Earlier this month, with a possible election imminent, opposition MPs pounced on an embarrassing internal memo that seemed to reveal the Conservative party’s strategy for winning over votes in “very ethnic” ridings.
With the election now on, that strategy seems very much be in play.
When it comes to wooing voters, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives don’t tend to pitch broad sweeping visions designed to win broad sweeping mandates.
Instead, they tend to reach out to select groups of Canadians in incremental ways.
In the three elections the Conservative Party has fought since its creation in 2003, it went from narrowly losing a minority in 2004, to narrowly winning a minority in 2006, to winning a slightly less narrow minority in 2008.
In its quest for a majority, the party’s strategy is to focus intently on handfuls of specific ridings and on handfuls of specific groups of voters who may put them over the top in those ridings. A targeted tax cut here, a symbolic recognition of a historic wrong there, and soon enough a narrow majority builds voter-by-voter, group-by-group, riding-by-riding.
Or so the thinking goes.
That’s where the “very ethnic” ridings come into play. For the Conservatives, traditionally Liberal ridings with significant populations of ethnic minority groups are seen as ripe for the picking. The party made some promising gains in many of those ridings in 2008, and is hoping to make a number of breakthroughs this time around.
The internal memo that fell into the hands of the Conservative Party’s opponents revealed the party had identified a number of ridings across the country with substantial populations of voters from particular ethnic groups. Conservatives were formulating a plan to win these ridings.
As embarrassed as Conservatives may have been by the revelation of the memo, the ethnic strategy has been much in evidence since the campaign began.
In the first five days of his campaign tour, Harper chose to visit Brampton, outside of Toronto, twice. He also made a stop in Burnaby, B.C. Both of those areas have large communities of new Canadians.
In his speeches at these stops, Harper has not been subtle about the “very ethnic” pitch, tying his audience’s immigrant status into his other major campaign message: That his opponents are plotting a coalition:
“People like you,” he said in Burnaby, “people who have come to this country from all over the world, all the different origins in the world, they’ve all come here because they believe in Canada. And they don’t want Members of Parliament who are going to sign on to Mr. Ignatieff’s reckless idea that he can lose an election and then run Canada backed by the NDP and the Bloc Québécois.”
Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff told a multicultural audience of supporters that his opponent had crossed a line.
“(Harper) said ‘You people, you people who come from other lands.’ ” Ignatieff said. “The last time I heard somebody talk about the ethnic vote, it was out of the mouth of Jacques Parizeau… I don’t want to be the prime minister of you people, I want to be the prime minister of the Canadian people.”
Among the ten “very ethnic” ridings mentioned in the Conservative memo is one riding – Mount Royal, in Montreal – with a large Jewish population. In 2008, Conservative candidate Peter Kent took the Toronto-area riding of Thornhill, the only riding in Canada with a similarly large population of Jewish voters (about 35 per cent of the riding).
Could the Conservative Party win over enough Jewish voters to take Mount Royal riding this time around?
It would be a notable victory, because Mount Royal has voted Liberal since the 1930s, long before it had a significant Jewish population. It was the riding of former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. This is in contrast to Thornhill, which is a very suburban, more small-c conservative swing riding.
Although Harper’s policies and public statements on Israel may have won over some portion of the Jewish community, is it a big enough portion to make a difference in ridings like Mount Royal? When it comes to a final decision at the ballot box, voters tend to focus on domestic issues and leadership, so it’s not even certain if the Canadian government’s relationship with Israel will be a factor in the final vote.
But with the Conservatives only a few “ethnic” ridings away from a majority, expect the furious wooing to continue until election day.