CANADA

The Tories’ ‘Weekend from Hell’

An insider tells how Conservatives squabbled their way to defeat

October 24 1994
CANADA

The Tories’ ‘Weekend from Hell’

An insider tells how Conservatives squabbled their way to defeat

October 24 1994

The Tories’ ‘Weekend from Hell’

An insider tells how Conservatives squabbled their way to defeat

When the last federal election campaign began on Sept. 8,

1993, the ruling Progressive Conservatives and Liberals were neck and neck in the polls and Prime Minister Kim Campbell was the country’s most popular political leader.

Forty-seven days later, the Tories took the worst drubbing in Canadian electoral history, winning only two of the 295 seats in the House of Commons.

David McLaughlin was a senior adviser to Campbell and travelled with her during the disastrous campaign. In a new book, Poisoned Chalice: The Last Campaign of the Conservative Party?, published by Dundurn Press, he writes that Campbell and the Tories were undone by factors that included deep mistrust between the leader and her most senior advisers. McLaughlin, 37, is now vice-president of Veritas Communications, a consulting firm in Toronto. In this excerpt he describes the chaos of the Tory campaign:

DAY 38, FRIDAY, OCT. 15, MONTREAL

Prime Minister Kim Campbell began what one anonymous Tory would later label the “Weekend from Hell,” fighting a fire storm created by her national campaign. Unbeknownst to anyone on the plane, the CBC national news was running a story on the new tactics of the Conservative campaign: two no-holds-barred attack ads on Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien. To say the new ads were controversial was a supreme understatement. The most noticeable feature was the use of unflattering photographs of Chrétien’s face that gave him a lopsided, almost twisted look. The allusion to a childhood disease that left Chrétien deaf in one ear and forced to speak his fractured English from one side of his mouth was automatically clear to many people.

In the minds of the Tory strategists who concocted the ads, however, Chrétien’s disability was not the focus. Yet, the voice-overs attempted no subtlety. “I would be embarrassed with this man as Prime Minister,” one said. Many, both in and outside the Conservative party, felt the linkage to Chrétien’s disability was deliberate, and the claims otherwise by party strategists John Tory and Allan Gregg were disingenuous at best.

Despite her poor campaign, no one was more personally embarrassed than Kim Campbell. Together with the tour staff, she was

caught completely off guard by the ads. Campbell was neither informed nor part of the decision to produce them in advance. This was typical of the way the Tory campaign was being run. It was also typical of Campbell’s own hands-off management style when it came to electioneering. Yet, if it was indicative of her early decision to rely on the party, it was equally so of those senior Tory officials and strategists who were determined not to consult her on such decisions. Indeed, this decision was particularly closely held, involving Gregg as pollster and chief strategist and Tom Scott, the party’s advertising agent. Even co-chair Tory only saw the script of the ads and never reviewed the completed product prior to their airing. Focus testing of the ads began after they were shipped to television stations for airing. This whole process was either a deliberate attempt to preserve deniability for the Prime Minister should they backfire (which they did) or was a manifestation of a “go-for-broke” mentality founded on a complete misreading of the use and effect of such types of ads.

The calls to campaign headquarters and the Prime Minister’s tour began early Friday morning. One cabinet minister, Bernard Valcourt, called urging strenuously that the ads be pulled. Another, Public Security Minister Doug Lewis, issued a press release disassociating himself and his local campaign from the tactics of the national campaign. Spontaneously, local candidates phoned their provincial headquarters urging them to press Ottawa to halt the now highly combustible ads. It was a view that emanated from coast to coast. In

‘Image had become reality. The Tories were trapped by their own circular thinking/

^ THE

MACLEAN’S H EXCERPT

British Columbia, Steve Greenaway, the party’s provincial campaign manager, was chairing a biweekly strategy meeting at 7:30 a.m. when the phones “lit up” with irate callers. One Tory volunteer was “in tears” on the phone. Greenaway was mandated to call Ottawa demanding that the ads be pulled.

Ottawa’s response was to blame Tory candidates for being skittish, while the euphemism “chocolate soldiers,” melting at the first heat of battle, was freely tossed around in reference to such Tories. Greenaway believed the Prime Minister would soon pull the ads herself and decided not to use the lines defending them given to him by national director Tom Trbovich. “They [headquarters] had no credibility at this point in the campaign,” he recalled.

Worse than being attacked by the Liberals and the media, the Conservative campaign was now being assaulted by its own supporters. The immediate reaction of campaign headquarters was to hunker down. The phone calls were being orchestrated by the Liberals, they told fellow Conservatives. Don’t get spooked, went the advice. Prepared lines, similar to those given the Prime Minister, stated that the pictures used of Chrétien were no worse than one seen on that week’s cover of Maclean’s.

Image had become reality in the Conservative campaign. It was not the Tories saying these things, it was other people. They could not help the way Chrétien looked. Besides, if the media ran the photo on a magazine, then it was obviously good enough to use in party advertising, never mind the different context. The Tory campaigners had become trapped by their own circular thinking. The polls were real, nothing else.

Any way the campaign cut it, the ads would not wash. First, the ads were 180 degrees off the type of politics for which Kim Campbell ostensibly stood. They could only hurt her credibility further. Second, the party itself—candidates and volunteers—were not prepared to align themselves behind them. Third, the ads ceded the moral high ground to Jean Chrétien, who was bringing tears to the eyes of Liberal audiences that morning with a highly personal account of growing up with his disability. “God gave me this disability,” he declared, prompting one Tory minister to say ruefully, “Chrétien has been waiting for 30 years to make that speech and we let him.”

By this stage of the election campaign, a clear schism between campaign headquarters and the Prime Minister’s tour was apparent. Although unstated, each felt the other was undermining their efforts either through active disobedience to campaign direction, poor execution, indifferent support for the Prime Minister’s efforts, or worse, running a campaign without factoring in the Prime Minister’s wishes. It was the inevitable product of a losing campaign.

This mood played out in the decision to

pull the ads. Arriving in Quebec City for a speech to the Chamber of Commerce not having seen the ads, Campbell was besieged by the media demanding to know if she was going to pull them. At this point, the cumulative dissensions, perceptions and differences in opinion between the tour and headquarters exposed themselves. Upon arrival at the hotel, Campbell ensconced herself in her suite with her senior tour advisers. After debating the pros and cons of pulling the ads off the air, she phoned Tory and Gregg to inform them of her decision to halt the ads. Both felt that they were denied a full opportunity to put the case to Campbell for keeping the ads. They believed her decision had been orchestrated in advance before the Prime Minister even made the call. To the tour, there was little doubt what she would do: the media pressure on the road, plus her own disinclination towards the kind of politics represented by the ads, made her decision clear. Campbell ordered them pulled while privately telling her campaign team that they retained her confidence. No heads would roll despite some public call for firings by Conservatives.

The next step was to announce the decision. In her suite, she had been advised strongly (particularly by senior advisers Patrick Kinsella and Jodi White) to apologize to Chrétien for the ads, since everyone knew the media would ask this question anyway. She seemed to agree but did not explicitly say so. A preemptive comment would allow her to reclaim some of the high road. As Campbell made her way to the elevator to head downstairs for her media scrum, White suddenly realized that Campbell had not actually confirmed she would apologize. Running down the hotel corridor to catch up to her, White asked, “Are you going to apologize?” “That’s a good idea,” the Prime Minister responded, as she turned to face the elevator.

Facing the media, Campbell either forgot or, for a moment, changed her mind. She began by announcing her decision to pull the ads, saying they were not consistent with the type of message she was carrying. Campbell then turned away from the stand-up microphone to return upstairs. She was not going to take any questions. Immediately, the media started firing questions after her anyway, beginning with the apology. Campbell halted and turned back to the expectant press, making the requisite apology: “If Mr. Chrétien or any others have been offended in any way...” and turned on her heels. The image captured for the news that night showed a forced, grudging at best, apology that fatally reinforced any negative feelings voters might have had towards Campbell and her party over the whole affair.

The Prime Minister returned upstairs. In her suite, alone with longtime adviser Pat Kinsella, she briefly broke down. Told of this later, no one on the tour could blame her. Most felt the same way. □