Stephen Harper turns to Australian campaigner Lynton Crosby

For campaign magic, Harper turns to a wizard from Oz

Australian campaign whiz Lynton Crosby is coming to Canada to help the Conservatives.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Steve Back/REX (3522877h) Lynton Crosby, David Cameron's campaigne manager' Cabinet meeting at Downing Street, London, Britain - 21 Jan 2014. (Steve Back/REX/CP)

Lynton Crosby, David Cameron’s campaign manager, at a cabinet meeting at Downing Street in London. (Photo by Steve Back/REX)

Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are reaching overseas for expert election help in a bid to regain their footing and halt a slide in the polls, bringing in globetrotting Australian campaign doctor Lynton Crosby.

Crosby is known as the Wizard from Oz, and is considered one of the world’s top political strategists. He helped David Cameron retain the prime minister’s office in Britain, and just last month engineered victory in Sri Lanka’s election.

Crosby also helped Boris Johnson get elected mayor of London.

The Conservatives have looked abroad for ideas in the past, but this is the first time they’ve brought in a fixer from overseas in mid-campaign. The campaign had already been speaking to Crosby, but he joins the team as they refocus following several weeks of being forced off their main messages.

Crosby will take over framing the campaign message, which is typically a Harper strong suit, but has been a problem in this election.

He’s coming in to back up Jenni Byrne, the Conservatives’ national campaign director, who was the subject of anonymous grumbling earlier this week. Ray Novak, Harper’s chief of staff, has been put in charge of staffing for the campaign, and the war room may bring in some additional fresh blood and reinforcements for the remaining 39 days.

Related: Is this Stephen Harper’s last stand?

Maclean’s spoke to three Conservatives about Byrne, who complained that she’s kept smart, experienced people out of the party’s war room, while relying on a tight circle of friends, notably spokesman Kory Teneycke, party operative Lynette Corbett, who is Byrne’s best friend, and Novak, with who Byrne has worked for 15 years.

Introducing the Maclean’s Bulldog edition


Others suggest that criticism comes from people who don’t like being sidelined during a campaign.

The 2015 campaign is, to put it mildly, not going the way the Conservatives would like. Some polls have them in third place and on most days reporters question Harper not about whatever policy he has announced, but about Syrian refugees, a faltering economy or whether he still trusts his staff or candidates.

The Canadian Conservatives have in the past shared tactics and strategies with the Australian Liberals and British Conservatives. In fact, Crosby worked on the UK Tories to make overtures to what British strategists call BME (black, minority, ethnic) communities, similar to the work Jason Kenney did for the Conservatives with minority communities in Canada. Speaking to British Tories, Crosby contrasted Boris Johnson’s concerted strategy of outreach to ethnic minority voters with the UK Conservatives’ failure, so far, to do anything similar. But he cautioned — as he has heard from Harper’s team and as he saw with Johnson — any outreach strategy must be implemented through serious effort over time. It can’t be a gimmick.

Crosby was the subject of controversy in 2012 when the Daily Mail reported he’d referred to Muslims in a derogatory way. Quoting an anonymous source, the Daily Mail reported Crosby had told Johnson to stop spending so much time on “f****** Muslims.” Crosby denied it and pointed to his work encouraging closer ties to minority communities.

The BBC reported in 2013 that Cameron’s Tories had a contract worth half a million pounds, or about $835,000, with Crosby, his business partner and their staff ahead of the 2015 UK election.

Related: Who is Lynton Crosby? Aaron Wherry learns more

When it comes to Byrne, one must try to sort fact from fiction.

The long-time Harper loyalist has cultivated a legend as strong as her bond with the boss. She declines almost all interview requests, despite her prominence as the national campaign director for the federal Conservatives (her counterparts, the NDP’s Anne McGrath and Liberal Katie Telford, do interviews, particularly since it’s notable that all three campaign directors this year are women).

Byrne also eschews the sort of Hill events where she might run into journalists on a casual basis. That lack of information about one of Harper’s most-trusted advisers has only fed the mythology.

Her reputation is one of an enforcer: Byrne strikes fear into the hearts of staffers and MPs alike, partly because she’s the one who calls when they’re in trouble, but mostly because a dressing-down by Byrne is an exceedingly unpleasant experience. Those who have witnessed it say she gets loud and isn’t afraid of expressing her displeasure, even in front of a meeting full of staffers.

Those who spoke to Maclean’s spoke on condition of anonymity.

Jason Lietaer, who worked in the Conservative war room in 2008 and 2011, and is a friend of Byrne’s, says he’s been proud to work beside her.

“In 2006, 2008 and 2011, we wouldn’t have won any of those campaigns without Jenni Byrne in various roles, but certainly as a key part of the leadership team,” he said.

“She’s going to prove the detractors wrong.”

Friends and colleagues say Byrne isn’t afraid to be the one to discipline the team, but is also kind and generous, and doesn’t enjoy that enforcer role. She simply sees it as part of the job, and has a single-minded focus about accomplishing the jobs assigned to her. That is part of what’s gotten her to where she is: running her second national political campaign before her 40th birthday.

She’s also said to be of one mind with the party’s grassroots, having been raised in small-town Ontario, in Fenelon Falls, just outside of Toronto’s eastern outskirts. Byrne started nursing school but never finished, caught up in the intensity of politics and taken with Harper’s plan to remake Canada.

Her affinity for the Conservative leader’s politics goes hand-in-hand with another of her of her legendary abilities: Byrne is said to have a knack for thinking like Harper, although in a disagreement between her and Novak, it’s with him Harper sides almost every time.

But while Byrne spent time in Calgary during the Canadian Alliance days, one long-time Conservative who used to work with her suggested her knowledge of the grassroots is incomplete: she’s weaker when it comes to understanding the libertarian spirit of the western side of the party.

Even if Byrne is sidelined now, with a professional hired gun taking over messaging and Harper’s most trusted adviser in charge of staffing, she’s got a solid reputation within the party. When it comes to the Conservatives’ highs and lows, she played a significant role in getting them to the highs, and was fighting in the trenches during the lows. But one of her detractors suggests Byrne might find it lonely if the party can’t recover from its initial campaign stumbles, telling Maclean’s it’s a better idea to make friends on the way up so one has someone to rely on for the trip back down.

—With files by Paul Wells



For campaign magic, Harper turns to a wizard from Oz

  1. Well, if we thought Harper showed no compassion, wait till this bulldozer takes over the Con campaign.
    Just read a few profiles on the guy. Karl Rove looks like the tooth fairy compared to this knuckle-dragger from Down Under.

    • This is Operation Swiftboat. The Harper collective has learned nothing and is destined to go down in flames.

    • So Karl Rove was unavailable?

  2. We already have Panda Bears, do we really need a Koala Bear trying to tell us how we should live in our own country, the cons barbarized Iggy in the last election about coming from the US to become a PM in Canada. It’s almost as bad as having citizen of Paris as PM of Canada. Remember, they didn’t come back for you!

  3. Lynton Crosby’s record is hit-and-miss. Wikipedia notes: “In March 2009 it was announced that Crosby would direct the Europe-wide Libertas campaign for the June 2009 European Parliament elections. Despite running 600 candidates, the movement only managed to get one MEP elected, and folded shortly after.”

    Here’s the sort of campaign familiar to the “Lizard of Oz”, Harper’s new handler: ‘This reputation grew into a wider notoriety during the 2001 campaign. Over the previous few years, a new, anti-immigrant, Ukip-style party, One Nation, had eaten into the Liberal vote. In response, according to David Marr and Marian Wilkinson in their 2003 book Dark Victory, Howard began increasingly to aim his rhetoric at Australians “who feared their country was being invaded by Muslim boat people’ – refugees from Asia. Then, early in the election campaign, there was a confused and fraught confrontation between an Australian naval vessel and a shipload of Afghans. Without finding out exactly what had happened, Howard and the Liberals claimed repeatedly and inaccurately that some of the Afghans had thrown their children into the sea in order to force Australia to grant asylum. ‘We decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,’ declared Howard, and Crosby’s campaign machine swiftly had the carefully chosen words turned into a slogan for posters, pamphlets and advertisements. By the time the Liberals’ version of what had happened out at sea fell apart, the election campaign was almost over, and Howard had effectively won.”

  4. They could fix Harp’s make-up for starters…..put his wedding ring back on….show him using a Blackberry…….nah, not even those things would help.

  5. Is it merely a coincidence that this morning’s accusations about the father of Aylan Kurd originated from an interview on an Australian TV network that carries FOX News?

  6. I think this is in violation of the Elections Act section 331 No person who does not reside in Canada shall, during an election period, in any way induce electors to vote or refrain from voting or vote or refrain from voting for a particular candidate unless the person is
    (a) a Canadian citizen; or
    (b) a permanent resident within the meaning of subsection 2(1) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.