The fight for regular folks

October 27 2008

The fight for regular folks

October 27 2008

The fight for regular folks



AND THEY WERE OFF. Stephen Harper’s campaign plane flew straight to Quebec. Now, as in 2006, Quebec was a big part of the Conservative strategy to win new seats, and the region around the provincial capital—entrepreneurial, middle-class, suspicious of Montreal and its exotic elites—has always been the bedrock of Quebec conservatism.

In a small ballroom off the lobby of the Hilton hotel, 200 people waited for Harper. Some waved “handmade” signs that had been prepared by Conservative campaign staff. Harper’s organizers handed out news releases. “Quebec Must Choose Between Harper and Dion,” the top line read.

That angle reflected Conservative fears born of Liberal hopes. Dion might be a son of Quebec, but so far it had done him little good. But if he managed to get attention and traction in his home province, the Liberals would start taking back votes. Harper needed to keep Dion on the mat.

The Bloc Québécois still led the polls in Quebec, but its support had been soft ever since the Bloc’s provincial cousins, the Parti

Québécois, came in third in the 2007 provincial election. By framing Quebecers’ choice as one between Liberals and Conservatives, Harper wanted to send the message that the Bloc was simply irrelevant.

“It’s true that not everyone in Quebec agrees with everything I’ve done,” Harper told the crowd. “But you know, not everyone in Alberta agrees with everything I’ve done either.” And yet, he said in another confessional moment, he tried to earn Quebecers’ support by “speaking your language.” His French may not be perfect, “but I hope that every day it’s getting better... Because a prime minister must be able to transmit your pride to the world.”

The Conservatives already had French-language ads running in Quebec, ads so sunshiny and all-in-the-family as to be surreal. Around a breakfast table, Harper and his Quebec cabinet ministers shared a pancake breakfast. Josée Verner was the only woman; the men were dressed identically, in open-collar blue dress shirts. Everyone smiled. Their script suggested they were amazed at all they had accomplished, but that each of them was quite

sure the others still needed reminding.

“If we remember well, the last time in Quebec, we promised it would change for real,” said Lawrence Cannon, nodding.

“Yes. We re-established accountability,” Harper told Cannon. “And we settled the fiscal imbalance,” he said to the rest of the table, nodding.

The camera captured somebody’s hands pouring a glass of orange juice. Jean-Pierre Blackburn chimed in. “On top of that, we recognized the Québécois nation. And Quebec now has a seat at UNESCO.”

Verner smiled and nodded. But she had more: “We give $100 a month to families having young children and we have lowered the GST from seven per cent to five per cent.” Christian Paradis could restrain himself no longer: “And we took care of the economic development of our regions!”

Michael Fortier: “And we have a plan to reduce greenhouse gases, a plan that requires no.new taxes.”

“We’ve been responsible,” Harper concluded. “And we took the right decisions.” Nodding.

Cannon: “Things the Liberals promised, but finally refused to do.”

Paradis: “Real action the Bloc will never have the power to carry out.”

Verner: “And for once we have a government that keeps its promises.”

Fortier shrugged happily. “We’re showing real leadership.” Why deny it?

“We have a team that works hard and we’re

going in the right direction,” Harper concluded. The screen flashed the party’s Quebec-only campaign slogan: “Le Quebec prend des forces!’ Quebec is gathering strength.

The image in the ad—a Conservative team that was ambitious, collegial, fond of pancakes, addicted to nodding and apparently cursed with a short-term memory problem that forced each to remind the others what they had been up to for two years—could not have been more artificial if they had depicted the Conservatives dressed in superhero costumes and dining on Pluto. Yet the mood they captured was real. These were the sunlit early hours of the Harper ’08 campaign.

Everything seemed possible.

Beginning in downtown Quebec City but soon across the country, Harper was visiting only ridings the Conservatives didn’t hold.

You might not think it would matter whether a leader visits a given riding, but in fact it affects local voters’ attitudes a lot. Soon

Harper’s campaign stops amounted to a hit list. The Quebec City riding known simply as Quebec: veteran Bloc MP Christiane Gagnon. Richmond, in B.C.: Liberal Raymond Chan. Wascana, in Saskatchewan: Liberal Ralph Goodale. Two Torontoarea stops in one day: two former Liberal leadership candidates, Maurizio Bevilacqua and Joe Volpe.

At first the most resounding rebuttal to the Conservatives’ Quebec optimism came, not from the Bloc or the Liberals, but from Jack Layton’s NDP. The party had managed to get an MP elected in the Outremont by-election at the end of 2007, the wily former Quebec environment minister Thomas Mulcair. Layton, who was born in Montreal, hoped to capitalize on the Mulcair breakthrough. Step one, the New Democrats decided, was to drive up the number of undecided voters by carpetbombing the Conservatives.

The result was the most starkly terrifying broadcast ad in the history of Canadian political campaigning.

Shot in black and white, the ads featured an incoherent wash of nightmarish and dissonant music in the background as a succession of animated and archival images ran together. “A vote

for the Conservatives...” a woman’s voice, barely a whisper, intones. The screen blanks. Words rush toward the camera: “RETROGRADE IDEOLOGY AUTHORITARIAN INTOLERANT.” The narrator finishes her thought. “... is voting for narrow thinking.” An animated father and child rush toward the camera in silhouette—as the animated child disintegrates from the head down. Perhaps it was because of radiation from the nuclear power plant now rushing at the camera. “For cuts to culture,” the woman says as a guitar smashes. “It’s voting against Kyoto,” she says. All the while, cloudy newsreel footage of Harper’s face plays on the left side of the screen, while footage of George W. Bush plays on the right. “It’s a pro-war vote that makes us the slaves of the oilmen.” Animated black-clad armies fill the screen. Two arms rise up, clad in chains.

Suddenly, sunlight. Orange-tinted sunlight. A bald man with a moustache appears. It’s Jack Layton! Oh thank God. “A single action and all that can stop,” he says in pretty good French. “Join us! Vote NDP.”

The ads caught the Conservatives’ attention. At the end of the 2006 campaign Paul Martin’s Liberals had toyed with ads warning that a vote for Harper was a vote for armies in the streets. The Liberals had backed away from such a dark message, though not before a copy of the ad leaked. But the Liberal spot was an episode of the Teletubbies compared to what the NDP was now using to bombard Quebec airwaves.

Conservative pollsters followed the effect of the NDP ads over the next several days. What they found was that the ads had accomplished only half their purpose. They drove voters away from the Conservatives. But not toward the New Democrats.

Perhaps Jack Layton’s patrician features were not reassuring enough to compensate for the suggestion that voting the wrong way could make your child’s head disintegrate. For whatever reason, Conservative sources say, the NDP terror ads drove Quebec voters to the safe and familiar. Everywhere the NDP ads played,

Armies in the street. Nuclear fallout. NDP ads struck a note of terror.

support for the Bloc Québécois went up.

On the ground, Harper’s campaign was progressing like clockwork. It ought to: it was controlled down to the last decimal. From Quebec City the Conservative leader flew to Vancouver for a night’s rest at an airport hotel and an early-morning breakfast-table chat with the Huang family in suburban Richmond. The Huangs—Edwin, Fei, their toddlers Renée and Eric—didn’t say much, but they must have been flattered. The Prime Minister of Canada had flown across the Rockies for a photo opportunity with them, and he would fly back over the Rockies without speaking to anyone else.

For it was on to Saskatchewan and the gleaming, brand-new barn of Kevin and Kenda Eberle. The Eberle farm, so new and unscuffed it looked like a Universal Studios back lot, was a symbol of Saskatchewan’s economic boom, Harper told hundreds of Conservative supporters in the barn. But something threatened all of this, he warned. Stéphane Dion had a carbon tax custom-designed to knock the wind out of Saskatchewan’s sails. Harper read a letter from a man named Ronald, pleading with him to stop the Dion carbon tax. “I can tell Ronald that we will say ‘No,’ ” he promised.

In Winnipeg he visited a frigid warehouse where vegetables were stored waiting for trucks to take them to market. Diesel trucks. Harper announced he would cut the excise tax on diesel fuel. The cut would “benefit consumers who buy virtually anything that moves by truck, train, ship or plane,” he said.

What it would also do, of course, was sharpen the contrast with Dion’s “Green Shift,” which sought to pay for income-tax cuts by imposing a carbon tax. Harper’s diesel tax cut bore all the fingerprints of his chief strategist, Patrick Muttart. It played up differences between the Conservatives and the Liberals. It put Harper squarely on the side of regular folks such as truckers. As a sort of bonus, it also drove economists mad with frustration. “This is unfathomably stupid,” economist Stephen Gordon wrote on his blog. “In one stroke, it takes two serious and pressing problems—the deteriorating fiscal situation and greenhouse gas emissions—and makes them both worse.”

But economists didn’t like Harper’s 2006 promise to cut the GST either. As a rule, in any fight between independent academics

and Harper’s strategy team, the academics were likely to have a hard time of it.

It was turning into a rough week for academics of all sorts. Dion’s campaign bus was making its way around Quebec and Ontario to the sound of grumbling from reporters. In

Not once since 1867 has a new opposition leader defeated a newly elected prime minister

the spring, NDP strategists had started a bidding war with the Liberals for the last available Air Canada charter plane. The Liberals, short on cash, pulled out and started casting about for an airplane they could rent on short notice. They finally found one, not exactly brand new, from Air Inuit, a northern Quebec company. But it wouldn’t be ready for

Sept. 7, or indeed for several days afterward. So the Liberals planned a ground game for the campaign’s first few days. If Harper hadn’t abandoned his fixed election date law, there would have been by-elections on Sept. 8. So Dion visited two of those ridings to remind everyone of the wasted energy in those abandoned local campaigns. He went to a high school in Walkerton, Ont., site of an outbreak of contaminated drinking water in 2000, to lecture the Conservatives on food safety. There was a kind of reason to his moves, if no rhyme. He was cheerful, discursive, a little rambling at campaign stops. He gave the Walkerton school kids an impromptu lecture on global warming. “There are in the atmosphere certain gases...”

The reviews were not charitable. In the National Post, Don Martin called the campaign “a funeral procession.” Later, a senior Conservative who has worked on all of Harper’s national campaigns said his side was floored by the lack of focus in the Dion campaign.

“They were going to ridings that were the safest Liberal ridings you can imagine. No campaign plane, no message. At the end of every speech you give in a campaign, you state the ballot question. I defy you to find a ballot question in anything Dion said in the first week. And I was watching, trying, but he didn’t make any sense.”

It is worth emphasizing that this was always going to be difficult, this thing Stéphane Dion

was trying to do. Never mind that he’s Stéphane Dion and he’s ail elbows: even the most dashing, silver-tongued, cunning new opposition leader would have his work cut out, trying to defeat a newly elected Prime Minister.

In fact, not once since Confederation had a newly selected opposition leader defeated a newly elected prime minister.

Canadians tend to give their heads of government time and considerable benefit of the doubt. Since Confederation only three elected prime ministers have been defeated after a single victory at the ballot box: Alexander Mackenzie, R.B. Bennett and Joe Clark. Each was defeated, not by a plucky newcomer, but by the wily pro he had beaten in the previous election. Sir John A. Macdonald beat Mackenzie, William Lyon Mackenzie King beat Bennett, and Pierre Trudeau came out of retirement to beat Joe Clark. Re-election is far more common in Canada than early defeat.

This lesson was lost on Liberals. Many assumed their 2006 loss would put them in a penalty box for an 18-month rest before they bounced back. A party that regarded Stephen Harper’s election as a fluke was ill-inclined to contemplate the reasons for his victory. He would collapse under the weight of his own implausibility soon enough, they thought.

Nor did Dion bring a strong hand to the game. He won only 18 per cent of the vote on the first ballot at the Liberal leadership convention at the end of 2006. Voting went to four ballots. Dion didn’t lead until the third. This was novel in an important way. Since Mackenzie King won the first delegated Liberal leadership convention in 1919, every leader of the party had led the field on every ballot at every leadership convention. Winning was a simple matter of walking into the convention with more of the party behind you than anyone else. Dion had far less support within the party and the caucus than Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae did. Neither rival plotted behind his back, or not much, but it was an inherently destabilizing situation.

“I think it was awkward for everybody,” said a former Rae supporter who wound up working closely with Dion during the campaign. “People certainly understood Dion and his boundless energy, so they had respect for him. But he was never considered, quote, one of the guys. I think people were just incredulous. ‘He’s our leader? How did that happen?’ ”

With shaky support behind him and a longodds fight ahead, Dion needed a few timeless political assets. A cool head, a decisive manner, a focused agenda, a methodical analysis of his opponent’s weaknesses. Dion had none of that. What he did have was conviction and heart. He would need them for a ride that started rough and never really got better.