Flushing out the real enemy

October 27 2008

Flushing out the real enemy

October 27 2008

Flushing out the real enemy


EARLY IN THE CAMPAIGN, as part of what might be called the Sweater-Vest Initiative, Harper let his campaign staff talk him into sitting down for breakfast with travelling campaign reporters for an on-the-record session. Not just croissants and coffee, but cameras and boom microphones. It took some talking. Harper’s new communications director, a boyish 33-year-old Saskatchewanborn veteran of Reform party politics named Kory Teneycke, could hardly believe he’d actually won this argument.

When the meeting happened in an eastend Toronto hotel, the questions from reporters were unaggressive. Harper was so guarded he ate nothing and drank only water. Yet something about the unaccustomed setting made him open up. He wound up delivering detailed comments on strategy, his read of the electoral map, the flaws in the other parties’ game plans, and his own evolution as a politician.

“Every campaign we’ve had, whether it was a leadership campaign or a national campaign, don’t kid yourself,” he said. “We might come out and say to you that everything went fine. But in private, we sit down every time and we go through what did we do right, and what did we do wrong.” He was delivering little karate chops to the tabletop for emphasis. “And we do it brutally frankly. And every single time”—chop chop chop—“we’ve made changes in terms of strategy. We’ve made changes in terms of personnel. And I’ve tried to make changes in myself.”

He had read somewhere, he couldn’t remember where, that leaders keep making the same mistakes until, sooner or later, those mistakes catch up. He decided he wouldn’t let that happen to him. “And what I’ve vowed to myself, at least in this position as leader of a national party, is that we will look at our mistakes and try to make sure we do it differently the next time.”

This is the Harper management style. Con-

The NDP had one thing it hadn’t before: bags full of cash to buy ads

stant churn. Creative destruction. Nobody is indispensable. Harper had given one communications director, William Stairs, his walking papers weeks after winning the 2006 election. He had fired his chief of staff in mid2005. And when it became clear he would not have to fight an election in the spring of 2008, he used the summer’s reprieve to carry out another shakeup. Ian Brodie, the softspoken but sometimes ruthless organizer who had seemed pivotal to the Harper operation, was replaced on Canada Day as chief of staff by the long-time Ontario provincial Conservative strategist Guy Giorno. Giorno wanted a new communications voice. Sandra Buckler had mastered a defensive game that consisted mostly of fending off reporters’ queries. Her tight-lipped approach kept Conservatives from shooting themselves in the foot but limited their ability to score points against their opponents. On Giorno’s counsel, Harper replaced her with Teneycke, who had worked with Giorno in Ontario politics. Teneycke gave reporters far more information and access to cabinet ministers than Buckler had. But he included generous doses of partisan spin with the information.

A week after the 2006 election, Patrick Muttart was back at work identifying flaws in the strategy and looking for areas of potential growth. Some were obvious. Perhaps the breakthrough in Quebec could be extended. Harper and his campaign manager, Doug Finley, launched an ambitious candidate search. Maclean’s has learned that one prominent Montrealer they approached, without success, was Raymond Chrétien, the nephew of Jean Chrétien and a former ambassador to Washington and Paris.

Other areas of growth were less obvious. They would take work. Harper set about doing the work. Jason Kenney, the young Calgary MP, was put in charge of outreach to ethnic communities. The Liberals had spent decades courting ethnic voters, so Kenney often met polite disinterest or worse. But he had Harper’s confidence, an awesome memory for


detail, and amazing stamina on the embassyand-ethnic-community reception circuit. Kenney scored an early victory when he persuaded Harper, over the Foreign Affairs Department’s objections, to abandon visa requirements for visitors from several ex-Communist countries in the European Union. The eastern European diaspora in Canada contains millions of voters, Kenney told his boss in March. They would notice this gesture. “These visa restrictions are going to be dropped some day. The department wants us to do it after the Americans and after the election. Why not do it before the Americans—and before an election?” Harper liked the sound of that. A bureaucratic delegation from Foreign Affairs had toured Europe after Christmas and was months

away from reporting. Harper didn’t bother waiting. He dropped the restrictions in the spring. After that there were times when the website of the Canadian Polish Congress was so bedecked with photos of cabinet ministers and texts of government announcements it looked like the Conservative party website.

This was especially true because the Conservative party website itself more often resembled some lunatic fraternity prank aimed at Stéphane Dion.

In the final days of this campaign, a senior Liberal strategist told Maclean’s, “the fiveweek writ period is a distraction. If we lose this thing, it was lost at the beginning of2007, within two months after Dion became leader.” For a man who had spent a decade in senior roles in two predecessors’ governments, Dion was not well-known when he became leader. He needed to be defined. As he set about defining himself, the Conservatives set to work defining him. His opponents had more success than he did.

That’s even though they were caught flat-

footed by his victory. The first “Not a Leader” TV ads featured Dion taking heavy fire from Michael Ignatieff at the Toronto Liberal leadership debate. Ignatieff says, “Stéphane, we didn’t get it done!” Dion’s voice jumps an octave. “This isn’t fair! You think it’s easy to make priorities?” The ads were on-air by the end of January, only seven weeks after Dion’s victory. That’s not a long time, but if Ignatieff or Rae had won, the ads would have started before the next weekend.

“We actually had creative ready to go to cutting,” a senior Conservative said later, using ad-industry jargon for anti-Rae and Ignatieff ads that were within a couple days of being ready to air. “The strategy with Rae was reminding people of the disaster in

Ontario”—Rae’s half-decade as the province’s NDP premier during a recession. “The Ignatieff stuff was a different type of strategy. It was sowing seeds of dissent within the Liberal party. It was raising all the issues on which Ignatieff differed from the Liberal history and pushing those. So the strategy on Ignatieff was not to destroy him, but to create dissension within the Liberal party. All the stuff he’d said that Liberals didn’t like. Support for the Iraq war. Oddly enough, the strategy was to liken Ignatieff to Harper on a bunch of stuff. And to make the Liberals second-guess why they chose this guy.”

So high were Tory hopes in Quebec, they approached Raymond Chrétien to run for them

Dion? A cipher. And his main accomplishment, the Clarity Act that sought to write a rule book for future Quebec secession referendums, closely resembled work Harper had done on the unity file for the Reform party. It took more than a month for Muttart to find the right handle for the guy: that he didn’t exactly fill a room or make strong men tremble. Not a Leader became the theme. Ignatieff was a perfect tormentor in the ads, because setting Liberals against one another was a key Conservative strategic imperative.

One way for Dion to rebut the charges was to act like a leader. It turned out that was hard. The morning after he became leader he appointed a transition team headed by Rod Bryden, an Ottawa businessman, and Marcel Massé, the career bureaucrat who had preceded him as Chrétien’s national-unity minister. Bryden was supposed to represent hardnosed business sense. Massé’s job, one Liberal insider said, was “to teach Dion how to be a leader.” Which was odd because Massé had never been a leader himself.

At any rate the transition team never got a chance to deliver a coherent strategy and organization. “Dion moved too quickly. He didn’t let the transition team do its work,” the insider said. The leader’s staff wasn’t selected, it just kind of... accreted, like space dust drifting together to form a comet. Dion had spent seven years watching the Chrétien operation, cool and disciplined, and two watching the Martin board, rambling and chaotic. Oddly his style was closer to Martin’s. People came and went. Massé lasted a few months as principal secretary before his health made him leave. Later nobody could recall precisely what he had done, not because he hadn’t done anything but because, in the primal goop of Dion’s office, individual effort sank as if in oatmeal.

In October 2007, fully 10 months after he became leader and on the eve of a Conservative Throne Speech that could have led to an election, Dion decided to replace his Quebec lieutenant, Hull-Aylmer MP Marcel Proulx. He offered the job to Denis Coderre, a scrappy MP from Montreal’s Bourassa riding. Proulx quit in a huff when he heard Coderre had been offered the job. But then Coderre, no great fan of Dion’s, declined to take it. This was bad. Running short of options, Dion asked Pablo Rodriguez, another Montreal MP. Rodriguez said no, too. Finally, faute de mieux, the job went to Céline Hervieux-Payette, a senator with a frosty demeanour and a tendency to take disagreement as proof of disloyalty. The botched choice of a Quebec organizer was

something Dion would never stop paying for.

The complete tale of Liberal infighting, confusion, decisions delayed and revisited, would fill more space than we have here. But the upshot was that even though Dion had nearly two years to prepare for an election, he made it to September 2008 with very little to show for it. He had a policy, the Green Shift. He had a campaign staff, almost none of whom had worked on a national campaign before. He had a thick French accent, a long list of topics he wanted to discuss but no strategy for rolling them out in a coherent campaign script, and the crushing burden of all those Conservative ads. “We put him in a basement so deep that he personally wouldn’t recover,” one Conservative said.

One more obstacle facing the Liberals was that they weren’t alone in seeking the affections of voters who wouldn’t support Harper. In fact, the competition was fiercer than ever.

If it seems to you that Jack Layton has more focus, a harder edge, a bolder mien during election campaigns than the rest of the time, you have a sharp eye. Much of the reason is Brian Topp, a long-time staffer for Roy Romanow’s Saskatchewan government. Topp is executive director of ACTRA, the performing arts union, but this was his third campaign as the chief strategist for the national New Democratic Party. Topp is from the (smallish) branch of the NDP that prefers winning to offering high-minded advice to somebody else’s government. With Layton he has delivered results that upset Liberals,

because a growing NDP vote was a big ingredient in Paul Martin’s declining fortunes. But Topp and Layton weren’t done yet.

“Our vote has gone from a million votes in 2000 to two million in ’04 to 2.5 million,” he said halfway through this campaign. The danger was that those votes might not stick around. Two of the worst elections in NDP history were Liberal comebacks, in 1974 and 1993. Fortunately, Dion’s shaky debut gave the New Democrats an unhoped-for asset: a leadership edge.

“Although the public-domain voter intentions weren’t all that encouraging, when you ask who people liked as prime minister, our guy kept coming in second,” Topp said. “Dion was proving to be a tough sell. And he was dragging around what our research suggested to us was a very big anchor, this carbon tax.

“So our objectives in the first period were to start at such a high tempo, and with such a big bang, that we could not be written out of the campaign. We would be able to cut through the clutter of the campaign, speak to our base, and give them the good news that we are still alive. That we are competitors.”

There had been so many false starts to this campaign, moments in the spring and fall of 2007, and the spring of2008, when it seemed an election was imminent. After every false alarm, the Liberals somehow wound up tabula rasa. The New Democrats had more success building from crisis to crisis. “The false starts forced us to up the tempo of our work and get a lot done. The upshot was that we were

unusually ready. We had our plane, we had our calendar worked out, our platform was written. We knew what we were going to say. We had our locations all scouted, and it was just all there.”

Cutting through the clutter was easy enough: Layton simply had to display breathtaking cheek. Already on Aug. 31, when Harper invited him to 24 Sussex Drive in the long prelude to the election call, Layton said that whenever Harper decided to “quit,” “I intend to apply for his job.” On the first day of the campaign, Layton flew straight to Harper’s Calgary riding.

It was a tall order. The NDP had 30 seats at dissolution. It would be handy, if Layton wanted a minority government, to add another 85 or so to that. There is a Monty Python sketch in which Terry Jones plays the nondescript Ron Obvious from Neaps End, who has taken it into his head to long-jump 26 miles across the English Channel. An interviewer asks how far he’s jumped previously. “Eleven foot, six inches at Motspur Park on July 22,” Obvious replies gamely as he warms up. “But I have done nearly 12 feet unofficially.”

But where Ron Obvious was weighed down with a sackload of his main sponsor’s product-half a hundredweight of bricks from the Chippenham Brick Company—Layton’s NDP had a much more welcome burden: sacks of cash. The party headquarters had appreciated nicely in value on the Ottawa real-estate market and the bank was impressed with Layton’s leadership numbers, so with the

headquarters as collateral the party was able to take out a jumbo loan to finance its most ambitious campaign ever.

“We’re going to spend more on advertising in this campaign then we spent in all of2000,” party spokesman Brad Lavigne said. “Just over $7 million.” They’d hired ad firms that had never worked for a political party before. “We want our ads to cut through.” Hence the Quebec ad with the marching armies of doom behind Junior’s exploding head.

In 2004 and 2006 the Liberals had viewed the NDP as a passive receptacle for votes that Paul Martin could soak up in the campaign’s last week. Dion had the same hope this time. Bob Rae, a former NDP premier of Ontario, had a special mandate to do the soaking. Layton, with a bold new discourse, a hefty bank loan and a declared interest in replacing the Liberals on the political checkerboard, had no intention of making Rae’s work easy.

Elizabeth May might be a different thing entirely. The Green party leader was new to federal politics. In her years as executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, she had been non-partisan and even anti-partisan. In

the last week of the 2006 election she was one of the most prominent members of Think Twice, a group of leftish Canadians who had urged voters not to vote in a way that might let Harper win. They were careful not to state it so bluntly, but the obvious inference was that they wanted Canadians to vote Liberal to stop Harper.

That position was at the heart of the argument between May and David Chernushenko,

8ronle helped tie Greens, even if some stalwarts weren’t sure they could trust her

a former Green candidate, for the party leadership in 2006. Chernushenko thought the leader should support all the party’s candidates, not toss some overboard as a function of the national horse race.

May insisted she’d be a good leader for the Greens, and her media profile after years as a TV talking head gave her an easy victory. But in April 2007 she cooked up an alliance

with Dion: the Liberals would run no candidate against her in Central Nova, where she had made the audacious decision to run against incumbent Conservative cabinet minister Peter MacKay.

Conservatives immediately suspected the non-aggression pact was part of a deeper alliance. May had been tearful about the prospect of a Harper government in 2006. Now she was plotting with Dion. Conservatives

took to calling May Dion’s “star candidate in Central Nova.”

For the NDP, the danger from the Greens was huge. First because the fourth-place NDP could ill afford competition from a still smaller party. But especially because the NDP had a hard enough time persuading its supporters to stay loyal in the face of probable Conservative victory. A column in the Globe and Mail, early in the campaign, made the danger obvious.

The columnist, John Barber, opened by calling on “all progressive men and women to bury the New Democratic Party.” Why? Because Layton and Harper had tried to keep May out of the televised leaders’ debates on the grounds that she was a stalking horse for the Liberals. That opposition had cost Layton days of furious recrimination from NDP supporters, and finally he dropped his opposition. Isolated, Harper relented too. May would become the first Green leader to get this chance to make her case to the Canadian electorate.

But for the Globe’s Barber, being a stalking horse for the Liberals was an excellent idea. “NDP perversity revealed itself nakedly in the last election, which brought an enormous tranche of Tories to power as a result of ruinous left-wing vote splits,” he wrote.

To Barber, it was obvious May would not be such a spoiler. His column ended with a simple wish. “Go Green!”

It was the kind of column that made New Democrats furious. “Frustrating,” Lavigne said when asked about it. But Barber’s serene belief that the Greens would campaign only until they became an inconvenience before getting out of the Liberals’ way was also maddening to long-time Greens. Many wondered whether their leader was more than a fairweather friend to the cause she now, at least nominally, led.

In the campaign’s third week, May rode a Via train eastward from Vancouver to Halifax in a variation on the whistlestop campaigns of old. An interview she gave to Macleans. ca could not have comforted those who wondered whether she would campaign for Green votes no matter what: “Harper and Layton have their plan. Nothing can interfere with their plan. Their plan, to destroy the Liberal party, is a route to electoral success for both of them,” she said. “But my concern about climate means that I can’t play into the game that says it doesn’t matter if Harper is elected.”

The Liberals had enjoyed a decade in power because conservatives were divided, the NDP was weak and the Green vote barely registered. Now the tables were turned. The fractured electorate was just another on Dion’s long list of obstacles to power.