Cuddly vs. apocalyptic

October 27 2008

Cuddly vs. apocalyptic

October 27 2008

Cuddly vs. apocalyptic



WHEN HE FINALLY climbed into a limousine for the three-minute ride from 24 Sussex Drive to Rideau Hall, Stephen Harper was 49 years old and had been hovering around Parliament Hill for more than 15 years in one job or another. He had won fewer than half of the seats in the House of Commons in 2006, but had managed to hold that minority government together longer than any other minority in Canadian history. The Conservative leader has long been a private man, but he is no hermit, and there are not many people in today’s Ottawa more familiar to the denizens of the precincts around the Hill.

And yet Harper still manages to surprise. What nobody could figure out on this particular morning was why he was so darned cuddly.

Inside Rideau Hall, Harper spent a halfhour asking Governor General Michaëlle Jean to dissolve Parliament and get this election campaign started. In 2006 he had introduced a law on fixed election dates. The law said an election would be held in October 2009, unless the government was defeated in the House of Commons. Many Canadians, including Harper’s own associates, took that law to be a promise that he wouldn’t do what he was doing now—call his own election before the Liberals, New Democrats and Bloc Québécois had forced one on him. Still, Michaëlle Jean’s answer was never in doubt. Harper would have his election.

Harper left Rideau Hall and, surrounded by a swarm of photographers and camera crews, strolled the short distance to a makeshift podium in the Canadian Heritage Garden.

“Bon matin, good morning,” Harper said. He made a little show of pausing to peer at the journalists arrayed in three rows before him. “I guess I never realized until now how many of you there really are.” He smiled a bashful half-smile. Golly.

Then he read his formal statement. “Between now and Oct. 14, Canadians will choose a government to look out for their interests at a time of global economic trouble. They will choose between a clear direction or uncertainty, between common sense or risky experiments, between steadiness or recklessness.”

The campaign ahead would be 36 days of chaos and surprise, veering often close to anarchy. Yet Harper was trying now, at the

outset, to frame the decision Canadians would make five weeks hence. The message was simple because it had to be: in risky times, don’t give up on sure value. The argument played to Harper’s strength, the economy. And it pitched Stéphane Dion as the devil Canadians didn’t know. Risky. Exotic, somehow. Like Ethiopian food.

Not Harper. He was just regular folks. “Canadians know that I’m not one for big talk or grand slogans. I believe we show who we are, and how much we care, by what we do.”

What he had done was get government out of your wallet. “Today, Tax Freedom Day—the day you stop working for the government and start working for yourself— arrives 11 days earlier than it did in 2005.”

Who could be against that? Here’s who: “An Opposition whose increasingly strident criticism attempts to mask unclear and risky agendas.”

With that, Harper was more or less done framing the contest ahead. But he wasn’t done framing himself. He wanted to close on a personal note, he said, as though this was a common urge or, indeed, one that had

ever struck him before in his life. “Over the past 2V2 years I’ve had a tremendous opportunity,” he said. “An opportunity for which I will be forever grateful. The opportunity to serve as the Prime Minister of the best country in the world.” With that he closed the clipboard that held the text of his speech, took a sip of water, and surveyed the reporters arrayed, apparently in surprising quan-

tity, before him.

Alexander Panetta from the Canadian Press wire service asked the first question. If Harper fell short of a majority of seats in the next Parliament, would he consider himself to have failed in three attempts to reach that goal? Would he give up the Conservative leadership then? “That’s a really premature question. Obviously I’m in this to win.”

Another question. What was the deal with the ads the Conservatives had been running for the last week? Each opened with a shot of a Maple Leaf flag flapping gently in the breeze, then cut to Harper in a comfy dark-blue sweater vest, chatting with visitors to his Harrington Lake residence. In one ad he talked about his children. (“You know, the time is precious. But being a father is the best experience of my life.”) In another he marvelled at the importance of immigrants’ contribution to Canada. (“We can build this country together.”) A third offered his gratitude to veterans. (“Never forget how precious it is. How precious what we have is.”)

Harper explained sheepishly that he’d been backed into this odd messaging by his staff. “They feel that voters don’t yet know me the way they”—his staffers— “know me, the way my caucus knows me. And we should probably go out of our way to highlight the nonpodium parts of the job.

“You know, people say it must be tough to balance your family life with being Prime Minister. In fact, if I

Here was Harper, crusher of weaklings, sharing his emotions. What was next,

didn’t have this family life, I don’t think I could stay balanced as Prime Minister. As you all know who have been dads, once you become a dad, that’s pretty central to your character and your life.” He still had that bashful half-smile on his face. It was not an expression reporters were used to seeing. Here was Stephen Harper—crusher of weaklings, obliterator of all who blocked his path-

sharing with the dads in the crowd about work-life balance. What was next? Yoga?

With a little coaxing from reporters, Harper finally acknowledged that Dion had a family too. Probably. “You know, I don’t know Stéphane Dion all that well but I presume he’s been married a long time, has children, I presume he’s a family man also.”

With that exquisitely ambivalent endorsement of his opponent’s biological value as an alpha male, Harper pivoted on his heel and prepared to stroll away from the podium. “I won’t say ‘bye,’ ” he said to the assembled scribes. “I’ll see you for five weeks.”

It was all so subtly bizarre, like a suburban family breakfast in a David Lynch movie. Won’t say “bye”? It’s not as though he’d been one for lingering farewells before now. Once or twice over the years he had even sent the police to chase reporters away.

Weeks later, a top Conservative strategist would explain that the cozy mise en scène—the sweater-vest ads, the leader in touch with his dad side—served a vital strategic purpose.

Stephen Harper’s politics has always been about viewing Canada, not as a string of provinces or as urban islands in a rural sea, but as a mishmash of demographic groups. Harper’s Conservative party is a determinedly middleclass party, one that seeks to appeal to working families with children. His main election strategist, Patrick Muttart, is obsessive about demographic analysis. In the last days of the 2006 campaign, Muttart was joined in the Conservative war room by a relative newcomer to Harper’s inner circle, Guy Giorno, a former chief of staff to Ontario premier Mike Harris. Together the two men helped Harper win, but they saw how limited his appeal was among women voters.

Muttart had long felt that while mothers in large middleclass families should represent a pool of Conservative support, other women were harder to

reach. “When we did the demo-

graphic stuff, we’d always sort

of written off non-married

women who had less than two kids in any situation,” the senior strategist recalled.

But this time would be different. Muttart was still on board as Harper’s chief strat-

egist. Giorno, who had become Harper’s chief of staff on Canada Day, was Muttart’s nearequal in designing campaign strategy. Perhaps surprisingly, the two men saw a period of economic turmoil as a good time to reach out to women voters. “The woman vote has these economic concerns. Women tend to be driven less by identity. They’re driven by securitytype issues,” the strategist said.

“This woman thing has been the driving motivation for the look of our events, the messaging in our events, the debate strategy-all revolved around keeping, maintaining that lead among women voters. The old Reform party question was, ‘How do we grow into the Ontario vote?’ The question Patrick and Guy must have asked at some point is, ‘How do we grow into the woman vote?’ It’s back to demographics, not region, right? So that’s a big part of the story of what’s different about this campaign: going after the women’s vote and looking at everything through that lens.”

As Harper strolled away from the podium on the Rideau Hall grounds, Stéphane Dion bounded down a staircase to the House of Commons foyer with his wife, Janine Krieber. Like Harper, Dion would spend the campaign playing against type. If Harper needed to shake his image as a heartless hard case, Dion had to prove he could be an effective leader. The Conservatives had spent nearly two years and millions of dollars on ad campaigns designed to convince Canadians he wasn’t. The suspicion that they might be right had spread to a sizable chunk of the electorate, to much of the parliamentary press gallery, and to not a few Liberals themselves. The fiery, impetuous former academic would have only five weeks to prove everyone wrong.

The tone he chose as he set about his task was nearly apocalyptic. “The next 37 days will be some of the most crucial in our history,” he said. “There has never been a federal election that has more clearly provided Can-

‘Women are driven less by identity, more by economic concerns.’ For the Tories, they were the big prize.

adians with such a stark choice between two visions for our country.” How stark? “Stephen Harper formed the most conservative government in history.” Not just Canadian history, apparently. “Because they don’t understand the role of the government, they are unable to provide sound policies for Canadians.” Dion listed a few Harper policies he didn’t see as sound, and offered a few Liberal policies he hoped would sound more appealing.

But like Harper, much of Dion’s business here was about himself. Here at last was a chance to tell his tale, after the Harper

Conservatives had spent two years kicking his butt. “I am excited about this election that will give me the opportunity to have a direct dialogue with you,” Dion said. “And for the first time, you will be able to learn more about who I am and what I stand for.”

In a way it was a startling admission. Dion had been a member of Parliament for 12 years, a key player in the governments ofjean Chrétien and Paul Martin. He had beat all comers for the Liberal leadership, stood most days in the Commons to lead the attack on Harper. And here he was admitting to being a bit of a riddle, even now.

Nowhere was this more galling than in his native Quebec. Dion was a university professor’s son from Sillery, a leafy suburb of Quebec City, but the elites in his province had mistrusted him ever since his days as Chrétien’s lieutenant in the endless national unity debate. The Liberals’ electoral prospects were shaky across the map, but perhaps nowhere more so, outside Alberta, than in francophone Quebec. Dion took a few minutes to remind everyone he was a francophone Quebecer.

“My friends, I am as proud a Quebecer as Gilles Duceppe,” Dion said in French. “The role that we can play—that we should play—in this Canada that we have built is more important than ever before... nothing is too big, nothing is too ambitious for the hearts of Quebecers.” He closed, in similar epic fashion, with an appeal to the broader Canadian population. “My fellow Canadians, we Liberals will speak to your great minds and your big hearts about our vision,” he said. What lay ahead “may well be the most crucial election campaign in our history.”

With that, Dion walked out of the Centre Block to a waiting campaign bus. He wouldn’t have an airplane for three more days. His staff couldn’t book one in time. The mismatch between the Liberal’s rhetoric and his means was jarring. Dion hoped to make history, but Canadians didn’t know him, Quebecers didn’t trust him, and airlines wouldn’t rent to him. Harper had chosen the moment of their confrontation, moved quickly to set terms that favoured him, and was aggressively seeking to broaden his own voter coalition while dismembering Dion’s.

This didn’t look like it would be a great debate or even a hearty scrap. It looked like a mauling.