Over the weekend, Conservative Party of Canada Leader Rona Ambrose posted a couple of pictures of her chatting and with the four Progressive Conservative party leaders across Atlantic Canada.
PC Leader Paul Davis’s back was to the camera, but by the look of it, he was smiling and nobody was fighting with anybody.
This, in and of itself, is a notable change in tone from a year ago, when Stephen Harper was prime minister and Davis was embroiled in a bitter fight with Ottawa over the fisheries provisions in the CETA free trade deal.
But after both federal and provincial Tories suffered ballot-box defeats last fall, Newfoundland and Labrador Conservatives are saying it’s time to mend fences.
In conversations with The Telegram, both federal and provincial Tories acknowledge how damaging the years of fighting have been.
A lot of that, conservative strategist and vice-chairman of Summa Strategies Tim Powers said, comes down to how the federal party was seen in Atlantic Canada.
“Let me put it simply this way: you can’t be a prick all of the time and not expect to get punched in the face,” Powers said. “Conservatives, generally, were seen fairly or unfairly as a bunch of friggin’ pricks, and people had enough of their prickish behaviour.”
Powers said a lot of that can be chalked up to the leader, and with Harper out of the picture, there’s a real chance to rebuild.
“Unfortunately for Stephen Harper, he was loathed in Newfoundland and Labrador,” Powers said. “That was a major issue. Any data that I saw, that we commissioned at Abacus, only reinforced the notion that anybody who wore a blue jersey in Newfoundland and Labrador would be weighted down by the disdain that the vast majority of the province had for Stephen Harper.”
Ambrose is serving as interim leader, and as the party prepares for a leadership election in 2017, there are signs that outreach in Newfoundland and Labrador is already underway.
“I’m very much looking forward to the leadership process as a whole,” said Devin Drover, former head of the MUN Campus Conservatives, and a key organizer for the federal party in Newfoundland. “I’m looking forward to many of the interested contenders arriving in Newfoundland and Labrador to meet with our membership, meet with our party’s grassroots here.”
Drover said he doesn’t believe the Conservatives need to change their message to make it more palatable in this province.
“Just knocking on doors of Newfoundlanders in the St. John’s area, for example, they share a lot of the same principles that we should be sharing as a party,” Drover said. “They believe in limited government. They don’t want a lot of red tape to start a business in the city, for example, or to re-licence their car or apply for a hunting licence.”
That was a sentiment shared by Conservative Senator David Wells.
“The Conservative philosophy is more about individual accountability and responsibility and, frankly, less government intrusion in people’s lives,” he said. “I don’t think the Conservative Party of Canada should change its message just to curry favour in some quarters.”