Uneasy streaks

October 27 2008

Uneasy streaks

October 27 2008

Uneasy streaks



SOMETIMES IT WAS when the leaders were closest that it was easiest to see the differences in their styles. On Wednesday, Sept. 17, the Liberal and the Conservative were both in southwestern Ontario, a Chrétien Liberal stronghold that veered sharply Conservative in 2006. Harper’s destination, Welland, was about l60 km away from Dion’s event in London. The ideological and strategic differences on display were much further apart.

Today Dion’s campaign scripters hadn’t let him down. He needed to talk about university research and student aid in front of photogenic students. So they sent him to the University of Western Ontario. “Nothing could

stop me from coming to Western,” he said while a half-dozen fresh-faced students stood behind him, smiling at the back of his head. “I would have jogged here.”

He would have been slowed down by all the paperwork. Dion was actually announcing a simplification of student aid, but it was not easy to tell from the salad of numbers and program names he was tossing around. Under a Liberal government a range of student credits and benefits would be replaced with an upfront education grant payable every three months. At the same time as GST rebates, for any student eligible

for the latter. Dion would add 100,000 “access bursaries” for Aboriginals and other underrepresented groups. He would increase funding for the indirect costs of university research by 60 per cent. And he would borrow $25 billion to pay for 20 years’ worth of needsbased bursaries.

Taken together, Dion’s promises on this day alone were worth perhaps $1 billion, let alone the cost of borrowing for his bursary endowment. Near the end of the campaign, his student-aid measures would earn the Liberals an Afrom the Canadian Federation of Students. But Liberal candidates trying to explain his plan would have a hard time avoid-

A pollster sent a DVD of ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’

ing the mire of jargon and details he had sunk into while announcing the promise.

Then there was Harper. At the Casa Dante in Welland, the Prime Minister vowed to ban tobacco products that were flavoured to taste like bubble gum and cotton candy.

“These products are packaged as candy, and that’s totally unacceptable,” he said. Clearly

the products’ target market was children. “This can’t continue.” To top it off, he would ban sales of cigarillos in packages of less than 20.

Taken together, Harper’s promises on this day would cost little more than the price of the photo opportunity. Their effect on tobacco use among children would probably be real but impossible to measure. But what mattered was that they would cut through the din of the day’s news if you heard about them.

“Without a doubt,” a Conservative campaign insider would say later, “scripting’s been one of the best-executed parts of this campaign.” In 2006 scripting had been the job of Ken Boessenkool, a specialist in economic policy and a long-time Harper ally from Calgary. But already in the home stretch of that campaign, as Boessenkool was easing out of the Conservative war room and back to running the Hill & Knowlton public-relations firm’s Calgary office, Guy Giorno had taken an increasingly prominent role in the day-to-day campaign. Now, in 2008, scripting was Giorno’s main chore. He kept finding ways to get maximum media play out of sometimes very minor announcements.

“Dion was announcing $100 million a day, Harper was announcing $2 million a day, and on the evening news we would play them to a tie,” the Conservative insider said.

This was the triumph of Harper’s relentlessly retail approach to politics. If the theatre, the backdrops, the props and the talking points were Giorno’s, the strategy was Muttart’s. The young campaign planner from Toronto had sharply focused Harper’s message when he joined the Conservative campaign team between the 2004 and 2006 elections. He could not see the point of any policy that would not be noticed and welcomed by working-class and middle-class voters with families. Instead of endless eye-glazing adjustments to income-tax brackets, Muttart had argued for the GST cut. But the GST cut was a massive change to the way Ottawa collects revenues. If anything, Muttart was said to be prouder of far smaller programs that symbolized Harper’s fondness for the ordinary working stiff.

Months before the campaign, Conservatives were tremendously excited about Harper’s speech to the 41st annual construction apprentice graduation in Sarnia, Ont. He reminded them of the handy little grants his government offered to apprentices, to employers who took them on, and to anyone who needed tools for work. A hundred young carpenters and bricklayers gave Harper a standing ovation. “In 1993,” one Conservative said, “those kids would have been cheering for Jean Chrétien.”

Periodically during the 2008 campaign, Dion would mention his bold new vision for Canada. When such remarks played on television, they invariably drew chuckles in the Conservative war room, the insider said. “We’re so cynical, we laugh at him. Like, internally. We’re so focused on small, limited, targeted initiatives that we say, ‘Well, that’s not gonna work.’ ” The search for novel ways to catch voters’ attention had driven Harper’s campaign team far outside Canada for ideas. Many, including Teneycke, were fascinated by one set of comparative data. About 75 per cent of Canadian adults vote, at least occasionally. But typically only 60 per cent admit to having read, watched or listened to the news from any source yesterday. That missing 15 per cent was like catnip to the Conservatives: people who couldn’t be reached by any traditional method but were going to vote anyway. How could those voters be reached? For a while, the Conservatives were fascinated by door hangers, one-page sheets full of talk-

ing points that could hang from a voter’s doorknob until he got home from work. A similar instinct led the Conservatives to try buying ad time on the little TV screens that adorn some gas-station pumps. (The gas-station ad company finally backed out of the deal. A few weeks later, Barack Obama’s U.S. presidential campaign tried the same gasstation gambit. Obama, too, had to abandon it after the ad company got cold feet.)

At one point the quest for ideas on reaching uninterested voters took the Conservative campaign team overseas. In the summer of 2007, Muttart and Doug Finley, Harper’s campaign manager, flew to London and Paris for tips from the British Conservatives and Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party.

They had a long and productive session with their counterparts in London, but as Canadian visitors sometimes do, they were having the devil’s own time getting Paris even to return their calls. They considered cancelling. Finally they landed an appoint-

Frantic calls and memos flooded into Liberal party headquarters but Dion pushed back aqainst any ‘gimmicks'

ment with David Martinon, the Sarkozy campaign staffer who would wind up serving briefly as President Nicolas Sarkozy’s communications director.

On a sweltering Paris day, the two Canadians waited endlessly while Martinon, dressed in an impossibly tight-fitting suit with pointy shoes, took telephone calls. Finley suffered in the heat and the unaccustomed confines of a suit and necktie. Finally Martinon asked how he could help. The two visitors said they were interested in campaign tips. Martinon’s advice was exquisitely inappropriate to the Canadian context. He said UMP campaigners liked to accost vacationing voters on the beach. Muttart said they weren’t really looking for retail advice. Their questions had to do more with marketing.

“Ah! Marketing!” Martinon urged the two men to follow him downstairs into a waiting van, which took them all to another building. Ah-ha. This would be good. Storyboards. Web mock-ups. The paraphernalia of a winning campaign.

Martinon took them to a UMP souvenir shop in the lobby of an office building. He gave them baseball caps and T-shirts with the logo of Sarkozy’s party. Then the pièce de résistance. “Hold out your hands.” He gave the bewildered Finley and Muttart handfuls of UMP-branded condoms. The meeting was over.

Despite the odd transatlantic misstep, the Conservatives’ fascination for niche politics remained. And the techniques the Conservatives had learned in 2006 and refined since then were key to taking and holding a lead among women voters.

Campaign staffers said the strategy was a mixture of style, substance and tactical execution. The sweater-vest ads were designed to prime the electorate before the campaign started. At every stop, Harper strove to hit a positive note in his speeches and impromptu remarks. (“When I come to Saskatchewan, even on a beautiful day like this, I never cease

to be amazed,” he said in the Eberles’ barn.) On the road, he rolled out policies designed to appeal to families and especially to mothers. Parental leave, a first-time homebuyers’ credit, and the cotton-candy tobacco ban were on that list.

Finally, the Conservatives were careful to put their campaign where women would see it. They devoted far more of their ad budget than in 2006 to television with a large female audience, such as the Food Network, HGTV and the doctors-in-love drama Grey’s Anatomy. Several days into the campaign, a Harris Decima poll showed that 22 per cent of respondents, both male and female, reported seeing “a great deal” of Conservative advertising. Only eight per cent said they’d seen a great deal of Fiberal advertising and three per cent for NDP ads. The same firm’s polls showed the Conservatives opening an early lead over every party among rural women and those over the age of 50. The Tories and Fiberals would trade the lead among younger and urban women throughout the campaign, but simply being competitive in that market constituted a breakthrough for the Conservatives.

DION, MEANWHILE, was pushing back at every attempt by his staff to make either his policies or his discourse digestible or relevant to disengaged voters. At the heart of his problems was what the NDP’s Topp called Dion’s “very big anchor,” the Green Shift with its carbon tax.

Michael Marzolini, the veteran Chrétienera pollster who runs the Toronto firm Pollara, was back working for the party after the Martin crew had frozen him out. In the spring he had tested every argument for and against the Green Shift with focus groups. Some people say it’s an intrusive, big-government tax grab: what do you think? Some people say it’s our chance to do our bit for a 21stcentury economy in a greener world: how does that grab you? Support for the arguments in favour was “fairly middling,” someone familiar with the research told Macleans. Support for the arguments against the Green Shift was “incredibly strong.”

Marzolini told Dion the policy would be electoral suicide. Weeks later it was the centrepiece of Dion’s election plan.

Well, sometimes conviction is good. It might be nice to sugar the pill a bit, or at least to accompany the Green Shift with policies that might bring environmentalism down to earth. A ban on dumping sewage in waterways? Dion wasn’t interested. Phasing incandescent light bulbs out in favour of fluorescents? “We had that before John Baird did,” a Fiberal source said, referring to the Conservative environment minister who eventu-

ally announced the incandescent ban.

Maybe Dion could plant trees everywhere he went. Announce a program to plant 30million-odd trees, one for every Canadian. A gimmick, he said. The tree-planting idea went to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, who loved it. The premier’s website has a bewildering array of photos of McGuinty with shovels, toddlers, Boy Scout troops, saplings, sunshine and smiles.

At one point, despairing of Dion’s ability to master the vocabulary of retail politics, Marzolini gave the Fiberal leader a gift: a DVD of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Frank Capra’s classic tale of a plucky and idealistic young senator played by Jimmy Stewart. If the movie had any effect, the pollster never heard about it.

By mid-campaign the Fiberal campaign was receiving frantic memos from all over

about the leader’s performance. At his law office in Toronto, national campaign cochairman Senator David Smith said that in less than an hour he’d received calls from two former cabinet ministers, Herb Dhaliwal and Anne McFellan, and from Heather Chiasson at the National Women’s Fiberal Commission. And were they happy calls? Fong pause. “Well... they’re happy in the sense that the family is there,” Smith said, “and there’s some good positive ideas.”

As Dion sank in the polls, offering one cheerful and numbingly technocratic speech after another, pleas for some kind of course correction came in from every corner of the country. Several members of the B.C. campaign executive had a long boozy dinner and fired off a memo. One B.C. organizer said later he was drawing inspiration from the harrowing battle sequence at the beginning

of the Jude Law war movie Enemy at the Gates, which depicts Soviet Red Army regulars who don’t even have enough guns to fight off the German invaders at Stalingrad. “The one with the rifle shoots. The one without follows him. When the one with the rifle gets killed, the one who is following picks up the rifle and shoots,” the organizer said. “I say that every morning at the staff meeting.”

One memo to the Liberal campaign arrived at 5 a.m. one morning from Marzolini. The provocation was a promise Dion made in Vancouver to spend $250 million against the mountain pine beetle. “Canadians do not care about the size of funding announcements,” the Marzolini memo said. “Each should be announced because Stéphane Dion cares about the average Canadian and shares their values.” Touring the country with lists of problems and dollar figures left the Liberals looking like “cold-hearted accountants.” Suddenly, though, the Conservatives could not take much pleasure from the Liberals’ discomfiture. They had serious trouble of their own. And it was coming from a surprising corner: Quebec.

EARLY IN AUGUST Canwest News had reported that the Harper government was cutting a $4.7-million program designed to send artists abroad to promote Canadian culture. When Canwest’s reporter David Akin called the PMO for comment, he was told the money “went to groups that would raise the eyebrows of any typical Canadian.” Those included the “general radical” and former CBC broadcaster Avi Lewis, and a Toronto band with an unprintable name. “I think there’s a reasonable expectation by taxpayers that they won’t fund the world travel of wealthy rock stars, ideological activists or fringe and alternative groups,” Akin’s source said.

Within a week various news organizations were pegging the total cuts to assorted arts programs at $45 million. The culture-war overtones of the PMO’s political defence went down particularly badly in Quebec. By late August hundreds of artists were staging protests in Montreal and Toronto. “They don’t want to recognize the existence of art in our society, and that’s appalling,” actress Marie Tifo said in Montreal. “I’m here with all my peers to say ‘no,’ we exist, and [cul-

ture] is an essential good.”

For a very long time the Conservatives had no serious concern about the backlash. Artists didn’t vote Conservative anyway. And frankly a few peeved elites were good for business. From time to time, Conservatives speaking on the party’s behalf on television current-affairs shows would phone the party for talking points on this issue or that. Sometimes all they would be told was, “Throw a little red meat to the base.” Montreal artists, in this view, constituted a particularly tender cut.

But it’s a funny thing about artists: they can be creative. A satirical video appeared on YouTube, showing pop singer Michel Rivard facing a thuggish panel of Ottawa arts bureaucrats

Harper strategists went to Paris tor marketing tips. 'Ah, marketing!1 said a Sarkozy aide as he handed them branded condoms.

who don’t understand his French and won’t give him a grant. (It was funnier in French.) Opposition leaders were quick to sense a weakness. Layton and Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe organized their campaign tours so they could attend a Montreal concert in protest against the cuts. The Conservatives want to “turn off the floodlights on our stories, on our hearts, on our souls,” Layton told the crowd. “We say that creative industries are an enormous part of our country’s future.”

Harper was as slow to spot an emerging vulnerability as his opponents were to exploit it. In Saskatoon he called the cuts “a niche issue for some.”

“You know, I think when ordinary, working people come home, turn on the TV and see... a bunch of people at a rich gala all subsidized by the taxpayers, claiming their subsidies aren’t high enough when they know the subsidies have actually gone up, I’m not sure that’s something that resonates with ordinary people.”

Maybe Harper already knew how much trouble this policy was getting him in, because when francophone reporters asked him to repeat that remark in French, a routine occurrence on every campaign, he declined. Soon, however, the Conservatives’ Quebec problems, stemming from a peculiar tone deafness, would not be limited to the arts.

In Ottawa, Harper announced measures to toughen up the Youth Criminal Justice Act, including the possibility of life sentences for 14-year-olds convicted of serious violent crimes. This was classic Harper. He expected a fight on this and he expected the fight to energize Conservatives. “We’re looking forward to taking on the criminologists,” a senior Conservative had said on the eve of the campaign’s launch.

Here again, Quebec was turning out to be a distinct society. There are a lot of criminologists there, and they cling to an ironclad consensus that harsh punishment, especially for young offenders, is an obstacle to reform. Again, the Bloc and NDP pushed back hard against Harper in Quebec. The one-two backlash against the arts cuts and Harper’s law-and-order stance started to have an effect. The Bloc soared up toward 40 per cent in Quebec polls. The Conservatives, who had been flirting with 30 per cent support or higher, collapsed to 20 per cent or lower. At those levels, Harper could forget about picking up seats in Quebec. The challenge now would be to salvage the ones he already had.