ELECTION SPECIAL

'The icy blue eyes of love'

October 27 2008
ELECTION SPECIAL

'The icy blue eyes of love'

October 27 2008

'The icy blue eyes of love'

ELECTION SPECIAL

FIVE: THE DEBATES

INSTITUTIONAL MEMORY is no help at all to a party that has preferred lately to wipe the slate clean every two years. Of the 15 or so people travelling with the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, precisely one had ever done an election tour before as a political staffer. And that was Alphée Moreau, a former Radio-Canada television producer who handled logistics. The others had been around Ottawa politics for years, but in this business of keeping a tour moving and messaging, they were all brand new. The rookie crew included Andrew Bevan and Geoffroi Montpetit, long-time Dion advisers; Greg Fergus, the party’s third national director since Dion became leader; Mike McNair, the leader’s economic policy adviser, still in his 20s and working on a fresh growth of red beard; and Sarah Bain, press secretary. Mark Dunn, Dion’s communications director—his fourth since becoming leader—had been on leaders’ tours before, but only in the back of the plane, as a reporter with Sun Media.

The role of wise elder was played by Jim Munson, 62, a senator from Ontario. Munson had been a CTV reporter for decades who lost his job in one of the network’s periodic random staff shake-ups. Commiserating phone calls from Chrétien turned, eventually, into a job as the old man’s communications director. When Chrétien retired from public life in 2003, one of his last official acts was to put Jim Munson in the Senate.

Elder statesman is not a role that comes naturally to Munson. In 1976 he got into a shoving match with Pierre Trudeau when Trudeau refused to answer journalists’ questions at a scrum. “They told me I was going to be the stabilizer,” he said of his role with Dion. “Me? The stabilizer? I used to be the s-t disturber.”

By Friday, Sept. 26, Dion needed stabilizing. The midday tracking poll from Nanos Research showed the worst result of the campaign: 40 per cent for the Conservatives, 25 per cent for the Liberals, 19 per cent for the NDP. If Canadians voted that way, it would guarantee Harper a majority. The Liberal number was three points lower than John Turner had won in 1984, the party’s lowest popular vote in modern times.

And now, as Dion was preparing for an event at a farm in Belmont, Ont., word of

Harper’s morning event started to arrive. With banks failing in the U.S. and a global liquidity crisis fast advancing, the Liberals had been hitting Harper hard on his handling of the economy. Now Harper had accused Dion of “trying to drive down confidence in the Canadian economy without foundation— and quite frankly sitting on the sidelines virtually cheering for there to be a recession.”

Dion was furious. In the campaign’s first week Harper had said Dion’s Green Shift was a thinly disguised federal tax grab that would rekindle separatist sentiment in Quebec. Now he was telling people Dion wanted the economy to tank. Before the event on the farm, Dion huddled with Munson and with Herb Metcalfe, another veteran Liberal organizer who had stayed in the private sector while offering Dion constant counsel. The two men frankly thought the emotion they saw in the leader might be an asset. They told him to let it show when he addressed the crowd.

So Dion let loose. At the Belmont farm and again in a rally in London that night, he ditched the teleprompter he had been using for his speeches and simply vented. “He lied today in order to make cheap shots,” he said of Harper. “This is unacceptable. And it says a lot about him and nothing about me.” He said he would debate the

economy any time with Harper “if he wants to discuss it as an adult.”

The crowd at both events loved it. Dion led local newscasts in London, Hamilton, and Kitchener. “You did what you were supposed to,” Munson told the boss.

For weeks they had been working on getting Dion microphone-ready. For more than a decade, since his early days as a minister, he had refused to cut long speeches shorter, refused to rehearse his delivery, shown disdain for the idea that complex arguments must be boiled down. Now they were making progress. Dunn, who can be a bear of a man when provoked, was actually having some success getting Dion to repeat and repeat a speech’s key lines until he could deliver them persuasively. Munson’s selfassigned task was to get Dion to understand that the emotive line wasn’t necessarily a betrayal of the intellectual line.

“Well, sir, what does enhanced productivity mean?”

“.. .Jobs?”

“Well, why don’t we say that? And what do jobs mean?”

“...Hope?”

“Well, we could say that too.”

So as Dion headed into the weekend, he was learning—perilously late—to trust his instincts on the stump; to let his advisers give advice; and, at least occasionally, to prefer words with emotional power over words with many syllables.

On Saturday night at Stornaway, the Opposition leader’s residence, Dion had Metcalfe over for dinner. Metcalfe had new numbers from Marzolini’s overnight polls. He told Dion: “Your numbers are starting to move because people are starting to see passion and conviction.” Dion would need both, because the leaders’ debates were now only days away.

THE DEBATE over the debates, of course, had already happened. Dion and May had a nonaggression pact—he had announced in April 2007 that he would run no candidate against her in Central Nova. They also had a bit of a mutual admiration society going. She greatly preferred him as prime minister over Harper. Dion called her “courageous” for saying so.

That was enough for Layton and Harper to mistrust her immensely. But when their emissaries tried to block her appearing at the debate during negotiations with the broadcast consortium that runs the things, Layton heard an earful from his own supporters. To the NDP’s national campaign staff it was painfully obvious why they did not need competition onstage for votes that might be shaken loose from the Conservatives, Liberals and Bloc. But the party’s supporters were less inclined to think strategically about whether a nice person with values

kind of like their own should be barred from speaking. Emails to the party ran overwhelmingly against keeping May out. Layton couldn’t get his message out because reporters only wanted to know about the debates. “It was a distraction,” Lavigne said. So Layton caved. Harper had said for months he didn’t want the Liberals’ “star candidate in Central Nova,” as he called May, onstage with “her leader.” But he couldn’t be the lone holdout. May would participate.

The person for whom this was the biggest challenge was Harper. He would now have

four people attacking him, not three. He was vulnerable on May’s defining issue, the environment. Worst of all, she was a woman and he had a temper.

“It circles back to the women-vote thing and the need for women to be reassured, that they want someone calm,” a Conservative close to Harper said. “A lot of time was spent in debate prep on getting Stephen ready about how to look at and treat and react to Elizabeth May.”

So they plunked Harper down at a table with cameras all around and they put Line Maheux, a longtime Reform, Canadian Alliance and Conservative spokesperson, next to him. Maheux had one brief: “to be as aggressive as she could and try to piss Ste-

phen off as much as she could.” And Harper had one order from his staffers: to never let it rattle him, and to never stop staring at May with what one adviser called “the icy blue eyes of love.”

“He knew that how he reacted and dealt with her could potentially, in one wrong move, one wrong look, one wrong word, one wrong reaction, be captured and just drive away that vote that they worked so hard to get.”

So Michael Coates, the CEO of Hill & Knowlton Canada, had two jobs as he drilled Harper for the debates. The less important

job was to stand in as the Jack Layton imitator. The most important one was to drive the idea into the leader’s head that he must be calm, reassuring, always on guard against the wrong move. And that he must look at everyone, but especially May, with the icy blue eyes of love.

‘ A lot of time was spent in prep on getting Stephen ready about how to look at May’

It was a profoundly defensive strategy.

Layton was relaxed. Like Harper he was on his third round of leaders’ debates. (Duceppe was on his fifth. Dion and May were newbies.) NDP strategists were acutely aware that, with the U.S. vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin on the same night as the English-language debate, they might have a smaller audience. They decided clips from the debate, replayed ad nauseam on newscasts over the next few nights, might be even more influential than before, so they loaded Jack up with some

zingers. They gave him one target. “We know who we’re going after,” Topp said. “Stephen Harper. The rest is noise.”

With the sputtering economy becoming more and more of a national preoccupation, Dion trusted his fate to a circle of Liberals who were closely associated with the former finance minister, Paul Martin. This caused grumbling among anti-Martin Liberals, but it had real logic to it. Even when Chrétien was leader he had let the Martinites prime him for debates. So Tim Murphy, Martin’s former chief of staff, played Harper in the debate

games. Mark Watton, a Newfoundlander who had worked on the Atlantic desk in Martin’s PMO, was Layton.

Dion is confident about a lot of things, but he is supremely confident about his debating skills. For months Conservatives had been looking forward to an election because they had tape of Dion on a political talk show, days after he became Liberal leader, telling the CBC’s Don Newman he would win the English-language leaders’ debate when it came.

In fact the Liberal team had their work cut out for them. Dion’s prepared answers,

to the surprise of nobody, were baroque masterpieces far too long for the 45-second clock each leader would be required to obey. Dion’s staff dutifully set about trimming his lines. While they were at it, they urged him to look, not at his tormentors around the table, but at the camera. Early word out of the rehearsal studio was that the leader was having a rough time of it.

While they were refining their game, the campaign continued without the leaders. On Monday, Michael Ignatieff gave a major economic speech. Bob Rae had a foreign affairs speech scheduled for Tuesday. Deploying the “team” was delicate business for Dion. Both Rae and Ignatieff had gone to the leadership convention with more support and more friends in caucus than Dion had. Everybody knew both men still wanted his job. In the first week, Dion had campaigned alone, and some reporters said the party’s most visible faces had abandoned him. In the second they campaigned with him and every-

one said they were outperforming him. But now Rae had a surprise in his speech that would boost Liberal confidence when it badly needed to be boosted.

While Rae watched, TV monitors showed a speech Harper had delivered on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Next to Harper were images of John Howard, then Australia’s prime minister, giving a speech of his own 30 hours before Harper’s.

They were the same speech.

For sentence after sentence, somebody had lifted Howard’s arguments and given

them to Harper to parrot. The effect of the side-by-side videos was extraordinary. On a major foreign policy issue, here was Harper speaking with another man’s words. It reinforced a favourite opposition argument, that Harper got all his foreign policy ideas from conservatives in other countries. It undercut a cherished element of the Harper mythology, that he was his party’s leading thinker and his own best speech writer. And it just made him look silly.

The Conservatives’ biggest problem when Rae put on his show was that nobody could remember who’d written the speech. Harper couldn’t remember. The one person who might know, Ken Boessenkool, was out of government—and, the frantic Conservative war room soon learned, currently on an airplane between Calgary and Ottawa. The campaign sent out Kory Teneycke to stall. Draft statements were prepared for any possibility. When Boessenkool’s flight landed, he turned on his BlackBerry and it lit up with so many

messages it nearly jumped out of his hand. He called the war room and walked out of the plane, a bit dazed at the news. His briefcase and overnight bag stayed on the airplane behind him, forgotten. An hour later a longtime Harper speech writer, Owen Lippert, confessed to the plagiarism and resigned from the campaign.

The Howard tapes didn’t really affect the campaign, except to launch teams of researchers from every party into an orgy of Google searching to try to catch other parties in similar patterns of plagiarism. But the lifted speech

did shift a little good morale from Harper’s camp to Dion’s. And that’s where things stood as the French debate began on Wednesday night.

HARPER SMILED perhaps more than any man has smiled since Confederation and, alone among the leaders, called his opponents by their first names. Duceppe accused him, three times in the first five minutes of the debate, of “enriching the rich oilmen.” Layton said his environmental policy would be great for Exxon. Dion reminded him of every insult he had ever sent Dion’s way, such as the time he’d called Dion a fan of the Taliban for asking about prisoner abuse. Duceppe told him that by letting Michael

Fortier, an unelected senator, parade around Quebec telling voters it was a waste of money to vote for the Bloc, Harper was showing “contempt for democracy.”

The Prime Minister looked trapped. Trapped and oddly happy. There was no getting that smile off his face. But he looked besieged.

Something else happened too. Dion kept turning toward the camera, a very artificial behaviour that, thanks to the tight angle of the TV camera shots, gave him an intimate contact with the camera that the others lacked. He spoke in quiet, conversational tones. The others, intent on ganging up on Harper, let him talk. And alone among the leaders, he brought something new: a “ 30-day plan” for dealing with the economic turbulence. The plan had no one author. It had been the product of discussion between Dion, his campaign staff and outside experts for a few days. Frankly, no author would have scrambled for credit, because the plan was not a thing of genius. It was basically a plan for meetings. As prime minister, Dion would meet the premiers, some privatesector economists, and the heads of the Bank of Canada and other federal agencies, as soon as he could.

He’d put out an economic update. He’d speed up some infrastructure spending.

The flimsiness of Dion’s plan would end up sharply limiting its useful shelf life.

But for now at least he had one. Harper had named economic turmoil as a major campaign issue as early as his trip to Rideau Hall. He had asked the broadcast consortium to lengthen the economic component of this debate from 12 to 30 minutes. He’d reminded every crowd he’d met on the road that he was an economist. And he’d shown up to this debate with nothing but icy blue eyes of love.

“At a moment when heads of government around the world are acting to address this crisis, Mr. Harper seemed passive,” RadioCanada commentator Michel C. Auger told the network’s viewers later. Over at TVA, Jean Lapierre had even more surprising news. Among viewers who had called and written to the network with an opinion, Dion was the clear winner.

Thursday came the rematch in English. Outside the National Arts Centre, young Conservatives waved blue candidates’ signs, pursued by mobs of young Liberals chanting “Ozzie Ozzie Ozzie, Oi Oi Oi!” Inside, this time, Harper brought an offensive game. He

and his staff had spent the morning scripting and rehearsing an opening charge against Dion. “What leaders have to do is have a plan and not panic. Last night, Stéphane, you panicked.” Canada’s economy wasn’t the same as the one south of the border, he said, and ours wasn’t doing too badly. What was needed was follow-through.

“The economy is not fine,” Layton shot

Harper alone

_____i yet to

release a platform. *Where is it?1 Jack Layton asked, 'under the sweater?'

back. “Now either you don’t care or you’re incompetent. Which is it?” He had all the great zingers, Jack did. Harper, alone among the leaders, hadn’t released a platform yet. “Where is it?” Layton asked. “Under the sweater?”

May’s French had been shaky. In English she was poised, low-key, relentless. Harper was a little less mentholated in English than in French. Basically the debate was a free-forall. But when Frank Graves of the polling firm Ekos Research Associates did a quick survey to check viewer perceptions, he found something curious.

When Ekos asked who had won the English debate, 26 per cent said nobody had. Harper came in second with 23 per cent. May followed with 18 per cent, Layton with 15. At 10 per cent, Dion came dead last, except for Duceppe. When asked who had lost the debate, respondents were as likely to name Harper as Dion, at 25 per cent each. This meant only that Harper was a polarizing figure, with fans as well as detractors. With a tie for top loser and a fourth-place berth out of five in the winners’ circle, Dion could not claim to have had a stellar night.

But then Ekos asked respondents whether anything they had seen would make them reconsider their vote. Eighteen per cent said yes, a pretty high number. And who were they thinking of voting for? Among the votechangers, the highest number—22 per cent— said they were thinking of voting Liberal. Harper’s Conservatives had attracted only seven per cent of vote-switchers.

This should not be a revelation, but perhaps it still is. People don’t watch a debate looking for a good debater. They look for somebody, among all the good and bad debaters, who might make a good prime minister. Stéphane Dion was back in the game.