Election2014

THE COST OF SUCCESS

Martin’s toxic campaign will be his burden as he walks into a poisonous Parliament

Mary Janigan July 12 2004
Election2014

THE COST OF SUCCESS

Martin’s toxic campaign will be his burden as he walks into a poisonous Parliament

Mary Janigan July 12 2004

THE COST OF SUCCESS

Martin’s toxic campaign will be his burden as he walks into a poisonous Parliament

Election2014

ON THE ISSUES

Mary Janigan

IN THE EARLY DAYS of this unsettling campaign, a senior PMO policy wonk, poring over the Tory platform, marvelled to Grit operatives about its similarity to their own proposals. His listeners at that informal Ottawa meeting were puzzled but sanguine. The Conservatives, they concluded, were so intellectually bankrupt that they were pilfering Liberal ideas. Bad assumption. It took weeks for them to grasp the cunning strategy behind that copycat ploy: the Tories were depicting themselves as reliable, ethically superior clones of the Liberals to reassure voters.

What happened next is the stuff of future political science texts. Right-wing Tory MPs, seemingly unable to shut up or respect anyone else’s ethics, crowed about the coming triumph of their moral precepts. Negative Grit ads trumpeted those proclamations, casting them, often erroneously, as party policy. In the final weeks, in a toxic mix of inflammatory ads and egregious blunders, a dull election erupted into a genuine clash of values. The conflict was as unexpected as it was unpleasant.

And its outcome will put a heavy burden on Paul Martin when he walks into the poisonous climate of the next Parliament. Having painted the Tories as extremists, having trumpeted his own superior val-

ues, he must now run a squeaky clean government that produces results in everything from health to child care. “The PM rallied a plurality of voters around a set of progressive values,” says Liberal special adviser John Duffy, author of that astute analysis of five pivotal campaigns,

a ‘We wanted a nice, boring campaign of unarguable propositions,’ says a Liberal insider. ‘Nobody ever courts this kind of wild ride.’

Fights of Our Lives. “There will not be a lot of public tolerance for deviating from those propositions.”

Such high stakes seemed preposterous at the campaign onset. As Environics pollster Michael Adams acidly observes, Martin had reduced values to programs with price tags. It was not a stirring spectacle. But when the Liberals slipped in the polls, strategists scampered for a last-ditch chance to differentiate themselves. Seizing on the extreme vows of Tory MPs, they concentrated on values.

As a result, the election fulfills Duffy’s three tests for being a contest of lasting import: it was a fight that could have gone either way; it focused on pivotal issues such as the state’s role in the economy and the regulation of such incendiary social issues as abortion; and it marked an evolution in our political process with its adept use of brutal ads and distorted assertions. “We wanted a nice boring campaign,” says a Liberal insider, “where we would present unarguable propositions and everyone would just say, ‘Oh, yes.’ Nobody ever deliberately courts this kind of wild ride.”

Normally, campaigns do not demonize the moral integrity of opponents: they usually differ on the means to accomplish such agreed-upon ends as economic growth. Not this time. True, both parties created this situation. But it is the Liberals who will pay the higher price: in accusing the Tories of cozying up to warlike Americans and to Alberta’s Ralph Klein, who was depicted as intent on two-tier health care, they may have made it more difficult for themselves to maintain smooth CanadaU.S. relations or to secure a health care accord with the provinces this summer. The lesson? Politicians should think very hard before they cast the first ethical stone, flfl

Mary Janigan is a political and policy writer. mary.janigan@macleans.rogers.com