WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?
A drumstick manufactured for snare drummers in marching bands or drum corps is twice as thick as a drumstick made for classical music or jazz, and substantially heavier. It is a precision instrument for delivering a formidable amount of kinetic energy to the head of a snare drum. It lands with a crack that can be heard at the other end of a football field. Every stroke says: listen up. Recess is over. The grownups have arrived, and there is going to be hell to pay.
Shortly after noon on Jan. 10, the day of the Montreal French-language debate, the crack of parade drumming—snares, bass drums, tubular bells—started to echo from the speakers of computers and then televisions across Canada. It was the martial soundtrack for a
series of new Liberal ads the party had posted on its website. Eight different spots at first, then 12. In each, a fuzzy photo of Stephen Harper would resolve slowly into focus while a woman’s voice read type that revealed the Conservative leader’s ties to extreme U.S. right-wing groups, the former Ontario premier Mike Harris, Quebec separatists, and assorted other horsemen of the apocalypse.
But several hours after the ads went up, one came down. A few bloggers noticed. But if the Liberals were hoping nobody would see what they’d posted, they were too late. CTV News had archived all the ads on its own websiteincluding the there-and-gone ad. “Stephen Harper actually announced he wants to increase military presence in our cities,” the woman’s voice says, while the photo comes into focus and the parade drums beat their tattoo. “Canadian cities. Soldiers with guns. In our cities.”
Just in case you had missed the point, the voice added: “In Canada.” Then: “We did not make this up.” Drum roll, bass-drum crash, tubular bells. “Choose your Canada.”
If the hastily pulled ad referred to anything in the real world, it was to the Conservatives’ plan to keep a standing military presence in or near the largest Canadian cities, in case natural disaster struck an urban centre. The policy merits of the proposal were shaky: the soldiers would be underemployed indefinitely, then overwhelmed in any real emergency. But in producing the ad, the Martin Liberals hadn’t been seeking a debate about proper deployment of scarce assets. The ad’s plain goal was to make Canadians terrified of their armed forces. Its effect was to infuriate soldiers— who vote—and to entirely overshadow that night’s French-language debate.
After the debate, Martin had to put up with questions about the ad instead of questions about his performance. When John Duffy tried to guide a CTV pundit panel back to the substance of the debate, the show’s host, the considerably larger and unrelated Mike Duffy, descended on him, berating him and accusing him of trying to intimidate his host out of discussing the pulled ad during an off-camera commercial break. Within an hour, journalists were emailing transcripts of the Duffy-Duffy cage match all over Ottawa.
That slugfest was part of a generalized collapse of mutual goodwill between the Martin claque and the press gallery. Only two years earlier, the Martinites had enjoyed a reputation for savvy media relations. Now they couldn’t catch a break. One Toronto-area MP complained that the Liberals should have been able
to beat the Tories “with our hands tied behind our backs. The problem is we’re not running against them. We’re running against the media.”
THE 2004 CAMPAIGN TOOK THE LIBERALS FROM MAJORITY TO MINORITY. THEY DECIDED IT WAS A WORK OF GENIUS, TO BE IMPROVED BY REPETITION.
They certainly seemed to be running against somebody. Reporters and non-combatants couldn’t stop talking about how heated, tense, urgent and humourless the designated Liberal spokespeople were. The only exception was Mike Eizenga, the party president, a Protestant clergyman from London, Ont., who used his rare appearances as a chance to display a chipper, aw-shucks demeanour. His colleagues, especially Scott Reid and John Duffy, were all forward-leaning, finger-jabbing intensity.
In the Tory war room, meanwhile, a sign hung in plain sight of all the staffers who had to deal with reporters on the telephone. It reminded them of their obligation to proper phone etiquette. The four questions they should never stop asking themselves were:
1) What are we accomplishing with this? (That is, were they accomplishing political goals when they said something, or simply making themselves feel better?)
2) Are we debating on our ground or theirs? (Were they talking about what they wanted to talk about, or
what Liberals wanted to talk about?)
3) Are we taking their bait? (The third rule restated for emphasis.)
4) Is our tone neutral?
The point of the fourth question was that angry people almost never win debates. The thought had clearly never occurred to Martin’s spinners. The most striking example was Susan Murray, a long-time CBC reporter who left broadcasting after the 2004 election to become communications director for Scott Brison, the minister of public works. In her broadcasting days, Murray had been genial. Now, as a combatant on CBC Newsworld’s show Politics with Don Newman, she teetered constantly at the brink of sputtering outrage.
The Tories spotted this early and decided to egg Murray on. Sandra Buckler, an Ottawa lobbyist with little previous media exposure, was Harper’s representative on the same panel. Nobody played even-tempered better, and she soon settled on a trick. Murray would lean forward and try to catch Buckler’s eye, so she could level some accusation at her. Buckler simply refused to play. For the duration of the campaign, she never looked Murray in the eye while the two of them were on camera. It made Murray more and more angry, until it seemed steam would start to jet from her ears. She would lean further and further forward, staring past the increasingly amused NDP spokesman, Brad Lavigne, sometimes waving
her hand to catch Buckler’s attention. Buckler kept talking sweetly, tone neutral, taking nobody’s bait, debating on her ground.
The confusion over the peek-a-boo martial law ad had the effect of completely swamping coverage for the other 11 ads, which accused Harper of harbouring slightly less totalitarian objectives. Some Ottawa observers wondered whether the soldiers-in-streets spot might have been a clever plant, a “viral” ad the Liberals wanted voters to pass around on the Internet. Liberals insisted, privately as well as publicly, that it was no such thing. It was just a screw-up.
Anyone wondering how such a screw-up was possible would not have to wait long for another screw-up to wonder about.
The parade-drum ads, and attendant confusion, came on a Tuesday. The next morning, a Liberal campaign staffer showed up early to work, as usual. (Liberals worked the traditional absurd hours common to campaigns everywhere, dawn to midnight, day after day plus weekends. Conservatives worked shifts and were encouraged to leave work behind them and sleep soundly when they went home.) Outside the Liberal headquarters on Metcalfe Street was a row of newspaper boxes: Globe, Citizen, National Post, Dose.
On this Wednesday morning, there were no copies of Dose.
Instead, there was a neatly stacked pile of mimeographed and paper-clipped copies of the Liberal platform.
The Liberal platform was not supposed to be released until six hours later.
Across Ottawa, political reporters staggering downstairs to collect the morning paper found their own photocopies of the platform waiting at their front doorstep. Emails were bouncing around the Internet announcing that the Western Standard, a political magazine published by the young conservative gadfly Ezra Levant, had received a leaked copy of the platform the night before. “My first thought when I got the document was, ‘Who else has it, too?’ ” Levant said. So he posted the file on the magazine’s blog and sent word to the 33,000 addresses on its email list.
To this day, rival campaigns insist they had nothing to do with the platform’s distribution all over Ottawa. The denials seem implausible: whoever hand-delivered copies to reporters had to know where they lived, and some of the recipients have unlisted phone numbers. The prank profoundly destabilized the Liberal campaign. “Absolute and utter
shock,” one war room insider said. But the Liberals had done little to protect their treasure. Akaash Maharaj, a former policy director for the party, wrote on his blog that he had found the platform on the Liberals’ central computer days earlier.
“The platform was (and is) not visible on any Party web page,” Maharaj wrote, “but the central campaign prematurely loaded the platform document file into a server that is freely accessible to anyone with Internet access, a Web browser, and a modicum of ingenuity.” So the platform was there to pluck. There should have been no surprise.
The surprise was how empty the Liberal platform was. It was a repackaging of Ralph Goodale’s November mini-budget, along with a repackaging of the glut of announcements made in the week before the confidence vote. There was very little new, and in one glaring case there wasn’t even something recent: the constitutional amendment on the notwithstanding clause, announced two days earlier as the latest of Martin’s first priorities.
The slingshot effect wasn’t working. The Liberal space probe, hand-built by the most confident strategists in a germ-free lab next to the Martin boardroom, couldn’t do anything right. When it deployed policy, it leaked data to the newspapers. When it armed its photon torpedoes for an assault on the Conservative death star, it discovered its most potent weapons were pointed backward. The angles of approach were all wrong; the little craft was burning up as it hurtled through the atmosphere toward Planet Doom.
And it all happened so quickly. On Jan. 10, the martial crack of parade drums had announced the arrival of the serious, no-more-muckingaround campaign. Four days later, a few Liberal war room staffers convened at Hy’s on Queen Street for beer and cheese toast. They wore the vaguely haunted gaze of the suddenly, unexpectedly powerless. The only question was how bad the thrashing would be. Their future was out of their hands.
But sometimes the election gods cut a campaign some slack. This is the point in the story where Stephen Harper’s foot assumes its oncecustomary position inside his own mouth.
The Conservative leader kicked off the last week of the campaign just across the border from Ottawa in a Knights of Columbus hall in Buckingham, Que., talking up the virtues of his new Quebec lieutenant, a former junior provincial minister named Lawrence Cannon. He was buoyant. Cannon and as many as three other Quebec Conservatives
might actually win their ridings. If the momentum kept building, Harper might hope for 20 Quebec seats. The Tories had released an ad mocking the Liberal martial law ad. Footage of Liberal MP Keith Martin complaining that “some idiot” had approved the ad. Footage of Paul Martin telling a CBC town hall that “I approved the ads, there’s no question.”
Harper’s closing strategy was to close the deal with the reluctant object of his most ardent affections, the francophone Quebec voter. “Quebec’s place isn’t in the bleachers,” he said, “Quebec’s place is on the ice!” And, “We don’t want to spend our time asking questions to others, we want to give answers!”
Two days later, La Presse endorsed Harper in a long editorial signed by the Montreal newspaper’s chief editorialist, André Pratte. It was almost unheard of for even a federalist newspaper like La Presse to endorse a party led by a non-Quebecer. At a rally in Lévis, across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City, Harper was introduced by a gangly candidate named Steven Blaney, who announced to the crowd in rapturous tones: “Avez-vous vu le ciel? Le ciel est bleu!”
Have you seen the sky, or perhaps, the heavens? The heavens are blue. It was the war cry of Quebec’s traditional conservative bleus going back a century and more. The priests used to finish by reminding their congregations that “l’enfer est rouge” that hell was painted Liberal red. Blaney left that part unstated. Then Harper gave a lovely speech, everyone applauded, and Harper went downstairs to blow a news conference completely.
It is possible to see some sense in what Harper said. Success was catching up to him. He couldn’t put off the question of a majority Conservative government any longer. Fear of Tories could no longer catapult the Liberal space probe out of defeat’s gravity well, but if Canadians did not feel comfortable with a Tory majority, they wouldn’t give him one.
So Harper set out to calm the waters. What he meant to say was that even a majority would not mean that the hordes would be unleashed to pillage and burn. Canada would remain a complex polity, with formidable institutional momentum and dispersed political legitimacy. NDP and Liberal premiers would have to agree with Harper’s intergovernmental projects. The laws of men and nature could not be repealed at his whim. The heavens, however blue, would not fall.
It came out badly.
IT HAPPENED SO QUICKLY: FOUR DAYS AFTER THE SERIOUS CAMPAIGN BEGAN, STAFFERS HAD THE HAUNTED GAZE OF THE UNEXPECTEDLY POWERLESS
“I’m not sure there is such a thing as a true Conservative majority in the sense of a Liberal majority,” Harper told reporters. “The reality is that we will have for some time to come a Liberal Senate, a Liberal civil service and courts that have been appointed by the Liberals. So these are obviously checks on the power of a Conservative government.” It was supposed to sound soothing. To many
ears, it sounded petulant, or worse.
To Martin’s ears, it sounded like a lifeline. The PM’s entire campaign had depended on voters’ fears of a hidden Conservative agenda. Here, at last, was evidence. Or close enough. “The question is, if he raised it, it’s because he’s worried the courts are going to stop him doing something,” Martin said in Saskatchewan, where he was campaigning to save his beleaguered minister Ralph Goodale. “I don’t know what that is, but it’s up to him to let us know.”
With that, Martin transformed his homestretch campaign into a defence of a woman’s right to choose an abortion. If it ever does happen that a new Conservative government bans abortion, stacks the Supreme Court to make the ban stick, and survives mass defections from its pro-choice MPs, in plain defiance of its platform commitment not to initiate such action, Martin’s last days on the hustings will seem heroic indeed. If not, not.
But whether Martin’s over-the-top attack hit home or not, the likelihood is that Harper hurt himself with his comments. Greg Lyle of Innovative Research Group, who conducted the Canada 20/20 election panel online survey for Maclean’s, measured the emerging Harper constituency in the campaign’s last week to see why.
“First, the Conservatives secured this victory through a campaign focused on a targeted group of voters,” Lyle says. “They did not try and be everything to everyone. Instead, they attempted to maximize their vote with a Conservative universe.”
This reflects the influence of Tom Flanagan and Patrick Muttart on the campaign. Flanagan, the game theorist, has written that larger-than-necessary coalitions are ungainly, although even Flanagan must have hoped for a larger Tory caucus than Harper would wind up winning. Muttart’s willingness to zone in on winnable voters—the Dougies, Mikes and Theresas, to the exclusion of the Zoës—was efficient, but put a low ceiling on the Conservatives’ growth potential.
“One immediate and striking observation is that the Conservative universe”—the total number of voters who would even consider voting Conservative—“is small, less than half the electorate,” Lyle says. Harper did expand his base so that it included more women and francophones at the end of the campaign, but he was still playing hard for half the pie, instead of inefficiently for all of it.
But that other half of the pie remains, and it would be a problem for Harper. Lyle found that 55 per cent of his online panellists “remain unimpressed with the incoming prime minister.” More than unimpressed. “Most of our panellists remain concerned that Stephen Harper and the Conservatives are too extreme and scary,” says Lyle. In the home stretch of the campaign, while a chunk of the electorate was still uncertain about how to vote, Harper had succeeded in reinforcing the fears of the voters he needed to close the deal.
That was Harper’s problem. Martin’s was that he was fighting a two-front war. Not three: Martin had long since conceded the Quebec front, and Gilles Duceppe’s final campaigning was designed to beat down the Tory vote. Outside a handful of ridings in Montreal and western Quebec, the Liberals were no longer a factor in Martin’s adopted home province.
But Martin’s last stand against Harper depended on his ability to suck NDP voters away from Layton. It had worked last time, and Liberals had made no secret of saying they needed it to work this time. His big mistake was assuming that everyone else felt like joining him in replaying the 2004 campaign. “We decided to take the fight to them,” Brian Topp of the NDP said. “So once the debates were over and we had our platform out, then basically our next throw was to say, ‘The issue isn’t should New Democrats go to the Liberals, it’s shouldn’t Liberals come to the NDP?’ ”
The beauty of the Liberals’ retread strategy from ’04 and the NDP’s new strategy for ’06-well, it was probably only beautiful if you weren’t a Liberal-was that the two parties’ competing appeals had to wait until a Harper victory seemed assured. Martin was counting on NDP voters to panic and flee to him. Layton was counting on Liberal voters to give up on Martin. “As soon as there was a pretty clear consensus in our universe that it was going to be a Conservative government,” Topp said, “then we went to that message: don’t waste your vote on the Liberals. They’re going to be a smoking hulk.”
Layton spent three straight days in B.C., the most competitive market where his party had realistic hopes of making gains, and he hammered the message home. “The Liberals are going to be too busy thinking about themselves for the next two years to think about you,” Layton said, in tones of sorrow and resignation. To Liberal voters he made a direct appeal. “Give us your vote, this time.”
Martin found a new emotion colouring his desperation: indignation. Stealing other parties’ votes was what Liberals were supposed to do. “For a leader who claims to value the environment, our social programs, our commitments to Aboriginals, Jack Layton has been making some very strange comments during this campaign,” Martin said in Burnaby. “He’s attacked Liberals, not Conservatives. In fact, he’s all but ignored Stephen Harper.” Martin had to go to the well one more time. He needed a physical demonstration of New Democrat support bleeding to the Liberals, the way it was supposed to. The Liberal leader who had persuaded Scott Brison and Belinda Stronach and Ujjal Dosanjh to cross party lines and get under the big Liberal tent staged one more meeting with Buzz Hargrove. And it went the way meetings with Buzz Hargrove so often do.
In southern Ontario, Martin and Hargrove teamed up to lecture voters on the vital necessity of voting Liberal to stop Harper. Then Hargrove scrummed, and made it clear that as far as he was concerned, people could vote for anyone they liked if it would stop Harper. Including, in Quebec, the Bloc Québécois. “Mr. Harper doesn’t have a sense of Canada and its communities,” Hargrove said. “His view is a separatist view.” Should Quebecers vote Bloc to stop him? “Anything to stop the Tories.” Martin had to send out a news release to correct Hargrove’s comments. But the damage to the already rickety Liberal comeback effort was done. In the NDP war room, Brian Topp could only chuckle. “People in the New Democratic Party have been working with Mr. Hargrove a lot longer than the Liberals,” he said. “And I have to say, respectfully, having watched what happened in this campaign, that nobody in the NDP was the least bit surprised about how that worked out.”
The last week of the campaign had come down to one leader on the prowl and three others bailing leaks as fast as they could go. Layton’s own ceiling was low, of course, but within that tidy universe he was pressing to consolidate gains. Martin had lost that luxury two weeks earlier. Now he was fighting, awkwardly but with all his strength, to save the Liberal party. Duceppe toured ridings he thought were safe, to parry Conservative advances. And Harper spent as little time as possible in front of reporters, terrified of another gaffe in the home stretch. But it was too late. Hope for a majority was slipping away.