OTTAWA — The Conservative national convention next week is touted as a post-election celebration, but disillusioned Tories in Quebec don’t feel much like partying after what they describe as a bitterly disappointing campaign in the province.
Quebec Conservatives who spoke to The Canadian Press talked frankly about feeling abandoned during the campaign by party headquarters, left without basic materials, including printed party platforms and even candidate biographies posted to the Conservative website.
They say nobody in the party has done a proper post-mortem of what happened during a campaign that cut the number of Tory MPs in half to five.
The popular vote was even less than that earned by struggling Progressive Conservative Leader Jean Charest in 1997 — 16.5 per cent versus 22.2.
Out of frustration, some Quebec Tories are arranging their own meeting in Montreal on Wednesday night to discuss how to save the party in the province.
“Compared to what we could have done and should have done in this province, with a proper campaign, everybody who worked in the election is thoroughly fed up and very angry that the campaign was such a dud and a disaster,” said Peter White, president of the Conservative association in Brome-Missisquoi.
“There was effectively no Conservative campaign in Quebec.”
The veteran Tory operative added: “When you work your butt off for 30 days and you get the results that we got and with no assistance at all from anybody, you really feel, ’To the hell with them.’
“My concern is that almost nobody from Quebec is going to go to this convention, and that’s what I’ve been hearing around the province.”
Audrey Castonguay ran unsuccessfully in the Montreal riding of Hochelaga in 2006, and decided to give it another shot in 2011. She describes stark differences in the level of organization between the campaigns.
“In 2006, there was an office in Montreal. There was really a campaign structure in Montreal, there was a quick response team, there was a daily talking point, if we had a debate in our riding and we wanted help there was that service and the same thing with national media,” says Castonguay, a human-resources manager in Montreal.
“Now that’s done by telephone. If there was a debate in our riding, we were told to deal with it ourselves, take the platform and deal with it yourself.”
Castonguay and others noted that campaign signs were not provided to their Montreal-area ridings until a week into the campaign. By then, the NDP had plastered Jack Layton’s face across the city. She adds that there was no specific campaign message for Quebec — the “Our Region in Power” slogan was essentially meaningless in the province’s biggest city.
She says the only thing she received after the election was an email from a Quebec City-area organizer she had never met saying thank you for running.
“We’re in a majority, but not because of Quebec. What’s going to happen next, where are we? It’s been radio silence since the end of the campaign.”
Maurice Brossard, candidate in Brossard-La Prairie and an organizer on Montreal’s south shore, blames the election result on a more complicated series of factors including leadership and marketing.
He said Layton clearly captivated Quebecers in a race that became strictly about leaders and their personalities in the last ten days in the province. He said Quebecers are still wary of Harper, one of the issues the party must address.
“I think the challenge is great for the next four years. It’s going to start with image work that Mr. Harper must take on, he’s the only one who can do that,” said Brossard.
“We, the associations and former candidates, we also have something to do at the grassroots level, to convince people to do a better broadcasting of the Conservative party’s platform.”
Paradis’ office did not respond to a request for comment.
Ridings around Quebec tell a slightly different story. Jean-Marie Girard, president of the Beauport Limoilou Conservative association, says he saw early signs of the NDP wave that was about to sweep away incumbent MP Sylvie Boucher. He was satisfied with the message that Harper had for the area, and there was no problem getting signs.
But he says the riding volunteers did feel that they were on their own, only getting the odd visit from party operatives.
“There was the MP from Beauce (Maxime Bernier) who came and did a little visit. But was just a little pop-in. All he did was show his face,” said Girard. “In Quebec, people were a bit abandoned. They were left to their own devices — ’sort yourselves out.”’
Girard and others have pointed to Layton’s successful turn on the popular Quebec talk show “Tout le Monde en Parle” and Harper’s absence. One of the show’s hosts posted on Twitter during the election that he couldn’t get Harper’s staff to respond to requests to appear.
More recently, Layton has slung on rubber boots to wade into the cresting waters of the Richelieu River in sodden St. Jean, while Harper has chosen to visit other disaster areas in Manitoba and Alberta.
Says Castonguay: “It’s not just as a member of the party, the public — Mr. and Mrs. Everybody notices that. It sends a strange message.”
Aggravating the mood for Quebec Tories is a recent campaign by Ontario MP Scott Reid to change part of the Conservative constitution. Reid would like to alter a rule that gives all ridings in the country equal weight during a leadership vote, giving more power to bigger ridings.
A Quebec riding president, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Reid’s campaign is further alienating supporters in the province. Word around the province is that fewer than 100 members from Quebec have registered to attend the convention.
“Convincing people to get involved in the convention — very difficult. The last election (campaign) in Quebec was completely empty, in terms of organization there was nothing. People weren’t encouraged to participate, there was nothing, nothing, nothing,” the Tory said.
“And it’s still interesting to note that the day after the election, even though Christian Paradis did a disastrous job as political lieutenant for Quebec, he was reappointed to his job. People say, more of the same, so let’s stay home.”
But White says he’s trying to convince fellow Conservatives in Quebec to participate, and have their concerns aired.
“For God’s sake, now is the time that you have to go to Ottawa, and tell people what you think, and tell them how mad you are, and tell them why you’re mad, and don’t just go sulk in your tent.”