Every day is election day in Canada

The permanent campaign, an unfortunate mainstay of American politics, is now in full swing here, too

Where every day is election day

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

After a seven-year stretch of nearly constant electioneering—including votes in 2004, 2006, 2008 and this past spring—the next federal election is now four years away. But the campaign has already begun. Or perhaps the last campaign merely continues.

Consider one of the otherwise inconsequential portions of the parliamentary day—the time allotted for “statements by members.” These 15 minutes immediately before question period are generally reserved for the recognition of favourite causes, honoured constituents and notable world events, but in recent years this time has also allowed for free political advertising. Faced with a Liberal opposition, the Conservatives took regular pleasure in using those 15 minutes to mock Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. After barely two weeks of relative quiet this spring, the Harper government duly turned on the NDP—backbencher David Wilks stood up on June 15, nine sitting days into the new Parliament, to decry the dangerous policies of the “radical hard left NDPers.” Five days later, Conservative Blake Richards ventured that the NDP was “not fit to govern.” “With its high tax plan, the NDP is not fit to govern or to lead Canada through the fragile global economic recovery,” Richards informed the House. That particular phrase—and its cousin “unfit to govern”—have since been committed to Hansard, during members’ statements, question period and otherwise, a total of 37 times.

This is the embodiment of the permanent campaign—a constant, unrelenting and tireless approach to politics. And it is this idea of the never-ending election that now dominates Ottawa. What might have previously been dismissed as an unfortunate side effect of minority Parliament is now foundational to modern Canadian politics. The practice–in discourse and tactics alike–prevails even after the obvious political necessity is gone.

The concept has been credited to Patrick Caddell, a pollster who, in December 1976, advised president-elect Jimmy Carter to govern while pursuing a “continuing political campaign.” Four years later, The Permanent Campaign was the title of a book by Sidney Blumenthal, an American journalist and future adviser to president Bill Clinton. The idea that politics might be practised in between elections is surely much older than that, but it is an approach to governing that has increasingly defined American politics ever since, arguably to the point of total dysfunction.

We may consider ourselves above such stuff—“American-style politics” is something of a slur in Canadian rhetoric—but a permanent campaign mentality has taken hold here. The months following the May 2 election bear that out. Liberal MP Irwin Cotler has complained, for instance, of a Conservative phone campaign in his riding that suggested to his constituents he might soon resign. Cotler complained to the Speaker that his privileges as a member of Parliament were thus breached. While the Speaker decided he could not find a prima facie case of privilege, he did allow that “all reasonable people would agree that attempting to sow confusion in the minds of voters as to whether or not their member is about to resign is a reprehensible tactic.”

That campaign—which strategist Bruce Anderson called “just wrong on every level”—is but the most prominent point of post-election conflict. Cotler and fellow Liberal Mark Eyking have accused the Conservatives of setting up shadow MPs in their ridings. In both cases, former Conservative candidates are now employed by the federal government in positions that have them acting as liaisons between Ottawa and their communities—job descriptions that sound awfully similar to that of a duly elected MP.

Some might have assumed the election of a majority government in May would dampen the enthusiasm for political warfare. But in the wake of an election that saw so much change in the political standings, there is also still much to be fought for. “The new era needs to entrench itself. And it’s not going to do so by itself,” says Brad Lavigne, a top NDP strategist and adviser. “So the parties need to continue to engage in a level of campaigning that will allow for that. So the Conservatives are fighting to illustrate that they are the only party that can govern. The New Democrats are campaigning to ensure that they are the alternative. And the Liberals and the Bloc are trying to campaign for their mere existence.”

If the Conservatives have generally dominated in this regard over the last seven years—building a professional and well-funded organization that gives no quarter—their opponents have obviously realized the need to respond in kind.

The NDP has launched a billboard campaign against the government’s imminent abolishment of the long-gun registry. (The Conservatives have countered with a radio and Internet campaign to hail their accomplishment.) In an appeal to supporters this past summer, interim Liberal leader Bob Rae appealed for the funds necessary “to go toe-to-toe in the ‘permanent campaign’ that has become the hallmark of the Harperites,” and the Liberals have since set their sights on a $2.5-million national call centre to help wage that fight.

Consider that time set aside each day for statements by members. Starting with an attack on the government’s support for the asbestos industry in October, the NDP has moved to match wits. It has, for instance, taken a liking to the accusation that while the Conservatives once promised to change Ottawa, instead it is Ottawa that has “changed them.” Between Nov. 21 and Dec. 2, New Democrats put that sentiment on the record six times. Before the House rose for Christmas, the NDP even turned the government’s favourite line around, venturing that the elimination of the long-gun registry and the conditions on Aboriginal reserves demonstrated that it was the Conservatives who were “not fit to govern.”

The permanent campaign is unfolding in quieter ways too. In addition to those billboards, the NDP has been making automated calls into Conservative-held ridings in the Greater Toronto Area. Listeners—presumably suburban and urban dwellers who are more likely to support the long-gun registry—are told their MP has voted to abolish the registry. They are then invited to press a button if they wish to express their opinion to that MP, at which point they are patched through to the constituency office. The NDP is then able to track how many people were engaged enough by the message to want to speak to the MP.

Technology is a driver. Social media and the expansion of almost all news organizations into 24-hour-a-day operations provide constant outlets and demands. Modern opinion polling allows parties to target increasingly specific audiences with tailored messages. The Internet makes it easy to dig up almost everything your opponent has ever said. “The 24-hour news cycle, Facebook, Twitter, the growth of technology that allows so much more to be done, both on the political research side and in understanding the views of population subgroups, those are with us. And they’re only going to get more sophisticated,” says Geoff Norquay, the veteran Conservative strategist.

In a recent op-ed, Scott Reid, a Liberal strategist, argued the phone campaign against Cotler should be cause for reflection—that political practitioners should think about how they might be contributing to the degradation of our democracy. “Taken together it amounts to a simple credo: take cheap shots and take them all the time,” he wrote in calling for an armistice of sorts.

Of course, the same atmosphere that drives the permanent campaign makes it easier for those periodic sins of partisanship to be forgotten. And the system seems, so far, to reward those parties that best wage total war.

This spring will be instructive. The NDP will elect a new leader on March 24. If recent history is any indication, the Conservatives will soon thereafter launch the sort of ad campaign they so successfully used to bury Liberal leaders Dion and Ignatieff. “I think it’s not unrealistic to expect the Tories to stay with that learned behaviour,” says Tim Powers, a Conservative strategist. “As long as that learned behaviour produces results, then you continue with it.” In those previous cases, the Liberals were unable or unwilling to respond in kind. The NDP—which Jack Layton professionalized much as Stephen Harper did the Conservative party—may be more ready for the fight. The tiny battle that is those 15 minutes allotted each day for statements by members thus may be mere prelude. And the permanent campaign may be about to reach a new pitch.




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Every day is election day in Canada

  1. “Not fit to govern”?  I’d like to see a fitness test NDP vs. Tories in a NHL-style combine (in which the results would be very bad vs. less bad) or even a doctor-lead physcial assessment.  Now, there is a contest. 

    Anyhow, Aaron, are you really suggesting that it is difficult to differentiate between the election readiness of the parties, which I equate to little more than regular milking of the cows, to the actual campaigning?  I am no where near as close to it as you are, so maybe it just looks obvious from a distance only.  Perhaps the real off-season campaigning is from the media strategy advisers attempting to increase billable hours.  What is the word around town about the activity/inactivity of this special breed?

    Also, if the minority government was largely responsible for fostering a heightened state of election readiness, does this not suggest that an extended period of majority government might reduce the need for this?  

    • “if the minority government was largely responsible for fostering a heightened state of election readiness, does this not suggest that an extended period of majority government might reduce the need for this?”

      No.

      Because the larger lesson, that the Conservatives and Republicans know, that the left has yet to use, is to CONTROL THE STORY.  If you say “tax and spend Liberals” 100 times it sinks in.  If you say “Ignatieff is just visiting” 1000 times it sinks in.  The same tactics in the U.S. were used to turn John Kerry, a war hero, into a war criminal!  And he was running against an opponent who flaked out of duty!  So, even if you lie, YOU define the terms and repeat them continuously.  Your opponent is always defending, and can never tell theirs.

      The only left wing party to have learned this was the classic era PQ who took propaganda to its Canadian height.  From inventing English words (!) (“FISCAL IMBALANCE”, “SOVEREIGNIST”) that were repeated by the media, to changing the names of holidays(!!) (Jean-Baptiste Day to the Fête Nationale) to changing the mail code(!!!) in the province to match its party (“PQ”) they had an unparalleled run.

      • Sure.  George Lakoff, a self-proclaimed leftist, develops this thesis in The Political Mind and elsewhere.  I think that a variety of systemic difference, among other things, might prove to reduce the long term efficacy of such an approach.  Demographically, the percentage of the population that the conservative framing tactics appeal to is shrinking.  I suppose, though, Wherry is right to make note of the attempt to import these tactics to the Canadian setting.  

      • Uh, the idea that a man like John Kerry, bravely serving his country, could in fact be a “War Criminal of a Imperialistic Regime” was not invented by the Republicans in 2004.

        In fact, the first man of prominence to make this claim was one Lt. John Kerry: April 22, 1973.

  2. Why does Macleans; like the CBC and Toronto Star, feel that the cross of pure liberal thought is their’s to bear. When Trudeau and Chretien were PM’s we rarely heard a negative peep towards the governing party; WHY  NOW?

    Is it because the NDP and Liberal Party of Canada are unable to defend themselves?

    A more unbiased media would be a rare pleasure to behold in Canada.

    • The delicious irony is that the more squealing we hear from the liberal writers at the CBC and Star and Macleans and the retorts from their loser following, then the more dependency the left wing Parties feel toward these organizations, and the less attractive these Parties will appear to the Canadian electorate, and therefore the easier it will be for Harper to remain PM  as long as he chooses.

      I expect there will soon be a fund-raising campaign originating from the CPC offices to contribute directly to the above organizations.

      • Going negative on the Cons and Harper is the only break they give to their readers from the moment by moment commentary on Bob Rae and the LPC.

    • Just like sun media feels that pure conservative thought is their’s to bear… They take great pleasure in defending tory policy and mocking everything else. Let’s not take our focus away from the issue presented in this article…The fact is that major parties in Canada are in a constant campain mode and all they are doing is blowing smoke, blaming each other and accomplishing nothing significant to adress real issues facing the average Canadian.

    • Why does Macleans; like the CBC and Toronto Star, feel that the cross of pure liberal thought is their’s to bear. When Trudeau and Chretien were PM’s we rarely heard a negative peep towards the governing party; WHY  NOW?

      That is a simply ludicrous unsupported assertion. I lived through some of the Trudeau years [ not in Canada for the earliest] and i followed the Chretien years fairly critically[ yes not all iberals loved everything he did]. Trudeau had a tempestuous relationship with the media once th trudeaumania nonesense was done; he was pretty near as contemptuous of MSM as SH is right now. Chretien had major liberal critics, ranging from Simpson to L. Martin.

      “An assertion made without any evidence can be dismissed without any evidence.” Hitch.

      There, i went a step further and gave you some. Not that it will do a blind bit of good as i see the conbot peanut gallery has arrived before me.

      • Yeah, the media has created Harpermania just like they promoted Trudeaumania.
        And they did a real good job of keeping an eye on AdScam—-maybe too busy writing books about Mulroney.
        As I said above, it is out of touch organizations like the CBC, the Star, and Macleans and Lib-sups like yourself that will ensure that Harper will remain as PM as long as he chooses—-keep up the good work.

        • who exactly is “in touch”….Sun Media ?  Give me a break…the Sun is nothing more than an extension of the Reform party and most of their writers cab barely form a sentence at anything higher than a grade 6 level. Any intelligent Con supporter I knowis insulted by them. But then again, the educated are not traditionally the Cons target audience because they can actually think for themselves.  The uneducated, religious, old, ignorant…that is the base.

  3. ‘but a permanent campaign mentality has taken hold here’

    literally,
    and the Media Party is sure doing their best to keep the 3rd placed LPC front and center.

    The NDP is Canada’s Official Opposition, with 3X as many seats as the Liberals, their chosen leader will be PM in waiting, not Bob Rae.

    Bob Rae is the #3 pick, losing to Dion and Ignatieff (both already turfed by the party)
    yet look at the coverage of the NDP leadership race compared to ‘what Bob Rae said today’, ‘what Liberals think, say and do’

    • So the ndp failure to be an effective opposition since Jack’s death[ understandable really] and Raes success in picking up the slack are an indication of media bias. Wow you rilly rilly like that tory koolaid.

  4. The Cons have already capitulated to the NDP in delaying the destruction of the long gun registry, so the Left Wing, unelected RCMP Bureaucrats could act on the NDP’s Scary Gun Initiative, and declare some ordinary .22 rim fire rifles ‘prohibited weapons’ simply over strictly cosmetic appearances. NO OTHER VALID REASON THAN THE NDP THINKS THEY LOOK SCARY. If Harper does not put a stop to this, It would seem the conservatives are just another Liberal government more interested in themselves, than the Canadian public…

  5. Lazy column.  Slap “American style” as pejorative to anything Harper does, call it a column, and go for cocktails. 

    • Nah…In this case the reader is the lazy one.

  6. It´s reporters who provide the daily CPR to keep panting about so-called constant campaigning. The  evidently omniscient Stephen Harper must just sit back and smile from his big screened warroom.

  7. “Faced with a Liberal opposition, the Conservatives took regular pleasure in using those 15 minutes to mock Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff”.

    I’ve never really understood why people permit themselves to be bullied. Why didn’t the liberal caucus simply get up and walk out everytime this happend, only returning again for QP, until this crap stopped? 

  8. “In a recent op-ed, Scott Reid, a Liberal strategist, argued the phone campaign against Cotler should be cause for reflection—that political practitioners should think about how they might be contributing to the degradation of our democracy. “Taken together it amounts to a simple credo: take cheap shots and take them all the time,” he wrote in calling for an armistice of sorts”

    The warning comes from an odd source – given SR’s history. But it should be heeded anyway. Technology is the driver here. I’ve little doubt if the libs could have gotten out ahead in this they probably would have, so the Harperites are merely the pioneers – we the public are gonna be the ultimate losers. It’s really depressing. The technology also has the potential for much good – really listening to what individuals and groups want, but it’s going to be used in  total war..

    …my my, noone could see this coming obviously. Twenty years from now we’ll be lucky if they aren’t looking back and crying in their soup…” we really shouldn’t ought to have gone there you know.” 

  9. Maybe some day we will have direct votes on all issues and be done of elected representation all together. It’s what people want isn’t it? To be directly able to call the shots?
    Heck if we’re going to be campaigned senseless we might as well get to join the fun.

  10. I keep waiting for the conservatives to invoke the ultimate political strategy from usa politics… god bless Canada!

  11. One difference between the Ignatieff / Dion Grits and the Layton-less New Democrats is that the young blood of the orange wave aren’t going to be afraid to fight back.

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