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.