quickly on the 11,300 Syrian refugees the government has already committed to bringing to Canada.
Mr. Teneycke challenged the notion the Conservatives are retooling their campaign. He said he expects the election campaign as a whole to shift from a focus on Mr. Harper's near decade in office to a tougher, more substantive look at what NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau have on offer.
"It's not a reboot of our campaign, but it's a natural evolution of the campaign."
Famed for his message discipline and his ability to target small-c conservative voters rather than broader swaths of the electorate, Mr. Crosby would seem a comfortable fit to advise Mr. Harper. And Mr. Crosby's record includes winning campaigns for former Australian prime minister John Howard and London Mayor Boris Johnson.
According to multiple sources, the Tories reached out to Mr. Crosby this summer, but he is said to have declined to take on a major role with their campaign at that time – in part because he prefers not to step into campaigns late in the game, and may not have been confident in the party's level of preparation. Now, there are conflicting accounts of whether he has in fact taken on significant responsibilities after all.
However, Mr. Crosby's presence could also be awkward in the current context. One of the winning campaigns he helped run for Mr. Howard was accused of exploiting fears of refugees amid claims that migrants arriving on boats were throwing their children overboard to help them get into Australia. He is also alleged to have used an expletive to describe Muslims in a conversation with Mr. Johnson about ethnic voters.
One former Harper staffer, who worked on several of his campaigns, said the 2015 Tory election team lacks the breadth and varied opinions of past war rooms. He says no one has effectively replaced Patrick Muttart, a long-time strategist who was tossed in the 2011 election and Nigel Wright, the "big picture guy," who resigned after it came to light he used $90,000 of his own money to reimburse taxpayers for Mr. Duffy's questionable expenses. "They haven't got a big policy mind. They haven't got a big strategy mind and they haven't got a diversity of advisers."
One Conservative cabinet minister, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Tories have been on the defensive for the first half of the campaign and this has sucked up all their "political oxygen," leaving them little room to set the agenda.
With the Conservatives struggling in the polls, sources within the party acknowledged that morale has taken a hit.
"The mood has changed, obviously not in a good way," said one veteran party staffer, adding that "we're all smart enough to know that [the hit in the polls] is not just a fluke thing."
Insiders' complaints about their party's efforts, and in particular finger-pointing at Ms. Byrne, have tended to centre around a general lack of preparedness.
Owing to several controversies that have thrown the campaign off message, candidate vetting has recently been the most prominent example. But Ms. Byrne's critics further allege a lack of adequate training for candidates, staff and volunteers. And they say that various aspects of the campaign in which Ms. Byrne has shown little interest – among them digital communications, and the program targeting battleground ridings that was key to previous winning campaigns – have essentially fallen by the wayside.
There are also complaints about Ms. Byrne staffing the campaign primarily more with loyalists than with those valued for their expertise, something that is said to afflict the party's war room in particular. And more broadly, there is griping about nimbleness in responding to unexpected events such as the prominence of the Syrian refugee crisis, and a general inability to control the daily message.