Our confrères in Quebec are noting with great care and no particular delight the writings of Angelo Persichilli, veteran journalist in Italian and English, and newly-named communications director for Stephen Harper. In one column about 18 months ago Persichilli discerned the presence of “the over-representation of francophones in our bureaucracy,” and complained about the “annoying lament” from Quebec.
Persichilli, whose journalism I have not often lauded to the skies, is a gentle fellow and as soon as this became trouble he promised to be super-nice to the French types. The PMO clearly has no interest in being overtly antagonistic toward francophones. Persichilli (like John Williamson, one of several unilingual predecessors in the post) will apparently spend little time talking to Ottawa reporters in any language. That task will fall, on most days, to Andrew MacDougall, a well-liked and very bilingual PMO staffer. And yet my colleagues from Quebec worry.
They are right to worry. Persichilli’s appointment is significant, not for whom it snubs, but for what it represents: a significant reallocation of Conservative attention and energy toward another target, the great big ethnic stew pot of Persichilli’s Toronto stomping ground.
My text here comes from Tom Flanagan, the University of Calgary political scientist. Here I have to emphasize, as reporters rarely do, that although Flanagan used to work closely with Harper, that relationship is done done done. Flanagan probably gets a wee trickle of inside information from friends of friends, but mostly these days he relies on his eyes and wit to figure out what’s happening in Ottawa. And his big post-election analysis for the June Policy Options magazine (.pdf) is all about what we might now call the Persichilli phenomenon:
“When he reentered electoral politics in 2002, Stephen Harper wanted to reconstitute Brian Mulroney’s coalition of western populists, traditional Tories and francophone nationalists; but when the francophone pillar of the coalition proved unstable, he was able to replace francophones with sizable elements of Canada’s ethnic communities.”
Conservatives who tell me they’re really excited about Persichilli’s appointment point not to his sometimes pretty impressionistic columns in the Star but to his c.v., which includes a stint as news director for newscasts of several different languages at Omni TV. Omni, and the Chinese television juggernaut Fairchild, and Punjabi talk radio, and the daily Tsing Tao and Ming Pao newspapers, figure ever higher on the Conservative priority list. Their audience numbers are really high. Their audiences don’t get a lot of news anywhere else — Star readers read the Sun (no really, they do, or many do) and listen to satellite radio and got misty when Lloyd Robertson signed off last night and may have a few blogs they like. Ming Pao readers read Ming Pao.
And increasingly they vote Conservative. Is the party’s hegemony among new Canadians complete? Ha! not on your life. Liberals and New Democrats remain highly competitive, even dominant, in some communities. So the Conservatives keep chipping away. Flanagan (with my (probably unneeded) emphasis):
“This increase in ethnic support released a treasure trove of seats for the Conservatives. In the Greater Toronto Area, once the Liberal equivalent of the Tory Fortress Alberta, the Conservatives won 30 of 45 seats in the recent election, including many in areas such as Brampton that are heavily ethnic. It was this batch of new seats in Ontario, mainly in the GTA, that gave the Tories their majority in 2011, for they actually had a net loss of seats outside Ontario…
The Conservatives would still have a majority in 2011 even if they had won no seats at all in Quebec…
[Flanagan goes on to delight game theory geeks everywhere with really interesting discussions of the "minimum winning coalition" and the "minimum connected winning coalition," which can be defined as the smallest amount of coherent support that will guarantee victory. If it's connected you want, he said, new Canadians are a great target because many live, think and vote like prairie populists and small-government conservatives.] In contrast, francophone nationalists always present a problem, even when they can be brought to offer support to the Conservatives. They tend to have an instrumental orientation toward the federal government, seeing it primarily as a source of benefits for Quebec. This raises resistance among other Conservatives, who fear they will have to pay for these benefits to Quebec. …
In practice, French support in Quebec for the Conservatives was always fragile. Think how easily the issue of ‘culture cuts’ dislodged Conservative supporters in Quebec in 2008, even after the Conservatives had built a beachhead into the province in 2006. By comparison, the support of ethnic voters in Toronto and other metropolitan areas seems more likely to be stable, precisely because the Conservatives have attracted those ethnic voters who were already most like themselves in terms of demographics and politics.”
Now, one hire in the PMO won’t guarantee the continued success of this strategy. Nothing guarantees any strategy’s success. But a strategy is likelier to succeed if it is pursued than if it isn’t. Dimitri Soudas, who joined Harper from the Montreal mayor’s office in 2002 when Flanagan was still in Ottawa and Quebec was crucial to the game, is gone. Persichilli is moving in, and he won’t be paying much more attention to me in English than to Joël-Denis Bellavance in French. The game is elsewhere.