WATCH ABOVE: Prime Minister Stephen Harper is feeling the pressure to do more for refugees trying to flee Syria. Jacques Bourbeau reports.
WELLAND, Ont. – The blame game has begun in earnest among some senior Conservatives, as interpersonal rivalries bubble away below the surface and longtime stalwarts worry about the state of the campaign.
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Stephen Harper himself finds himself an even more solitary figure this week, with his right-hand man and friend Ray Novak dispatched to work in the party’s war room in Ottawa rather than accompany the leader. Campaign manager Jenni Byrne is also back in the capital this week.
Where lively personalities such as Sen. Mike Duffy and the late finance minister Jim Flaherty used to pump up events during the 2011 election, the energy of the campaign now often rests almost solely on Harper’s shoulders.
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On Wednesday, for example, Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson appeared only for introductory and closing comments at an event, despite the Syrian refugee crisis continuing to dominate headlines.
Indeed, Harper should be showcasing the experience and expertise his cabinet has gained, suggested one longtime Conservative activist.
“In a very long campaign like this you can afford to take ministers along with you. He has a lot of advantages as the incumbent.”
Disadvantages, too – most notably the inertia and sluggishness that can naturally afflict a party that has spent nearly a decade in power.
Several senior Conservative insiders – speaking to on the condition of anonymity for fear of party reprisals – had different opinions and gripes about what is ailing the campaign.
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They all agreed it clearly “wasn’t firing on all cylinders,” as one person put it.
One source said cabinet ministers are being encouraged by party stalwarts to speak to Harper about how the campaign can be helped.
Regional organizers and ministers are not being consulted regularly nor drawn into the loop on issues as they arise in the campaign, the source said. The assessment is one of a general lack of nimbleness, which means Harper’s rivals have been able to frame parts of the electoral debate.
“It’s down to the bunker,” said another, noting Harper has made the circle of advisers around him even tighter than previous elections.
One Conservative went so far as to call it “open mutiny,” saying many Tories are simply not pitching in to help with the campaign out of disenchantment.
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Campaign manager Jenni Byrne is a polarizing figure, with some defending her record as a competent strategist and organizer. Others say her hyper-partisan instincts have resulted in Harper being poorly advised on the Syrian refugee crisis in particular.
“(Byrne) speaks to the worst instincts in Harper,” said another Conservative.
While the core “base” of the Conservative party might not be in favour of bringing in more refugees, the issue is one that has Canadians talking and the premiers and mayors across the country springing to action.
Harper repeats his campaign promise to bring in another 10,000 Syrian refugees, but the government’s current 10,000 promise has brought in only 1,074 people to date. He will not comment on how the government is speeding up the process.
At a campaign Q&A event with the Ontario Chamber of Commerce in Welland, Ont., supporters heckled reporters as they asked a series of questions about the crisis spreading across Europe.
Byrne’s decision to travel on and off with Harper on the road rather than manage the campaign full time from headquarters in Ottawa is also being raised repeatedly as a bad idea – it’s hard to see the big picture from inside the election-bus bubble.
Her brittle relationship with campaign chairman Guy Giorno is another factor in the bellyaching behind the scenes. Some Conservatives are loyal to Giorno, while others say Byrne is unfairly bearing the brunt of the blame.
“If Ray (Novak) is back in the war room and Harper needs someone with him he can trust, Jenni (Byrne) would fill that role,” said an Ottawa insider.
Meanwhile, there are dark stories travelling through the ranks about poor polling numbers in places like Edmonton, where several seats could be in jeopardy.
When asked by a reporter Wednesday how he was going to give his campaign a boost, Harper repeated his main message.
“For our government, we’re going to continue a plan that created jobs, a plan based on a balanced budget and lower taxes, and I’m convinced that will be the choice of voters,” Harper said.