The untold story of the 2011 election: Chapter 4

The election would soon turn on two key speeches: one by Ignatieff, one by Duceppe

Turning up the heat

Fred Chartrand/CP

Introduction: Politics turned over
How Harper got what he’s always wanted, Layton took centre stage, and Ignatieff and Duceppe were done in

Chapter 1: The first mistake
The seeds of Michael Ignatieff’s troubles were planted last fall, and by the Liberals themselves

Chapter 2: Not feeling the love
Harper was tightly controlled, Ignatieff loose and freewheeling. Layton? Just a guy most Canadians would rather have a beer with

Chapter 3: The velocity of indignation
The PM had problems: the auditor general kerfuffle, Bruce Carson, the folks kicked out of rallies. The Liberals railed, but the NDP stepped up.

Chapter 4: Turning up the heat
The leaders clashed predictably in the TV debates, but the election would soon turn unexpectedly on two key speeches: one by Ignatieff, one by Duceppe

Chapter 5: The orange wave rises
Years of quiet preparation in Quebec begin paying off for the NDP—Layton’s rivals wake up to a new reality

Chapter 6: The morning after, the years ahead
What do Harper and Layton have in common? An understanding of what works in Canadian politics in the Twitter age­—patience and determination.

To read the entire article now, pick up the latest issue of Maclean’s at your favourite newsstand.

*****

Chapter 4: Turning up the heat

The Government Congress Centre across from the Château Laurier used to be the old Ottawa train station. In the 1960s, government planners decided they had a better idea and moved the trains out to a secluded corner of southeastern Ottawa. As is often the case with government planners, this was not, in fact, a better idea. They made taking the train a pain and left one of the grandest buildings in the Parliament Hill precinct nearly derelict. Sometimes men in suits shuffle in for conferences. Once a year, reporters are locked up in the old building for a few hours with sandwiches and copies of the federal budget. And for two nights in April, Stephen Harper faced his tormentors for the nationally televised leaders’ debates.

“There was a sense coming out of the debates last time”—in 2008—“that it was a four-on-one ambush,” a Conservative strategist said later. “Harper was under attack from all sides, and our positioning in the last debates was too defensive and we didn’t look our best. We knew that we would still face that three-on-one or four-on-one dynamic this time.” In the end it was three. Green party Leader Elizabeth May wasn’t invited. “The goal was to try and recast or reframe it so that rather than looking like we were the ones under attack, there would be a pivot away from the others, into the camera, to use the opportunity to drive the ballot question with the viewers at home. Number one, don’t make a mistake. Number two, try and strategically minimize the others by making a more direct connection with the viewer at home.”

And indeed, Harper spent the debate’s first night physically pivoting away from whoever was accusing him of something and staring into the camera. Angry Harper would come out if he fought back at his opponents, so he basically didn’t engage. “That’s simply not true,” he said again and again, before telling the home audience a tale of modest, responsible government that had not very much to do with whatever the other guy had just shouted at him.

For his part, Ignatieff spent most of the night turned toward Harper. The Conservative leader had spent two years making him hurt. Clearly for Ignatieff it was payback time. “You waste public money,” he said in one typical exchange. “That’s the issue. And that’s why the auditor general’s report is saying, not just that you wasted money, but you didn’t tell Parliament the truth about it.”

The surprise, perhaps, when Ignatieff came back to Canada, was that this veteran of Harvard and the BBC was not a wonderful debater. In fact, the Liberal leadership debates of 2006 suggested he kind of sucked at it. His skin was thin and his tendency to over-personalize the questions at hand was acute, so that once when Bob Rae made an offhand, not unkind remark about Ignatieff’s mother, Ignatieff wandered way off topic to defend his family’s honour. This horrified his young entourage, and when he became Liberal leader in early 2009, they actually scheduled rehearsal time to improve his game. Dwight Duncan, the Ontario finance minister, would show up for these rehearsals and pretend to be Stephen Harper. He would go up one side of Ignatieff and down the other, and gradually it became harder and harder to get Ignatieff to make time for the sessions. Eventually they stopped.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t cancel these debates.

In the English debate, Duceppe was off to one end. The luck of the draw plunked Layton down between Ignatieff and Harper. He was able to strike a more conversational tone. The others had to shout past him to get at each other. Layton set about making the populist pitch that had been the basis for Ignatieff’s “jets, jails and corporate tax cuts” attack. On the tax cuts: “You did get it through,” he said to Harper, “with the support of Mr. Ignatieff, who now, by the way, pretends to oppose the things that he voted for.”

Then he made a more general point. “I’m asking myself, because I remember a Stephen Harper once upon a time who came here to change Ottawa. Was going to stick up for the little guy. But you’ve become what you used to oppose.”

And, when his one-on-one with Ignatieff came, Layton bombed the democracy bridge. He talked about Ignatieff’s lousy attendance record for Commons votes, and by most accounts he probably stretched the truth of that record a bit. But the look on Ignatieff’s face, as the smile he happened to be wearing at the beginning of the indictment slowly curdled, was probably worth it. “You know, most Canadians, if they don’t show up for work, they don’t get a promotion,” Layton said, slipping in the shiv.

Now, here’s the thing: after that debate, when Layton cheerfully whacked Harper for selling out the common man and Ignatieff for needing a map and a guide to find Parliament, a surprising number of Canadians decided he was the only statesman on the stage.

The Angus Reid polling group ran a series of focus groups using an Internet-based response tool called Reaction Plus. For years pollsters have sat audiences down and made them watch debates with a dial to record whether they like what they’re seeing or not. Angus Reid measured their responses on 10 different axes to indicate whether they were “curious,” “engaged,” “confused,” “happy” and so on.

“The primary reaction of Canadians to the English debate was annoyance,” Angus Reid reported later. “Certain feelings, such as engagement, excitement, happiness and even interest, barely registered.” This would not come as any surprise to anyone who had been knocking on doors for a political candidate so far during the campaign.

The next bit is striking and, arguably, crucial, coming as it did after the Conservatives had spent $12 million destroying Michael Ignatieff’s good name and Ignatieff had devoted much of his own campaign to picking at the bones of Conservative misdeeds. “The level of annoyance grew markedly when the leaders attacked each other, and respondents reacted more favourably to the leaders when concrete policy statements were made, particularly in the areas of the economy, health care and education.”

Canadians were sick to tears of watching Harper and Ignatieff go at each other. “The level of interest and happiness definitely soars,” the Reaction Plus report read, “when attacks are avoided and the party leaders express their policy ideas in a clear and concrete fashion.” And despite his digs at Harper and Ignatieff, respondents felt Layton had done that the most.

The next night, the leaders debated in French. Angus Reid stored up a bunch of clips and showed them to focus groups wielding the 10-dimensional Web reaction thingy. “Respondents clearly reacted more strongly to some leaders and themes than to others,” the firm reported later. “Prime Minister Harper elicited strongly negative reactions, no matter what he was talking about. Duceppe and Layton inspire more interest and happy sentiments, whereas Ignatieff provokes a decidedly mixed reaction.”

That’s leaders. What about themes? Here again, Angus Reid found that attacking and interrupting were a bad idea. The audience was in a much better mood “when leaders outline concrete policies or talk about working collaboratively more.”

Take that as a guide, not merely to understanding the clips a focus group watched after the debates, but to understanding what happened next. Attacks may hurt the victim, but they hurt the attacker too. Co-operation is a big asset.

Leaning toward apocalypse

But this entire election was stacked to the rafters with leaders who wanted to do anything but co-operate. For two years Harper had said: give me a majority or anarchy will take this country down. It was a marvellously polarizing argument because a little less than half of the electorate—more than enough to give Harper a majority, if they all went his way—thought an opposition coalition would be the worst thing that could happen to Canada.

The rest, however, thought a coalition was a pretty good idea. There are coalitions in other countries, after all. Coalitions are about working together and overcoming differences. And what did those voters see when they looked at the alternatives to Harper? They saw Ignatieff, who offered them a red door and a blue door. They saw Duceppe, whose separatist party destroys the legitimacy of coalitions even when it wants to participate in them.

And then, as if for the first time, they saw Jack Layton, whose message was: you have a choice.

As for the other guys, they filed out of the Government Congress Centre and kept on whaling the tar out of one another. The Conservatives and Liberals released ads sounding the alarm about parallel threats to the nation.

The Liberals have always tended toward the apocalyptic in their diagnosis of an opponent’s plans. “Where would Harper’s cuts leave your family’s health? The stakes are too high,” the Liberal ad said, as a cardiogram line on the screen flatlined. This ad came out even though Ignatieff had not asked a single question about health care in question period in 2011, and even though the two parties had made similar pledges in statements from the leaders, but not in their platform documents, to keep increasing health care transfers at six per cent per year.

The Harper Conservatives have always preferred narrower incentives. “The iPod tax,” their ad said. Seventy-five dollars extra for some tunage! What a buzz kill. “It’s just the beginning of the coalition’s high-tax agenda.” Liberals, Conservatives and reporters set about merrily debating on Twitter whether the ad had any basis in truth.

The skirmishes continued. A Conservative student at Guelph University contested the legality of an advance polling station on campus. Overheated early reports claimed, falsely, that he had grabbed the ballot box and tried to make off with it. Helena Guergis, dumped from Harper’s cabinet and caucus and running as an independent, said she’d still like to be a Conservative again. He said no. Twitter buzzed merrily about all of this, as partisans called each other names in 140 characters or less.

Later, Ignatieff’s staff would admit what they did not see at the time: that all these five-hour outrages simply came across as white noise to a population looking for a government. De-emphasizing the “family pack” platform in favour of the so-called health scare ads? “The decision was made during the campaign,” a senior Liberal said, not as part of an advance plan. “It was getting difficult to get a break.” The platform just wasn’t getting any coverage. “It’s unfortunate for us because it was a pretty creative platform.”

But once the Liberals started changing channels they couldn’t stop. “The daily Tory scandals may have actually got us off-script. They became distractions, but not enough to cause damage [to the Conservatives].”

This was only evident in retrospect. For now, the Ignatieff campaign was running the way its leader did, riffing on whatever came up.

Then the weekend came and with it, two speeches: one by Ignatieff, one by Duceppe. They would turn the election. Neither in quite the way its author had hoped.

A tale of two speeches

On Friday, April 15, Ignatieff stood in the middle of a hotel ballroom in Sudbury, doing the town hall thing. “While I was on the bus this afternoon I found myself thinking about a wonderful singer called Bruce Springsteen,” he said. “Does everybody like Bruce Springsteen? I like Bruce Springsteen.” He told the crowd about a wonderful song called The Rising. And in that song there’s a wonderful refrain: ‘Rise up.’ ” As armchair Springsteen scholars would soon point out, that refrain is actually in My City of Ruins, but it’s a common error. “And I began thinking about it today. Because we’re in a funny place in this election campaign right now.”

Not really all that funny. Ignatieff was crouched forward, the not inconsiderable bulk of his tall body curving gently around the microphone in his hand.

“We’ve got a Prime Minister who shut down Parliament twice and Canadians kind of shrugged,” he said, quietly. “We’ve got a Prime Minister who’s found in contempt of Parliament. It’s never happened before in the history of our country and people say, kind of, ‘So what?’ We got a Prime Minister who tried to shut down the long-form census and people thought, that’s crazy, but kind of, ‘So what?’ And then we have a Prime Minister who just went out and smeared a member of his own caucus, tried to destroy her public reputation, and people say, kind of, ‘So what?’ ”

There was more in this vein. “And then,” he said near the end of his peroration, “we’ve got a situation where at Guelph university the other day, students lined up for two hours, some of them voting for the first time in their lives, to vote. And a Conservative operative tried to shut it down and stop it. And some smart Conservative lawyer downtown tried to write a letter to get 700 votes by Canadian students disallowed in a federal election in Canada. And people say, kind of, ‘So what, it’s just all political games, who cares?’ ”

Nobody travelling with the Liberal leader had planned or expected any of this. He used to be a broadcaster, after all. Not a great debater, but he does know how to ad lib. “And I kept hearing that refrain from Bruce Springsteen—Rise up. Rise up. Rise up, Canada!”

He nearly shouted this. The crowd began to clap, but Ignatieff kept going. “Why do we have to put up with this? Rise up! Rise up!…Rise up! This goes beyond partisan politics! This goes beyond the Liberal party! This is about our country! This is about our democracy! Rise up! Rise up!” By now the crowd was on its feet.

Later, on the flight to Regina, the campaign videographer showed the footage of the sermon to Peter Donolo, who clearly approved. The video guy then took his computer further forward, to the front of the plane where Ignatieff sat. The campaign crew made two decisions: first, get that Sudbury footage up on YouTube post-haste. Second, get more of the off-the-cuff Ignatieff in front of Canadians. This idea came from Patrice Ryan, one of the leader’s Quebec advisers, a son of former Quebec premier Claude Ryan.

The Liberals had been counting on the debates to turn the polls. They had done nothing of the sort. Now Ignatieff needed to pull something as big as the debates out of thin air. Right there on the flight to Regina they decided to buy a half-hour of TV time eight days hence, on Easter Sunday, to show Michael Ignatieff to Canadians once again.

But when the “rise up” video went online, with Ignatieff’s sermon accompanied by quiet inspirational music, the reaction from Conservatives was surprising. They started sharing the footage as widely as possible. “With any luck,” the party’s war room communications director Jason Lietaer wrote on Twitter, “this will go viral.”

Conservatives were persuaded that the spectacle of Ignatieff urging crowds to rebellion could look good only to Liberal partisans. “You’ve got Stephen Harper on the one hand saying times are dangerous and we need a stable government,” our Conservative war room source said later. “And then you got a guy yelling at people to rise up?”

Think back to the Angus Reid dial groups. “The level of annoyance grew markedly when the leaders attacked each other.” Here was Michael Ignatieff acting out the moments of the debate that felt the most like itching powder to the home audience.

Which brings us to Gilles Duceppe. The Bloc leader’s support had been a little soft so far in the campaign, but nothing too preoccupying. So he was not overly worried as he attended the national convention of the Parti Québécois in Montreal. Pauline Marois is that party’s leader. She leads the province’s struggling Liberal premier, Jean Charest, but given all his trouble and woe, she would probably be leading by more if she were not a profoundly unimpressive political performer. Still, the PQ is fresh out of better ideas for the moment, so on April 16, delegates gave her a resounding 93.08 per cent endorsement as their leader.

Duceppe had once flirted with competing against Marois for the PQ leadership, but now he could use her help, and her partisans’. The BQ often presents itself as a big tent within which all Quebecers are welcome, but now he decided separatist backbone was handier than ecumenical diversity.

“My friends, I say this often,” he told the convention. “Before being Péquistes and Bloquistes, we are all sovereigntists. We are going to finish the campaign side-by-side. More united then ever. We have only one task to accomplish. Elect the maximum number of sovereigntists in Ottawa and then we go to the next phase: electing a PQ government.”

He had not, in fact, been campaigning on a promise to make his party a cog in a great separatist scheme. This was something of a rebranding exercise. “A strong Bloc in Ottawa. A PQ in power in Quebec. And everything becomes possible again.” That last sentence echoed the “yes” camp’s slogan during the 1995 referendum, which had split the province against itself.

The crowd in the room loved it, as the crowd in the room had loved Ignatieff’s “rise up” speech. Partisans always love the partisan stuff. The people outside, who have had quite enough of feuds and quarrels, not so much. The day before Duceppe spoke, the daily Nanos tracking poll put the Bloc at 38.7 per cent support in Quebec. Within a week they would lose one-fifth of that support and fall to 30.3. And from there the collapse would only accelerate.




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The untold story of the 2011 election: Chapter 4

  1. .
    I'm sorry this otherwise well-crafted segment had to end with a de facto paean to the well-discredited methodologies of the commercial polls.

    Apart from that, my observations of the debates, which included a thorough scanning through all the posted youTube editions, showed Harper's determination to gun (prison slang for staring-down) his questioner, and then play to the camera in answering. This calculated risk played well to the public. Except (and someone else noticed) when the video director (mischievously) switched to a side camera, leaving Dear Leader imbecilely preaching into a dead tube.
    .

    • What is "de facto paean" prison slang for?

      • Apart from that, my observations of the debates, which included a thorough scanning through all the posted youTube editions, showed Harper's determination to gun (prison slang for staring-down) his questioner, and then play to the camera in answering. This calculated risk played well to the public. Except (and someone else noticed) when the video director (mischievously) switched to a side camera, leaving Dear Leader imbecilely preaching into a dead tube

      • eye f#ck

    • The crowd in the room loved it, as the crowd in the room had loved Ignatieff's “rise up” speech. Partisans always love the partisan stuff. The people outside, who have had quite enough of feuds and quarrels, not so much. The day before Duceppe spoke, the daily Nanos tracking poll put the Bloc at 38.7 per cent support in Quebec. Within a week they would lose one-fifth of that support and fall to 30.3. And from there the collapse would only accelerate.

    • “My friends, I say this often,” he told the convention. “Before being Péquistes and Bloquistes, we are all sovereigntists. We are going to finish the campaign side-by-side. More united then ever. We have only one task to accomplish. Elect the maximum number of sovereigntists in Ottawa and then we go to the next phase: electing a PQ government.”

    • More oddly, given her moment in the spotlight, May behaved in the manner of an actress being handed a shiny prize—she recited a list of thank yous and cracked some inside jokes, instead of seizing the moment to make her case and build her following. One sensed an end, not a beginning.

    • He had not, in fact, been campaigning on a promise to make his party a cog in a great separatist scheme. This was something of a rebranding exercise. “A strong Bloc in Ottawa. A PQ in power in Quebec. And everything becomes possible again.” That last sentence echoed the “yes” camp's slogan during the 1995 referendum, which had split the province against itself.

  2. These are excellent articles.

    Well done, Maclean's.

  3. The "Rise Up" Iggy version was one of the big things that did Ignatief in. Practicing and mirroring could have improved the rendition but probably not by much, as Iggy's image and activism just don't match. It's like watching Russia's Putin doing a Rise Up version, it's just shuddering.

    • Doesn't help that the crowd was made up of mostly seniors, who appeared pretty reluctant to get up and clap. Even when they did, I'm surprised the lib war room didn't pick up on how tepid the response was. The problem in a nutshell is that iggo was in way over his head, he had no clue what he was doing.

  4. Well, no wonder Jack did well in these debates. The background colour of the set was predominately orange. Subliminal advertising.

  5. and perhaps the Rise Up schtick simply reminded weary liberals of how many times their leaders had wound them up with grand dudgeon only to vote in support of the Conservatives. It seemed like a climax of bad timing.

  6. Or Howard Dean?

  7. “The level of annoyance grew markedly when the leaders attacked each other, and respondents reacted more favourably to the leaders when concrete policy statements were made, particularly in the areas of the economy, health care and education.”

    Thank you randomly selected Canadians! POLICY MATTERS!

    Dear consortium: For the start of the next campaign's debate, each leader is provided FIVE MINUTES to talk about anything they like EXCEPT any of the other parties or leaders, or prior events. Strongly encourage them to talk about their own objectives should they have power or some element of the balance of power. If any speaker strays into negative attacks, or even an attempt to compare with another party's platform, Paikin buzzes them off, and the microphone is shut down.

  8. Too bad Layton's bordello visit(s) weren't revealed earlier. It would have provided a different context for his sanctimoneous personal attacks on the other leaders.

    The story could have been exposed but the two "me too" TV channels withheld it. CTV is privately owned so I suppose it is entitled to run what it likes with whatever biases it chooses, but not the state broadcaster. The CBC needs to be held to account for sanctioning an anti-Harper campaign led by Terry Milewski and Rosemary Barton. This latest disgrace is reason enough to slash or even end the $1.1 billion involuntarily taken from taxpayers' pockets.

    Welcome Sun TV. Finally, a TV news organization that has the courage to say what Canadians are thinking. No wonder the other channels are attacking it.

    • Sun TV is dead on arrival. It's got an average of only about 6000 viewers at a time. Anyhow, you're right about Jack. I personally don't care if he went for a happy ending -style massage (prostitution, like drugs, should be legalized, regulated and taxed.) But he's no saint, cane or not. I've said it before and I;ll say it again– he's the used car salesmen of sanctimony.

  9. The media spin is gonna go crazy trying to justify why their heroes on the left got taken except for a few 'joke' candidates in Quebec ridings and the deviots in Vancouver and the gulf islands. To have to watch their arch enemy, the conservatives govern for the next 4 years will make those in the media even more biased than they already are. Thank whomever for Sun TV as it will be the only news worth viewing.

    • Sun TV is a bust, good luck with that. And is it possible for Robertson or Mansbridge to have sucked up to the PM more? This whole "media hates the Cons" thing is in your imagination.

  10. To this day I have a hard time figuring out Ignatief and the liberal strategists or hacks behind him. Ignatief has been promoted as brilliant and intelligent man, he has a doctorate degree, a writer, and a Harvard professor; and I assume the people behind him are just as academically high achievers and just as brilliant. With all those party's touted intelligence and brilliance combined, why was there none in the group astute and smart enough to connect the dots of the real economic situation the world is facing today and able to make a platform that reflected that reality?

    1: The world is in economic recession
    2: Iceland, Greece, Portugal, Ireland, and other suspected European countries are under economic bailout and few might be defaulting their debts.
    3: Our neighbor and biggest trading partner, the US, is having serious financial meltdown which has been and will be affecting us as well.
    4: The election coincides with Tax Filing Deadline, when every day, preparing the tax return, is a reminder of how much government spending costs us.

    Considering those above points and many others; why the hell did Liberal presented a spending campaign and platform instead of fiscal prudence and values? Every time Iggy's campaign bus stopped, people are already second guessing another universal spending (What would it be this time? Or was this guy for real?). It was like the Liberal having given the country's cheque book to someone who has a spending addiction.

    Are those brilliant minds so entrapped in their own classrooms/theories/ books (or poisoned by each other's flatulence) that they have forgotten the realities of the outside world? Or has the Liberal party completely taken over by the left? The centrist part of Liberal was a no show in that whole campaign. At that election the leftist platform presented by the Liberals was defeated by the NDP.

    • I love how everybody just ignores this guy. Keep trying though, Sparky.

  11. It's interesting to compare Aaron Wheery's earlier panagyric on this speech with Wells' analysis. I credit Wells with being a bit more clear thinking about it.

    • Aplogies for the misspelling: Wherry

  12. BYAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!

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