World

The spin doctors look north

Andrew Phillips August 16 1999
World

The spin doctors look north

Andrew Phillips August 16 1999

The spin doctors look north

Andrew Phillips

Washington

From her base in Seattle,

Cathy Allen has worked in 27 U.S. states, Latin America,

Croatia and several Canadian provinces. When she comes to Canada, though, she says only half-jokingly, “I go with a bag over my head so nobody can recognize me.” What could she be? A smuggler? Drug dealer? Porn pedlar? None of the above. Allen is a respected American political consultant who works mainly with Democrats and womens groups. Everywhere else she operates quite openly. But Canadian politicians, especially the left-wing variety, don’t want to be accused of taking advice from a Yank. “There’s, uh, attitude about Americans going up there,” says Allen, “and supposedly polluting the purity of Canadian politics.”

Get over it. The border has become more transparent in just about every area, and politics is no exception. Canadian parties of every stripe have hired U.S. strategists for decades—ever since Lester Pearson’s Liberals tapped the wisdom of public opinion guru George Gallup.

More discreetly, Canadian operatives have been travelling for years to training seminars organized by Campaigns & Elections, the monthly bible of the billion-dollar-ayear U.S. consulting industry. At a recent C & E session in Washington, Liberals,

New Democrats, Tories and Reformers could be seen intently picking up tips.

And the American Association of Political Consultants last year added its secondever Canadian to its board of directors—Marcel Wieder of Toronto’s Arrow Communications Group.

Now, the road show is coming to Canada. On the last weekend in August, Campaigns & Elections will stage a threeday conference in Toronto on the latest campaign techniques along with a local company, Ideation Group. A raft of U.S. and Canadian consultants, including high-profile Democratic pollster Mark Mellman and top Republican Jim McLaughlin, will dispense their wisdom. Every federal party is sending people, as are provincial parties, lobby groups and corporations—300 in all. It’s a two-way street: the Canadians hear the latest U.S. campaign techniques; the Americans get to advertise their wares in a new market. “They’re looking up here,” says Dan Rath, president of Ideation. “The opportunities are excellent.”

There’s no danger, though, of a U.S. takeover. Canadian parties have been winning—and losing—elections for

decades with strong homegrown talent. And then there’s that Canadian “attitude.” Cathy Allen’s clients, mainly New Democrats, are super-sensitive about being seen to rely on American advice—hence the metaphorical bag over her head. The Reform party took flak in 1993 for hiring Frank Luntz, a leading Republican pollster. The federal government was embarrassed earlier this year when The Ottawa Citizen revealed that the Canadian Information Office, its so-called unity agency, brought Bill Clintons famous attack-dog strategist, James Carville, to Montreal in 1997 for a two-day retreat.

And Ontario Conservatives came under fire during their successful re-election campaign for relying heavily on U.S. consultants, notably the top Republican strategist, Mike Murphy. For his pains, Murphy was lampooned on the front page of The Globe and Mail as the “merchant of mud” amid a predictable outcry about how Canadian politics were being turned into an “American-style” slugfest. Never mind that the most personal and negative ads were actually directed against Conservative Leader Mike Harris by the all-Canadian Liberal team. The Tories were also attacked for using American pollsters, TheTarrance Group of Alexandria, Va. Ironically, the Tarrance executive on the Ontario account, David Sackett, is a Canadian, born in Ancaster, Ont., and educated at Trent University. He also works in the Philippines, France and Romania—but knows that going public about his work in Canada isn’t good business. “We’ve all made a policy of not talking about that,” he said, politely but pointedly, last week.

The reality is that U.S. political consultants have gone global, especially since the end of the Cold War. Many are as likely to turn up whispering in the ears of politicians in Latin America or eastern Europe as they are in Florida or Arizona. Carville has become so controversial that he no longer works for American politicians. Instead, he jets off to Argentina or Israel—where both major parties relied on big-name U.S. strategists in last May’s election. Canadians, with their understandable complex about American influence, wont let that happen. But the techniques of modern politics are spreading around the world and, as in so many other areas, Americans are leading the way. Call it the globalization of campaigning; Canadian politicians will ignore it at their peril.