Conservatives poised for retooling

OTTAWA — For a few minutes last week, all the hope, conflict and spin of this Conservative spring stood in a circle of camera lights and microphones in the foyer of the House of Commons.

OTTAWA — For a few minutes last week, all the hope, conflict and spin of this Conservative spring stood in a circle of camera lights and microphones in the foyer of the House of Commons.

As Calgary MP Michelle Rempel gamely handled questions from reporters about allegations of unethical Conservative behaviour, she was clutching a glossy “Caucus Briefing Package” — upbeat talking points designed to help Tory backbenchers put a positive spin on their disastrous spring sitting.

It remains to be seen whether better communications, a cabinet shuffle and a fresh policy agenda can revive the government’s fortunes.

But no one on the government side would argue that Tuesday night’s adjournment of the Commons for the 12-week summer break came too soon.

At the midpoint of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s four-year majority mandate, his government has never appeared so besieged.

Even an abbreviated list of the government’s missteps since January strikes at the very heart of Harper’s Conservative brand: policy drift, a disengaged finance minister battling illness, the ongoing stench of alleged election campaign misdeeds, cabinet resignations, a simmering backbench revolt and a Senate expense scandal that reaches right to the prime minister’s innermost circle, complete with RCMP investigation.

The latest public opinion tracking numbers by pollster Harris-Decima suggest the Conservatives are firmly in second place, nine points behind the Liberals under Justin Trudeau and five points up on Tom Mulcair’s third-place New Democrats.

Mid-term horse race numbers are ephemeral, but the Harris-Decima data reveals something more troubling for Conservative partisans.

The party’s support among men, rural Canadians and voters aged 55-plus was at 30 per cent or lower — the first time that’s happened since the Conservatives took power in 2006. “That’s a whole new territory we haven’t been in before,” said Harris-Decima chairman Allan Gregg.

Set against this parliamentary and public opinion malaise are free trade talks with the European Union and other trading blocs that have yet to deliver any deals, and a resource export policy sideswiped by American and domestic pipeline politics.

A summer cabinet shuffle is expected, where fresh, enthusiastic talents like Rempel might supplant some of the scowling cynicism of the Harper front bench.

A Conservative policy convention in Calgary at the end of the month will give Harper a stage on which to rally the cause.

And a frenetic month of late-night sittings in the Commons cleared much of the government’s legislative agenda, setting the table for a widely anticipated summer prorogation and October speech from the throne, laying out a fresh agenda.

“They have a great opportunity to lose the next election in the next two years,” said Barry Cooper, a political science professor at the University of Calgary.

So where does that leave Conservative fortunes?

“I wouldn’t say at the edge of the cliff,” Cooper said.

“But I would say — at the risk of being a minority government next time — they have to recover momentum. A cabinet shuffle can help, but getting a deal with the Europeans and somehow brokering a deal with British Columbia on the pipeline, that’s the kind of evidence you have to look for.”

Peter Van Loan, the government House leader, boasted Wednesday that a typical year’s worth of legislation had been passed since the end of January.

“I’m here to report that the House of Commons this year, results are what happened while others were busy focused on question period,” he sniffed.

But new laws to deport foreign-born criminals more quickly or to strip prison lifers of parole opportunities competed for air time with robocall investigations, the resignation — and subsequent byelection loss — of former cabinet minister Peter Penashue over campaign spending problems, and the still-unexplained $90,000 “gift” by Harper’s chief of staff to pay the improperly claimed Senate expenses of Harper-appointee Mike Duffy.

The government responded not with transparency, contrition or brilliant policy breakthroughs, but with stonewalling and mud-slinging.

The final days of the spring sitting saw a full-scale Conservative counter-offensive against Trudeau’s former moonlighting income as a public speaker and Mulcair’s driving habits.

One veteran Conservative MP quietly offered that the government desperately needs a change of “tone.”

Liberal Bob Rae, meanwhile, announced his retirement from politics Wednesday and cheerily predicted the current Commons malaise will be self-correcting.

“Public opinion is a wonderful thing; and it’s the bath we all swim in,” said Rae. “And I think the public hates this stuff.”

Van Loan, subsequently asked to respond to Rae’s critique of relentlessly scripted Conservative “talking points,” didn’t miss a beat.

“Well, I’ll just stick with those scripted talking points about him,” Van Loan quipped.

And so it is that departing government MPs have been issued a June-dated binder entitled “Delivering for Canadians,” a summer road map out of the swamp.

A colour photo of the Peace Tower fills half of the cover, a photo of the Conservative backbench — framed so that it literally highlights the backs of the benches in the Commons — fills the other half.

Insiders say the communication materials are delivered to Conservative MPs prior to break weeks, with more comprehensive packages before the Christmas and summer recesses.

Prepared by the Conservative Research Group, they typically include a stump speech, op-ed pieces to be provided to local newspapers, letters to the editor that the MP can get his or her supporters to sign and submit, and talking points on a number of key files the government wants to promote — usually economic issues.

Expect to hear a lot of economic numbers this summer.

“Can they recover? Absolutely,” said Gregg, the Harris-Decima pollster, pointing to incumbent premiers who’ve prevailed despite deeply unhappy electorates.

“Ask Christy Clark, and to some extent Allison Redford, maybe even Jean Charest a little bit.”

Abounding public cynicism about politics means voters feel they can vote for anyone and it won’t make much difference, said Gregg. Combine that with pervasive, seemingly intractable economic uncertainty and badly wounded governments can get re-elected.

“Perceived competency, especially around economic issues, is such a potent attribute in politics today.”

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