Harper’s campaign kickoff in Liberal stranglehold a strategic decision: ex-senator

Canada Politics
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper (R) shakes hands with a woman while serving pancakes during the Calgary Stampede in Calgary, Alberta, in this file photo taken July 4, 2015. Speculation mounted on Thursday that Canada's election campaign would formally begin on Sunday, with the governing Conservatives planning a Montreal rally with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Sunday evening. REUTERS/Crystal Schick/Files

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision to attend a Sunday rally in the downtown Montreal riding of Mount Royal sets the tone for what one former Tory senator says could be a “historic” campaign.

Hugh Segal, who resigned from the Red Chamber last summer in order to become Master at Massey College at the University of Toronto, says the 2015 campaign will be a memorable one — and not only for its historic length, at an expected 78 days.

Instead, he says, the campaign could mark a Tory breakthrough in a riding that has historically been a Liberal stranglehold. Past representatives of the Mount Royal riding include: former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, former House of Commons speaker Alan Macnaughton, and the current incumbent, Irwin Cotler, who will be retiring after a lengthy career in public office.

“It’s usually a slam dunk in that riding [for the Liberals],” says Segal. “But the Prime Minister appears to be more optimistic that this could change this time around.”

At the moment, the Conservatives hold only five of 75 seats in Quebec, none of which are on the island of Montreal.

Segal notes that Mount Royal is a riding the Conservatives have been eying for some time, as recent campaigns have seen the erosion of the Liberals Party’s traditional steadfast support. For example, in the 2006 federal campaign, Cotler received more than 65 per cent of the vote. That share of the vote shrunk to about 55 per cent in 2008, and only 41 per cent in 2011.

Reasons for the shift in support towards the Conservatives in the riding stem from demographic change, says Segal. A large Jewish population and Harper’s continued support of Israel have helped lure more voters. As well, a burgeoning Muslim population and a slide in the proportion of Protestants in the riding have helped encourage Conservatives of a possible swing.

Conservative candidate Robert Libman, a former member of Quebec’s National Assembly, mayor of the City of Côte Saint-Luc and advocate for Anglophone rights, won the riding’s contested nomination in late April over former TVA journalist Pascale Déry.

In place of the revered Cotler, the Liberal Party has nominated long-time municipal politician Anthony Housefather, who succeeded Libman as mayor of Côte Saint-Luc.

“Picking [Mount Royal] shows that the Prime Minister isn’t just running up the flag in Quebec,” says Segal. “It’s a key strategic decision with an express purpose in mind — to do something that even [former prime minister] Brian Mulroney couldn’t accomplish with his resounding win in 1984.”