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Election 2015

Tories' Salmon Gaffe Part of Awkward Off-Message Streak

It's not your first election, Mr. Harper. Why are you screwing it up?

L. Ian MacDonald 28 Aug 2015iPolitics

L. Ian MacDonald is editor of Policy, the bi-monthly magazine of Canadian politics and public policy. He is the author of five books. He served as chief speechwriter to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney from 1985-88, and later as head of the public affairs division of the Canadian Embassy in Washington from 1992-94. 

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The Greens took unique pleasure in correcting Harper's social media fail.

There are two cardinal rules for a leader's campaign tour. Rule one: the leader has to stay on message. Rule two: no screw-ups by the staff on tour or back in the war room.

Well, Stephen Harper has been off-message since the start of the campaign. And the Conservative campaign team has been screwing up on a regular basis, stepping on the leader's message.

Last Thursday, Harper made a nice family announcement about increasing the Adoption Expense Tax Credit from $15,000 to $20,000 for thousands of parents adopting children from Canada and abroad. Laureen and Stephen Harper walked in a field with a family and their adoptive daughter. The images were lovely.

But the Conservatives screwed up by posting the announcement with a stock photo of a family from Seattle. They were caught out by Glen McGregor in the Ottawa Citizen, who seems to have a gift for finding foreign stock shots online.

The very next day, Harper had a perfect scenic backdrop in Campbell River for a $15 million announcement of a partnership with the Pacific Salmon Foundation to "implement conservation plans in B.C. rivers." Harper also said Ottawa would work with the B.C. government and First Nations.

So far, so good. Good photo op, positive news for the environment and the fishery -- Pacific salmon are part of B.C.'s very identity. The Conservatives put the announcement on their website and social media under the headline "Protecting British Columbia's Natural Environment," with an image of a salmon swimming furiously upstream.

Except... closer examination by McGregor showed the image to be one of an Atlantic salmon, not Pacific. It was another foreign stock shot, taken by a British photographer in northern England. The Conservatives quickly removed the image, including a posting to Harper's Twitter account.

At the same event, three Boy Scouts in uniform were standing beside Harper during the announcement. Contacted afterwards, Scouts Canada pointedly said it is "not connected with any political body," adding its members "must not take part in meetings or activities of a political nature or offer support."

Someone on Harper's tour should have known that. Whoever was in charge of the site-check should have made sure the kids weren't in the shot.

So the Tory staff screwed up twice at one event. You don't see that every day. Not in the majors.

Harper's bumpy start

As for Harper, he has been off message and committing unforced errors since Day One of the campaign. At the opening of his campaign in Montreal three weeks ago, he gratuitously attacked the NDP's Quebec candidates, saying there "isn't a star among them."

Why would a national leader -- a sitting prime minister whose job it is to campaign against the leader of the Opposition -- call attention to his rival's candidates at the riding level in one province?

Actually, Harper's comment was demonstrably untrue. The NDP's Quebec members may have been elected in 2011 as poteaux ("telephone poles" -- the evocative Québécois term for candidates running merely to keep the party's name on the ballot) but they've worked hard ever since -- especially in their ridings and on weekends -- and have earned their way.

Case in point: Ruth Ellen Brosseau, the Ottawa pub manager who famously visited Vegas during the 2011 campaign. She has since become a well-regarded MP, both in the House and in her riding of Berthier-Maskinongé east of Montreal on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River.

There she was on the front of La Presse Monday with the headline, "From poteau to star candidate," turning to a two-page spread on how she's become "a rock star in her adopted region." And not just in towns such as Louiseville; as the NDP's deputy agriculture critic Brosseau has also become a defender of supply management, and Quebec dairy farmers regard her as a champion for their cause.

Two Montreal NDP MPs, Alexandre Boulerice of Rosemont and Hélène Laverdière of Laurier-Ste. Marie, have been star performers in question period and are expected to be re-elected easily in their East End ridings.

At his first two campaign events in Quebec, Harper compared the NDP's economic platform to the Syriza government that has left the Greek economy in ruins, and even noted that the NDP had endorsed the far-left party in Greece. It was about as credible as the Liberals saying Harper has the worst job creation record since R.B. Bennett.

Harper has also overplayed the security card against what he has called "terror tourism," promising a travel ban on "designated areas" that are "ground zero for terrorist activities." If he was serious about this, he could have put such a travel ban into his anti-terror bill, C-51. Again on law and order, he has promised to bring back the Conservative "life means life" bill which died on the order paper. The courts might have another view.

There may be some votes in these announcements for Harper in terms of delivering his base on the right, but they offer no prospects for growth in the centre -- which is where he needs to regain the support of Red Tories and win over Blue Grits.

For the last two weeks, the testimony of Nigel Wright and other former PMO staffers at the Mike Duffy trial has put Harper on the defensive -- and completely off-message -- at his daily media availabilities.

His most awkward moment came last week when he was asked whether he still had confidence in his chief-of-staff Ray Novak, his longest-serving aide. "When people are working for me they have my confidence," he replied. "If they didn't have my confidence they wouldn't be working for me."

A simple "yes" would have sufficed.

More bad news!

Harper was the one who called this election early, knowing the Duffy trial would resume at mid-month and put him in an adversarial media spotlight every single day. He could be at Harrington Lake right now, resting up for a campaign that could have started next week and run for seven weeks -- still two weeks longer than the typical campaign. Harper's call became Harper's problem.

And then there's the economy, Harper's signature issue.

This week's turmoil in markets has finally pushed the Duffy trial out of the top headlines. The Dow opened down more than 1,000 points Monday -- its steepest intraday loss in history. The TSX opened down 769 points. The closing numbers Monday, with New York off nearly 600 points and Toronto down more than 400, were regarded as rallies, and markets surged at the opening Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the price of oil fell below $40 a barrel -- a full $15 below Ottawa's prediction in its forecast for the current fiscal year. And the loonie fell to 75 cents U.S., its lowest level in more than a decade.

All this bad news may actually play to Harper's perceived strength as a competent steward of the economy in a volatile period. At an announcement at the Quebec City waterfront Tuesday, there was only one question about the Duffy trial, which recessed this week until after the election.

This may offer Harper and the Conservatives an opportunity to push the reset button on their campaign.

Up to now, they've been campaigning by rote -- travelling from one cookie-cutter photo op to another, coming up with excellent visuals but playing to thin crowds. There's no sense of excitement on the Harper tour. He may be comfortable inside the bubble, but he's not growing his campaign.

Harper needs to step up his game. So does his campaign team. That means they need to stop screwing up.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Election 2015

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