Election 2000

Stumbles on the Campaign Trail

Julian Beltrame December 4 2000
Election 2000

Stumbles on the Campaign Trail

Julian Beltrame December 4 2000

Stumbles on the Campaign Trail

Election 2000

Canadians were treated to a fall festival of invective

Julian Beltrame

So much for the election about the future. When the campaign began, it was touted as a collision of Big Visions. On one side would be Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, espousing Liberal values that adroitly balance individual self-interest in the form of tax cuts with the larger community’s needs for a social safety net. On the other, Stockwell Day would be offering a Canadian Alliance government that would reward personal initiative, keep government out of people’s hair, and return civility and relevance to Parliament. It didn’t turn out that way. The campaign deteriorated into a fall festival of invective. “This has been the least edifying campaign in recent memory,” Alliance strategist Rick Anderson told Macleans. “It’s been the least helpful in shedding light on the issues of the

day, be it tax relief, debt reduction, health care or criminal justice reform.”

It did, however, separate the pros from the novices. Campaign 2000 will be remembered as one of “mistakes and mis-opportunities” for the Alliance, says Tom Flanagan, the University of Calgary political science professor who once served as an adviser to Day’s predecessor, Preston Manning. The Alliance entered the campaign buoyed by the prospects of a long-sought breakthrough in Ontario and possibly further east. They saw in Chrétien a leader who, despite a booming economy, was not only past his best-before date, but also tarnished by cronyism and arrogance. In sharp contrast, the Alliance was introducing a fresh face on the national stage, a witty, energetic and

telegenic figure with an enviable record of fiscal prudence as treasurer in Alberta’s low-tax, cash-rich government. How could Canadians fail to be seduced?

The Politics of Image. In retrospect, the troika running the Alliance campaign—MP Jason Kenney and backroom organizers Rod Love and Hal Danchilla—may have been the ones to be seduced. As a consequence, they forgot the most basic tenet of all campaigns: the party that defines the issues usually wins the prize. Some party officials privately concede that the Alliance’s three key strategists, who had never before run a national campaign, played into the Liberals’ hands by devoting the first two weeks of the campaign to a leader-centric approach meant to establish Day’s bona fides for prime minister. Rather than make Chrétien and his record the central issue, Alliance strategists were eager to show off their guy.

Suddenly, Day was everywhere. The party’s election platform document featured nine pictures—Day signing papers, Day jogging, Day lacing up in-line skates. The party’s TV ads showed Day in breezy, outdoorsy settings. Mammoth murals of Day were plastered on the party’s campaign buses. Even press tags issued to the media featured a large glossy of the leader. “It looked like a vanity campaign that was all about image and little substance,” complained one Alliance member who was not on the campaign team.

Handed a gift, the Liberals were quick to capitalize. They had expected the four opposition parties to gang up on Chré-

tien from the outset—as happened later during the leaders’ debates. But if the Alliance wanted to talk about Day, they were eager to oblige. Campaign co-chairman David Smith said the Liberals had assembled a dossier on Day from his years in Alberta Premier Ralph Klein’s cabinet and his successful campaign to win the Alliance leadership last spring. They believed that the more voters, especially moderates in Ontario, learned about Day, the less acceptable he would seem. “He had run well right of Preston Manning in the leadership campaign and that’s pretty right for Canadians,” said Smith. “All we had to do was find a way to bring that out.”

Self-Inflicted Wounds. The Liberals did not have to wait long. Just over a week into the campaign, Kenney, the Alliance campaign co-chairman, mused on television and in a newspaper interview that an Alliance government would

‘It looked like a vanity campaign that was all about image and little substance,’ complained one Canadian Alliance member

permit provinces to expand the use of private clinics to supplement universal health care. He went further. The Alliance would not punish provinces for violating the principles of the Canada Health Act, but rather seek to negotiate national standards with provinces. Several days later, The Globe and Mail revealed that the Alliances briefing book to candidates set out a firm threshold—three per cent of the electorate, or less than 400,000 signatures on a petition—that would trigger a nationwide referendum on any issue, including abortion and capital punishment. Later still, Alliance candidate

Betty Granger abandoned her run in Winnipeg South Centre in the wake of an outcry over statements she made about an “Asian invasion.”

In each instance, Day’s attempt at damage control was far from stellar. Instead of forcefully counterattacking the Liberal record of health-care funding cuts, he appeared evasive and defensive. Day compounded the error by resorting to gimmickry during the English-language debate, holding up a scrawled sign that read: “No 2-tier health care.” On the referendum issue, Day disavowed his own party’s briefing book without clearly indicating what measures the Alliance would use to decide when to call a referendum. And while he accepted Grangers resignation, he continued talking about the issue for days, ensuring it stayed in the news.

The Liberals pounced, accusing him of harbouring a secret agenda and leading a party that seemed to attract an inordinate number of bigots and racists, a line of attack opened earlier by Immigration Minister Elinor Caplan. Even Conservative Leader Joe Clark, who had kept up a steady drumbeat of attacks against Chrétien, began to aim his fire at Day. “Do you trust Stockwell Day’s agenda?” Clark asked.

Days personal beliefs also flared up as an issue. As the campaign headed into the home stretch, a CBCTV documentary delved into his conservative Christianity, including Day’s belief in creationism—revealing that he apparently believes the Earth is a mere 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs lived alongside humans. While faith has normally been considered out of bounds in Canadian elections, former Liberal Ontario premier David Peterson maintained on a TV political panel that Day’s creationist views bring his intelligence into question. Fair or not, the damage was done. “The worst thing that can ■MtggF. -. happen to a leader is to become the target of

a ridicule,” said Flanagan. “What hurt is that he’d already taken some heavy hits, and this just seemed like comic relief.”

A Question of Ethics. During the final week of the campaign, it was finally Chrétiens turn to face the heat. Beset by media queries while campaigning in Saskatoon, the Prime Minister admitted he lobbied the president of the federal Business Development Bank on at least three occasions in 1996 and 1997 to try to secure a loan for a friend who in 1993 had bought the Auberge Grand-Mère, an inn in the Prime Minister’s riding of Saint-Maurice, from Chrétien and w his partners. For seasoned politicians like

Clark, NDP Leader Alexa McDonough and iir'rnniMHiftiiiiiM the Bloc Québécois’s Cilles Duceppe, the Prime Minister’s characterization of his intervention as a “normal operation” was evidence of moral rot.

To some observers, Day appeared to overreach when, looking for a knockout punch, he accused Chrétien of criminal conduct. “He has confessed to an abuse of power in our view, a coverup that has been clearly going on, and according to the Criminal Code, this would be an item of corruption.” Ethics counsellor Howard Wilson, who reports to the Prime Minister, eventually ruled there were no federal rules preventing “a minister from dealing on behalf of a constituent with a Crown corporation.” But the revelation clearly damaged Chrétiens credibility.

For the Liberals, that means the post-election soulsearching must examine more than vote tallies and seat totals. The question is whether Chrétien, while undeniably resilient, hasn’t seen his legacy badly tainted. For the Tories and NDP, there is solace in having run, arguably, the election’s best campaigns from the worst starting positions. For the Bloc, the campaign showed the party can maintain a viable presence in Quebec, at least for as long as it has Chrétien to kick around. But the deepest soul-searching will no doubt occur among Alliance members, who believe more seats were there for the taking. E3