Amere 10 days before last Monday’s showdown, the Liberal high command was dangerously complacent, almost cocky. The election was viewed as a cakewalk to another term. Sure, there had been some slippage in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba—but no one was overly concerned.
Then, the bottom fell out of the campaign. Overnight, on Friday, May 23, the Liberals plummeted to the low 30s among decided voters in their own polls, sliding from potential majority to minority status. That drop, largely due to the party’s declining fortunes in Atlantic Canada and the West, transformed the election into a nail-biting, hair-pulling cliff-hanger. And even though the Liberals squeaked through with a slim majority, the results left the party battered and bruised. “It was supposed to be a walk in the garden,” said one rueful Liberal adviser. ‘That was wrong.”
That may be the understatement of this intriguing campaign. Throughout the first 3V2 weeks of the election, the Liberals were on automatic pilot because their support, although gradually slipping, was still comfortably high.
But after that fateful Friday, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and his rattled party found themselves in a new ball game. In desperation, they flung everything into a final 10-day pitch for support. They blanketed Vancouver and Edmonton with ads that denounced the Reform party’s commitment to health care—in a bid to attract female voters who put higher emphasis on social programs. In Eastern and Central Canada, they concentrated their fire on Conservative Leader Jean Charest—because, to their horror, more voters, in every region, now believed he would make a better prime minister than Chrétien. In Atlantic Canada, they considered—but did not run—an unusual “contrition” ad that apologized for not providing full explanations of their economic plans. Instead, they ran ads vowing that spending cuts were over.
And they deployed the secret weapon they had been reserving, in case of emergency, from the start of the campaign: they invoked the memory of former prime minister Brian Mulroney. Day after day, cabinet ministers such as Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps, Liberal premiers such as Newfoundland’s Brian Tobin, and Chrétien himself pointedly reminded voters that Charest had been
a member of the highly unpopular Mulroney cabinet. ‘We had to blow up the bridge to Charest’s credibility,” says a senior Liberal. “It was our last card.”
Through interviews with senior advisers from all parties, most of whom asked to remain anonymous, Maclean’s has pieced together the campaign saga. It is a tale that will likely ensure that future governments think twice before they call an early election.
In retrospect, the Liberals were forewarned. Insiders say that, starting last December, party pollster Michael Marzolini, chairman of POLLARA, peppered the campaign strategy committee with closed-door presentations that recited the perils of an early election call. The Liberals had romped to victory in the Oct. 25, 1993, election—and, technically, did not have to go to the polls before the fall of 1998. The POLLARA warnings were stark. Go early, especially without a major issue, and the voters could rebel, asking why politicians were knocking on their doors when they had not produced the promised jobs. Wait, at least until the fall—and the voters might accept the argument that, even though there was more work to do on the economy, parliamentary tradition required an election. Campaign co-ordinator John Rae, campaign director Gordon Ashworth and Chrétien’s principal secretary, Eddie Goldenberg, brushed aside those warnings. The economy was thriving; the government was well ahead of its deficit targets; interest rates might rise in the fall, slowing growth; the Liberals would secure their mandate before the Quebec election and referendum battles; and they were comfortably ahead in the polls. The momentum became unstoppable.
To the Liberals’ dismay, their April 27 campaign kickoff became the first controversial event of the election. Chrétien seemed flat and unemotional as he read in a monotone from notes. He even stumbled over his explanation for the early call. Most of the nation appeared indifferent—but Manitobans, fighting rising floodwaters, were furious. Overnight, their opinion of Chrétien as a leader nosedived. And although the Liberals saturated the province with ads featuring their Manitoba team over the ensuing weeks, they never managed to recover.
It was an unimpressive start to two weeks of even more unimpressive Liberal campaigning. Strategists agree that the Liberals could not clearly define their so-called ballot question: what they wanted voters to ask themselves when they entered the polling booth. The Prime Minister was supposed to position himself as a prudent manager who needed a new mandate to proceed with job creation and the protection of social programs—in the face of Tory and Reform demands for a tax cut. But Chrétien muddied that message within days of the election call when he announced $6.5 billion in new spending. Insiders argued that he should never mention the deficit—because it meant little to Canadians’ daily lives—un-
less he made the link between a balanced budget and job creation. But he rarely established that crucial connection.
As Chrétien proceeded placidly, almost halfheartedly, through his paces, Reform party Leader Preston Manning saw his chance. Last fall, to firm up his base in the West, Manning repeatedly visited party strongholds across the Prairies and in B.C. regions such as the Fraser Valley and the Okanagan. In January, he told his 49 MPs that they would have to take responsibility for keeping those seats, while his campaign would focus on winning another 50 targeted ridings: 20 in Western Canada, 25 in Ontario and a handful in the Atlantic provinces.
It was an astute move. Day after day, Manning moved across the country, pounding his Liberal and Tory opponents—and
stressing how his platform differed from theirs. He secured copies of the Liberals’ Red Book of policies before its release. “That allowed us to frame what their platform was about: ‘Goodbye Red Book, Hello Chequebook,’ ” says Reform campaign director Rick Anderson. “It put them on the defensive.” Reform support began to move up in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.
More important, Manning managed to overshadow his opponents. Between the Manitoba floods and the Bre-X Minerals Ltd. gold-mining scandal, there was little room for five parties on the news. In particular, coverage of Charest was often reduced to snippets of the leader announcing a policy tidbit from his platform. Eventually, Tory strategists realized that Charest himself should be front and centre, not his policies. They switched his daily events from factories or other sites meant to serve as backdrops to his policy announcements, to enthusiastic encounters with supporters. ‘We put our own campaign on ice,” concedes a strategist. “We wanted voters to think about leadership for the future.” That move also shifted attention away from the Tories’ platform, which flung about numbers with reckless disregard for the basic laws of addition—but which continued to hobble Charest throughout the campaign.
The only real movement prior to the May 12 and 13 televised leaders’ debates occurred in Quebec, where Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe began the campaign by stumbling from gaffe to
gaffe. On April 29, at a cheese factory in Sorel, he sported a plastic hair net. Then, he made a nearfatal error: he fired a bus driver after he got lost en route to a campaign stop. Strategists now agree that this was the deed that was too much for Quebec voters: the bus driver was a real person, with fam ily to support and bills to pay. Duceppe’s standing plummeted.
The second stage of the campaign began when former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau wandered— not so innocently—into the fray. In an excerpt from his new book (officially published on May 8), Parizeau hinted that he would have issued a unilateral declaration of independence if Quebecers had voted Yes in the October, 1995, referendum. Although the former premier subsequently backed away from this interpretation, the emotional issue of national unity was suddenly on the campaign table. And when the future of Canada was re-emphasized during the leaders’ debates, it changed the election course. Commentators in both English and French Canada agreed that Charest had performed the best. But with the exception of Quebec, where the Tories shot upward and the Bloc sunk to dismal lows, the fallout from the debates was slow to register. In the rest of Canada, the only immediate effect was a slight decline in Liberal and NDP popularity—and a slight rise in Tory and Reform support. Still, the renewed interest in Charest, especially in the wake of the second French-language leaders’ debate on May 18, was enough to prod Reform strategists into highly controversial action. To maintain momentum, Manning began to point out that his two main opponents were Quebecers—and that Canadians from the rest of Canada deserved a voice in the unity debate. At the same time, within three days of that second debate, Reform filmed an explosive ad on national unity that lumped Charest and Chrétien together with Duceppe and separatist Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard. It debuted on May 21.
Meanwhile, the NDP was lowering its sights from its targeted 50 seats. The party entered the campaign with nine MPs and a defiantly left-wing platform that combined $12 billion in annual tax increases with about $20 billion in new spending. Because leader Alexa McDonough cheerfully confessed that the NDP had no hope of forming the government, those proposals were largely ignored—while support for the New Democrats rose during the first two weeks of the campaign. But the party’s frank admission eventually prompted many voters to assume that a vote for the NDP was a wasted vote. As support slipped, strategists threw their formidable grassroots organization behind 26 high-profile candidates. That plan largely worked: Canadians who wanted to register a protest vote gravitated towards those candidates because they felt comfortable with them.
On Saturday, May 24, as they peered at their polls, the Liberals rolled into the final phase of the campaign: the fight for their life.
In the West, Reform’s national unity message had rallied support behind a homegrown party that would assert a regional voice. In Atlantic Canada, with Charest poised to scoop up as many as 26 of the region’s 32 seats—the Liberals had won 31 in 1993—the voters had finally put their lingering dislike of Mulroney behind them, partly because of their loathing of the Liberals’ new blended sales tax. (In fact, the Liberals had to scrap an ad that featured their cabinet team because focus groups zeroed in on Copps’s presence, which, in turn, reminded them of her broken promise to scrap the GST.)
In Quebec, the Tories, saddled with poor organization and many weak candidates, were waning. Boosted by Chrétien’s assertion that he would not recognize a “50-per-cent-plusone” result in a sovereignty referendum, the Bloc was regaining strength outside of the Montreal area—dashing Liberal hopes for major gains. In Ontario, opposition parties were pecking away at Liberal support: Reform in central rural ridings, Tories in suburban Toronto, and New Democrats in downtown Toronto and the north.
Panicked, senior Liberals honed their strategy. As their healthcare ads saturated Edmonton and Vancouver, they ensured that party workers would take female voters to the polls on election day. They let Reform hurt itself in Ontario: that controversial ad lumping Chrétien and Charest with the separatists destroyed their critical margin of support within central Ontario, costing them most of the handful of seats that they had the potential to win.
Instead, the Liberals focused their attention on Charest’s credibility. Party polling showed that the issue of leadership was a
Panicking Liberals attacked Charest's credibility
high priority for eight out of 10 potential Tory and Liberal voters: burned by past promises, they would not look at a platform unless they trusted a leader to implement it. In the last week of the campaign, provincial premiers attacked Charest’s plans to transfer tax points to the provinces to pay for health and education, arguing that he would penalize poorer regions. When Charest countered that his critics were “liars,” and when he was drawn into an ill-advised description of his relationship with Mulroney, the Liberals pounced in a co-ordinated attack.
Strategists were divided, however, about what issue Chrétien should emphasize in the final days. Senator Michael Kirby urged that the emphasis be on health care. Rae insisted that national unity, especially Chrétien’s strong stand against the recognition of 50-per-cent-plus-one results in a referendum, would carry the day. Marzolini repeatedly stressed jobs. In the end, the party stuck to its economic message: stay the course with a Liberal majority—and the jobs will come. The Liberals inched back upward, often a percentage point at a time, in their internal polls. In the end, enough of the Liberal vote survived for a slim majority. But the party has been chastened. And it is a sure bet that they will never, ever take their support for granted again. □
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