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Tories can learn from Stephen Harper’s experience after 2004 election, says senior Conservative senator


Don Plett, leader of the Conservative Party’s Senate caucus, gives former Prime Minister Stephen Harper credit for learning from campaign mistakes in the 2004 election.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A senior Conservative senator has appealed for support from party members by invoking the name of Stephen Harper, weeks after an election in which the Tories largely avoided public mention of the former prime minister.

In a fundraising letter to members, Don Plett, leader of the Conservative Party’s Senate caucus, encourages Tories to recall the 2004 experiences of Mr. Harper. A copy of the letter was obtained by The Globe and Mail.

In that election – Mr. Harper’s first as leader of the Tories – the party held the Liberals under former finance minister Paul Martin to a minority government.

“Despite the conventional wisdom of the political elite, Stephen Harper proved them all wrong in 2004 – just like Erin O’Toole did in the recent federal election,” Mr. Plett wrote in his Oct. 25 letter.

Of the 2004 election, the senator writes, “That’s the one we learned the most from.”

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The senator gives Mr. Harper full credit for learning from campaign mistakes. “At Stephen Harper’s direction, we examined every aspect of the campaign and zeroed in on the things we had to change. I’m pleased that Erin O’Toole is taking the same approach.”

In the recent election campaign, Mr. O’Toole did not appear with Mr. Harper on the campaign trail or generally refer to him.

Mr. O’Toole served in Mr. Harper’s cabinet as minister of veterans affairs.

In an interview with The Globe, Mr. Plett said the party in 2004 needed to ramp up its ethnic outreach – something he said Conservatives should reflect on now – as well as making a more concerted appeal for support in Atlantic Canada, and deploying new voter-contact strategies.

The Conservatives built on the 2004 campaign to win a minority government in 2006. They were re-elected with another minority two years later. Then, Mr. Harper led the Conservatives to a majority in 2011.

In his letter, the senator asks Conservatives to sign an enclosed pledge of support and send it back so he can forward it to Leader Erin O’Toole, the party president and the chair of the Conservative Fund “to signal your rock-solid commitment to our party and the values and principles we hold dear.” The senator also asks for a donation of $600, $900 or “even $1,200.”

Asked about the references to Mr. Harper, Mr. Plett noted that he was writing to Conservatives and not the general public.

“It needs to be read in that context, that I am writing to the party, to supporters, many of whom personally know Don Plett, and very probably know Stephen Harper,” said the former Conservative Party president appointed to the Senate in 2009 on the recommendation of Mr. Harper.

The senator said Mr. Harper was an “excellent leader,” but that he has found positive qualities in both Andrew Scheer – Mr. Harper’s successor – and Mr. O’Toole, who was elected party leader in 2020.

During the campaign this year, Mr. O’Toole did appear with former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, who endorsed the Conservative Leader. However, Mr. Mulroney has since raised questions about how Mr. O’Toole is handling the issue of caucus members who do not want to be vaccinated.

James Cumming, a former Edmonton Centre Tory MP, is working on an assessment of the Conservative campaign, examining issues that include the work of the party election team and Mr. O’Toole himself.

Mr. Plett said such reflection is an inherent Conservative response to losing elections. “We look at what did we do wrong and spend the next few years trying to fix it.”

He said the “jury is out” on the success of this fundraising appeal to Conservative supporters.

Party spokesperson Cory Hann said in an e-mail to The Globe that the party sought pledges of support “and we’ve already received countless replies of people doing just that.” He did not provide specific figures.

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