What we can learn from losers

Paul Wells on Brian Topp, Michael Ignatieff and the craft of politics


Mike Cassese / Reuters

Canadian politics is obsessed with horse races but suspicious of winners. Eventually suspicion curdles into contempt. At the National Post I used to get letters from readers eager to explain to me that Jean Chrétien was a fool or a bully. I have grown used to emails and tweets explaining the same thing, in similar terms, about Stephen Harper.

Both men have been bullies and sometimes less than wise, but if politics is more than a crap shoot, surely both were good at it. Here’s the thing about winning: in elected politics you can accomplish nothing else until you win. The Chrétien and Harper legacies will be debated for decades. It’s the tribute posterity pays to power.

But we can also learn something about victory from losers, if they are honest. Brian Topp and Michael Ignatieff are. Topp was campaign director for Adrian Dix when the B.C. NDP leader managed to blow a comfortable lead and lose the provincial election in May. Michael Ignatieff led the federal Liberals to their worst result ever in 2011. His book Fire and Ashes is his account of his odd tenure in politics.

You can find Topp’s memo, in two drafts, on the blog Pundits Guide. It is full of specific lessons for the next campaign, should the party’s next leader choose to heed them. Topp found his candidate way too chatty, improvised and gentle. “In focus groups held in the midway point in the campaign . . . when it came time to recall what Adrian Dix and the B.C. NDP’s message was, no participant could do so,” he laments.

What follows is the sort of stuff that depresses some people about politics. To succeed, Topp writes, a leader’s message must be “crisp, direct and repetitive.” What kind of speeches should he deliver? “Prepared speeches.” What sort of answers dilute the message? “Detailed and wide-ranging answers.” What’s the job of media relations? “Control over the media’s access to the leader.” Should scrums be common or rare? “Rare.” What should campaign messaging do better? “Discrediting our opponent.”

I read one newspaper column that contrasted Topp’s advice with the way Jack Layton used to run a campaign, but any contrast seems based on false memory. Layton was a message discipline machine, sometimes punishingly repetitive on key themes. He cut down substantially on his number of daily public appearances over the course of his four national campaigns. And he ran a full slate of ads mocking the Liberals, Conservatives and Bloc every time he ran. None of those techniques guarantees success. But they seem to help, which is why they’ve become widespread, and not only in Canada.

Ignatieff preferred a set of mystic hunches about politics, and having lost everything, apparently he still does. Fire and Ashes is a charming book, frank and funny. But politics remains a perfect mystery to Ignatieff. “There are no techniques in politics,” he writes, astonishingly, near the end, and it’s fair to say that if there are any, he rejected them whenever he spotted one. It may be hereditary. His father, the diplomat and courtier George Ignatieff, worked with the most durably successful prime minister in the history of the breed, William Lyon Mackenzie King, and found the experience distasteful. “My father marvelled at King’s mastery of dissimulation,” he writes. “It seemed to be the essence of the political life, but my father wanted no part of it.”

Unelected high office would have suited George Ignatieff fine, on the other hand. But Pierre Trudeau made Ed Schreyer governor general in 1979 instead, and Ignatieff’s father was “crushed . . . watching my father recover in the years afterward was perhaps my earliest education in resilience.” It’s a classic Canadian story. Who among us has not watched in dismay as our dad failed to become governor general?

Coaxed into politics by Toronto-based Liberal malcontents, Ignatieff spends the book in search of acceptance. “I was about to spend the next five years of my life in a state of constant dependence on the opinion of others,” he writes. “How do you think I am doing? My own answers to this question scarcely mattered.”

He offers no extended analysis of Harper. No question of public policy seems to interest him particularly. He threatened an election over Employment Insurance in 2009, held a day of crisis meetings with Harper. His book contains 14 words on the issue.

“The cynics will say that big thinking is a typical delusion of intellectuals foolish enough to try their luck in politics,” he writes. “This fails to appreciate the decisive role that ideas can play in”—In what? Improving lives? Lifting a nation closer to justice? Hardly. “Defining a candidate, and in bringing people over to your side,” is the way Ignatieff ends the sentence. At the 2006 convention, he sought “a moment of pure recognition” in which he would be “seen—and accepted—for what I actually was.”

He fetishizes direct contact with voters, which seem to count as moments of authenticity, but the characters and scenes come across as stage dressing: “the Italian carpenters who hammered in lawn signs,” the “wharves where the lobster pots were drying.” After he loses everything, he says to himself, “So this is politics.” A lot of people had hoped he’d figured out what politics was before then.

To people who never win, the political craft seems mysterious and unseemly. The lessons learned by people like Topp are routinely rejected by people like Ignatieff. People like Harper count on it.

For more Paul Wells, visit his blog

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What we can learn from losers

  1. Martin, Dion, Ignatieff and now Trudeau. Surely the Liberals can do better.

    • While there are already people within the Liberal Party who have the sort of political know how that could lead the party, they weren’t able to win the approval of the Bay Street power brokers because they didn’t fit the profile that they wanted..There was a great deal of backroom political gerrymandering that helped Justin clinch the leadership nomination. They invested a lot of money in Junior. He’s their new boy toy.

      • Unfounded and speculative. Why on earth would the bay street boys waste their time on a declining third party anymore? harpers their boy now. The LPC was simply on its ass, it had nowhere else to realistically turn to; it’s the wildest gamble the party has taken since his pappa won out.( and maybe Dion/MI too if you want to be pedantic) happily , luckily for the party it’s panned out – who knew JT had it him to become a pro politician? Not me, and not most of the LPC if they’re honest.

        • Trudeau is the Bay Street/Wall Street boy. Freeland joined the Liberals, not the Conservatives.

          • Why would she join a party that doesn’t have a problem with those who have lots having lots more, and those who don’t just need to try harder?

        • If you think that Junior won on his own merits, without the Liberal PR machine to pave the way, then you’re just whistling Dixie. If he didn’t pony up any of his own cash in order to bankroll his run for the party nomination, where do you think it all came from, the Tooth Fairy?

          • Rubbish. There were set spending caps for all candidates. Trudeau kicked his surplus into the party kitty after the election.

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          • Actually i like my speculation leavened with some actual facts – you ought to try it, it’s yummy.

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        • The Liberals took a gamble here, sure. And it’s precisely the gamble I’d have taken in their shoes — make one last try to re-build the traditional coalition.

          But we don’t know that it’s panned out yet.

          For that, we’ll have to wait for 2015, or possibly 2019.

          • Agreed. Good start shall we say then?

          • Far better to be up than down!

  2. What are you saying Wells – you have to be a fool and bully to win elections? I disagree, plenty of fools and bullies have lost elections as well. Maybe if electorate had more choice than fools and bullies, Canadians might care about politics again.

    Topp memo is too funny – campaign manager gets to write his own report on where campaign went wrong and he forgets to mention that you shouldn’t hire dopey twats as campaign managers. Why was Topp memo leaked? Is Topp trying to save his reputation for his consultation business – doesn’t look too good for Topp when NDP leading in polls before election and they end up losing. Classic of Topp to conclude that he was too nice and gentle.

    And Harper, Chretien and provincial premiers might be winning elections with these techniques but at what cost? Large % of Canadians don’t vote, and I am curious to know what % of Canadians who do vote are enthusiastic voters. I don’t know anyone who votes that is enthusiastic about it, everyone I know sees it as their civic duty, a chore to get over with.

    • you have to be a fool and bully to win elections?
      No, but it helps.

      • Cheating seems to have helped a great deal in the last one.

        • Indeed, all those Guelph voters who got phony robocalls and a Liberal ended up winning in that riding anyway. Such a game-changer.

          • Exactly. Patchouli needs to cut down on the kool-aid.

          • that riding sure. In and out and Del Mastro, perhaps more. And overall, I’m not sure how much credit a dishonest cheater should get for also being ineffective.

          • Apparently a lot according to some posters. It seems that it was only really wrong if there was a chance it had been effective. I must try that defense if i ever rob the 7 11 and it doesn’t work out, or they made money that day anyway.

        • What cheating?

          • Charges were just laid against Dean del Mastro.

          • And while under investigation he continued to be Harper;s parliamentary secretary until very recently. Of course he was given another one, wouldn’t want him to suffer a loss in the income he has gotten used to.

          • I bet the chump is crying real tears today, not just his usual crocodile ones. Isn’t Penashue under similar investigation?

            For all we know, avoiding this discussion is exactly why harper prorogued again.

          • And oh, look: no more coy con supporters asking “what cheating?” The poor dears have all gone home.

          • Why don’t you tell us what the seat count would have been in the 2011 federal election had the Conservatives not cheated, complete with credible, reliable unbiased reference sources for your information.

          • Why don’t you leave the really dumb responses to FV? She’s out ahead of you by a country mile.

          • There’s nothing at all “dumb” about my response. Patchouli has claimed that cheating “helped a great deal” in the last election. The logical inference to be made from that comment is that cheating made the difference in, or at the very least materially affected the result of, that election. It’s incumbent then for patchouli or some other informed individual to tell us — how exactly did cheating affect the result? I see all kinds of people post all over the place that the 2011 victory by the Conservatives was illegitimate because presumably it was the result of cheating — ergo, one must conclude that without said cheating, a different result would have occurred. So come on, people, step up to the plate and demonstrate that. Exactly how many ridings would have swung the other way, and how would this have added up to a defeat for the Conservatives and a victory for one or more of the other parties?
            I’m not condoning cheating, nor am I denying that it occurred. Clearly it did, in some cases. I’m just disputing the assertion that the cheating that has been brought to light to date would have changed the overall result of the election, i.e., a Conservative majority. And again, I’m wanting to see that proof from a credible source, not from some partisan butthead (e.g., the people at rabble).

          • I’m sure she’s smart enough to realize it may not have WON them the election.But it wasn’t for the want of TRYING eh. I don’t believe incompetence is a valid excuse for intent in law.
            Edit: too lazy to read all the way to the bottom. Disregard the 2nd para if you got it.

    • Oh, come on. There are people, surely, who regard voting as more than just their civic duty!

      Voter turnout is typical of our time: low, because not many people really care all that much in general.

  3. Experience helps a heck of a lot. Chrétien and Harper have had years of political experience before becoming PM, & developed an understanding of what it took to win.
    Ignatieff parachuted into politics in 2005 and immediately campaigned for Liberal leader. Not only did the optics look bad (carpetbagger, just visiting, etc), but he was going up against veterans like Harper and Layton. Even after a few years as MP while Dion was leader, he hadn’t learned much. The climax was when Layton stumped MI at the English leaders’ debate.
    I wonder if MI had been an MP for, say, 8 or 12 years before running for leader, if it would have helped…

    • This pompous, pampered, puffed up Harvard elitist, learned a very valuable lesson in humility. That a degree in foreign policy relations is no guarantee of success when it comes to running for political office. In fact, it might actually be somewhat of a liability.
      He’s gone. Goodbye. Good riddance.

      • Yes, the visceral hatred fanatics have for their political opponents does not die off even years after the election…

        • As we witness every time you post about the conservatives?

          • Aaah, but that’s PROGRESSIVE visceral hatred, so it’s virtuous.

          • You’re damn right is:)

          • Fanatics think everyone acts and thinks like they do. They cannot grasp the concept of moderation.

            I have plenty of reasons to be appalled by the Harper Government due to its actions: phonebook-sized omnibus bills; Soviet-style government secrecy; petty vindictive enemies lists; reckless tax cuts and spending cuts; stubborn anti-evidence ideological blundering; etc.

            But these are rational criticisms. I do not need to be moved by primitive emotions to be opposed to terrible government.

          • That’s so cute — your comparing this government to the Soviet Union, then claiming to be rational and non-fanatical. All in one post. Well done!

          • Harper’s obsession with government secrecy and information control can only be compared to the former Soviet Union. I know of no democratic government that has operated in this fashion.

            Fact is Harper has created a Ministry of Truth comprised of 4000 “communications staffers” (paid for by taxpayers) that:

            a) script what ministers and MPs say to the press;
            b) stonewall and propagandize access to information requests from the media;
            c) cook up propaganda advertising campaigns to promote the government on the taxpayer dime;
            d) withhold public documents, including budget documents from the Budget Office Harper created;
            e) muzzle scientists; etc.

            So far I have made a dozen rational arguments supported by facts. You, on the other hand: zero.

          • I’m sure that all of those people who spent time in Soviet Gulags are nodding their heads in emphatic agreement with you, Ron. At least those few who are still alive.

          • After whining about that another commenter was “misrepresenting” what you said, it’s nice that you found time to pretend that Ron Waller equated the Harper Government to the Soviet Union in any respect other than control of information.

          • Making rational criticisms of government policy has nothing to do with hatred. Of course, those who are motivated by hatred and want to see their enemies’ party wiped off the face of the Earth can’t tell the difference.

  4. What drew many to this “loser” was hope. Hope that Canada could have stature abroad, compassion at home, justice, civil discourse, fair elections, honest communication.

    His defeat was a turning point, and now we hear we can’t get much better than cheaper phone calls , airlines running on time, secret political bribes, and vicious, hateful electoral manipulation and outright cheating.

    A sad, narrow, mean spirited, nasty pointless, little country.

    • Yes. Of course. But if you really feel that strongly about Canada we’ll gladly take up a collection for a one way ticket to Egypt, Syria, North Korea, Iran, or Russia. Your flight will be booked with Dictator Airlines. Take your pick J.W.

      • Typical reply. Pro Harper equals patriotism. My comment is that of a true patriot.

        • Yes. Of course J. W.. It’s you’re funny way of expressing it that had us all fooled.

          • Some want to be fooled.

        • But your original post has absolutely no substance whatsoever. Do you think people will respond intelligently to a post with no substance.

          • You are right. 100% emotion. That’s the whole hope vision thing.

          • And isn’t it 100% emotion when Justin Trudeau comes to mind?

          • Well I don’t think of him nearly as much as you do.

            I may even swing back to the NDP this time.

          • Well, that then is the beauty of politics, isn’t it: the voters will make the choice!

          • And the sense of irony will kick in in 3…2…1…

          • It’s not irony but perhaps a try at sarcasm. I don’t think his try was a good one. We all have those moments. I missed the sarcasm.

    • secret political bribes, and vicious, hateful electoral manipulation and outright cheating.

      Sure. Because the party Ignatieff led never had anything to do with any of the above.

      • The party Chretien led did; they claim they rid themselves of that. Do you have evidence it was still happening under Iggy?

    • My, what a fascinating conclusion you have come to J.W. in regards to the fate of our country as punishment for not anointing this giant of a man who could be right now speaking to the UN, being witty and earnest all at once, eyebrows just snapping. Does it send a shiver up your spine just thinking about how glorious it would be J.W.?
      Tell us what Utopia that you are sending this mission statement of hope from J.W. We could join you and sit around and hope and pray and mourn the nasty pointless little country called Canada.

      • He would have been actively involved in the UN and world affairs in a positive constructive way.

        • Yeah, and he could have talked about Pearson and Peacekeeping, and Trudeau and his Just Society, and he could have talked about his father and diplomacy, and he could have talked about how the UN has become such a beautiful instrument of positive action and democracy and hope and love and peace, and then he could have talked some more, but in a positive constructive way.
          Because that is what the UN is about, TALK, and with him we would be carrying out our role in the Big Talk.

          • Yes! yes! All that and more.

    • I’m no Harper fan, but Ignatieff was a tone-deaf pompous fool. He doesn’t understand ordinary Canadians – or the common people as he would put it. He thought that just being an aristocrat would be enough for us proles to vote for him. The fact that he still remains mystified as to his loss just shows how lacking he is in self-awareness. He would have been a disaster for this country, the way he was a disaster for the Liberal party.

      • Hope is hope. What the reality would have been, we will never know.

    • This makes me want to read J.W.’s list of big happy broad generous countries that have a point.

      • It is indeed a very bleak landscape out there. Depressing.

        • I am the last political watcher in the known world who has not totally soured on Barack Obama if that helps.

          • Someone will now say. Why don’t you move there.

          • Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out J.W.

          • Oh, you mean the guy who’s out killing people en masse via drone strikes. And who hasn’t shut down Gitmo. That paragon of virtue.

          • Apparently you are obsessed with appearance and oblivious to actual results.

    • Wasn’t it Mulcair that was offered a brown envelope 20 years ago, and that he denied the offer until recently, and even though he is a lawyer, never went to the police about the attempted bribe?

      And wasn’t it the Liberal Party that received most of the money from the identified corrupt Quebec construction companies in the 1990-2005 period before corporation donations to political parties were banned?

      And what about the whole Liberal-related sponsorship-kickback scandal.

      And what about Justin accepting speaking fees from unions and NGO charities AFTER he became an MP.

      • Do you have the Pope’s email address – I want to recommend Harper for sainthood.

    • Feel free to leave.

      • Feel free to join him.

        • Feel free to disappear from the face of the earth.

          • What! I don’t get the option of leaving too?

  5. Everyone is commenting on the Ignatieff part of the article and not the Topp part — when it seems to me that the backroom political operative should have known far more about how to run a campaign than the erudite professor, and when the same backroom operative also just ran an unsuccessful leadership bid. Perhaps Topp should have looked longer and harder at his own leadership results before he took on the BC campaign. I don’t think it should be a big surprise, 2/1/2 years after the fact, of why the LPC and Ignatieff were unsuccessful (but I hope the new backroom operatives are reading Fire and Ashes carefully).

    • Oh, you can rest assured that not only the Liberals will be reading ‘Fire and Ashes’ carefully!

  6. The funny thing is, there *was* a path that Ignatieff could have taken to becoming a good leader and eventual prime minister.
    1. He could have elected *not* to throw his name into the pot for the 2006 leadership convention, focusing instead on learning how to be a good MP.
    2. Under either Dion or Bob Rae, he could have opted for, not the deputy leader position, but a senior critic post such as Foreign Affairs or chairing a major parliamentary committee. Either of which, he could use to enhance his reputation as a serious thinker and therefore a serious politician.
    3. In 2008, had the proposed NDP coalition come up, he could have tried to persuade the caucus that it was a bad idea, for the reasons he stated in his book; if he failed he could have resigned, then and there, and sat as an independent. That could have helped preserve his political integrity, and given how that coalition failed the party would have begged him to come back.

    • I agree with all of the above.

      • Great minds think alike and fools never differ. Right J.W.

    • Yep. Exactly how I feel. But the fact that MI chose not to do any of that says a lot about his character and motivations.

  7. Fun fact :- on the Least Coast lobster “pots” are called lobster “traps”.
    Perhaps he was having meaningful existential encounters with Maine
    lobster folks ?

    • Depends on who you speak with. I grew up in NL and we always called them “pots”.

      • As do the lobster fishermen I know on PEI.

      • I stand corrected. The only places I’ve seen them called
        pots is the national media. Must be yer damn Irish heritage, eh ?
        And then there’s those “cod traps” .. which I could never grasp.

        • Until I read that passage above I always assumed they were caught in traps and boiled in pots. My NS relatives have always said traps.

          • I’m a New Brunswicker and we say traps. Lobster traps and eel pots.

          • I have noted a sort of creeping potism lately. Probably
            typically defeatist Maritimers seeing everybody else
            calling them pots, furrowing brows and thinking “we
            must be doing something wrong again” and bending
            to the dictates of history.. Ain’t easy … but if Justin can
            hang in there may be a revival.

  8. “Who among us has not watched in dismay as our dad failed to become governor general?”


    • Yeah – that was my favourite line too.

      • Great sense of humour shows up in that line!

  9. Paul says: “To people who never win, the political craft seems mysterious and
    unseemly. The lessons learned by people like Topp are routinely rejected
    by people like Ignatieff. People like Harper count on it.”

    And why should Harper not count on it? We should never blame people for understanding things. Harper understands politics and that’s why he’s in politics.

    And just like Paul says: “Here’s the thing about winning: in elected politics you can accomplish nothing else until you win.”

    Ignatieff understands the academic world, a world of theoretical possibilities, sterile scenarios and utopian dreams. No one has to win in academics; one just has to believe.

    • “No one has to win in academics; one just has to believe.”

      That’s simply brilliant. Empiricism dismissed at the click of a mouse. I’m going to burn my Bertrand Russel this instant and throw out any crap by Mills that have lying around taking up space…yeesh!

      • Some people don’t understand the difference between theoretical possibilities and practical possibilities. Ignatieff is one of those who don’t understand the difference.

  10. If anyone was thinking that Harper is a controlling leader – try on Dion for a change. He forced Ignatieff into signing a document against his will.

    If anyone was thinking that the CPC was short on scrums – try on the NDP for a change; they think its a good idea!

    Finally, it has been revealed: all political parties are political in nature. But most of us have known that for a very long time, ……………..right?

    Good article, Paul.

    • You’ve got that right. You’ll never see Mulcair scrumming with reporters and answering questions. Nope.

      Are you really too stupid to be able to differentiate between one person’s opinion of what the most politically prudent policy is, and what is actually happening in the real world?

    • As always you missed the point. It isn’t that other parties don’t try it on or push the envelope when they can; it’s people like you have been denying for 7years now that Harper does it at all. Indeed it now appears he has secret admirers even with the ndp control room.

      • And my point was and is that Harper has made no secret of it. How could I ever deny the fact that Harper has restricted the questions being asked?

        The imposed restrictions were there for everyone to see!

        • Pah!

  11. Great post, Paul.

  12. Remember, Mr.Wells, some time ago (I don’t remember exactly when) when you and I had that argument over your attitude regarding Harper’s reluctance to speak to the press, in that he only allowed so many questions, and for journalists to stand behind barricades and so forth?

    Well, at least Harper was up front about it.

    We now find out that the NDP strategist think that less scrums is better, too, but they do that sort of thinking in secret and aren’t up front about it at all.

    So, hopefully you learned something here as well, namely that Harper wasn’t the hypocrite you made him out to be. I tried telling you that then.

  13. Did Iggy lose, or did Layton win? Fact is Layton was able to build a rapport with Canadians and effected an unprecedented breakthrough. He ended up defeating both the Liberals and the Bloc when no one seen it coming. The same thing probably would’ve happened if Bob Rae was leader.

    The real story is that Canadians lost the 2011 election. A super-majority (60%) was vehemently opposed to Harper getting absolute corrupt power. But he got it in any case.

    91% of developed countries have upgraded their voting systems from primitive First-Past-the-Post — most of them a century ago. They chose democracy over an arbitrary horse race. We should too. (In fact, Justin Trudeau has made ranked ballot voting a part of his Democratic Reform platform.)

    91% of developed nations adopted voting reform

    • A super-majority (60%) was vehemently opposed to Harper getting absolute corrupt power.
      Sorry, that’s not entirely accurate. While there is no absolute way of knowing for sure (without a Preferential Voting system in place, it’s impossible to know), there were polls commissioned asking voters to rank their choices. Those polls showed that Liberals would not immediately snub the Tories if given a second choice (in other words, not quite “vehemently opposed” to the Tories). In some polls, between a quarter and a third of Liberal voters would choose the CPC as their second choice. The NDP voters’ second choices were more evenly split between Liberal and Green, but the CPC nonetheless picks up a decent amount of those voters’ second choice as well.
      Based on these polls, your statement that all of the NDP and Liberal voters “vehemently opposed” the CPC and a preferential ballot would have wildly changed the electoral results is not entirely accurate.

      • “Sorry, that’s not entirely accurate.”

        Sure it is. A person who votes for one party does not want to see another party get a dictatorship. Harper is an extremely polarizing figure and the vast majority Canadians were strongly opposed to him getting a 4 year dictatorship.

        Fact is vote splitting allowed the Cons to win dozens of center-left seats. According to the Globe and Mail, if we had preferential voting (ranked ballot,) Harper would’ve been reduced to 142 seats from 166.

        The NDP and Liberals would’ve been able to form the government with 50% of the vote and 53% of the seats. That would’ve been much more reflective of the will of the people than a 40% Harper dictatorship.

        Democratic voting election results

        • Oh Jesus. This reflects this facile assumption that the NDP and the Liberals are essentially the “same” party. This “progressive” monolith, reflecting some “progressive consensus” that only actually exists in the fevered imaginations of people like yourself. Meanwhile, back in realityland, there are lots of Blue Liberals who would rather stick pins in their eyes and snort ants than have an NDP government.

          • That last point is definitely true. Blue libs might even be tempted to pick Ford over Chow. Although i’d imagine they’d need to put back a mickey afterwards.

          • You are ignorant of the long history the Liberals and NDP have working together in minority situations. You are also ignorant of how democracy works. The Liberal party leadership determines which other parties it might work with: the Blue Liberal tail does not wag the Liberal dog.

            You are oblivious to the fact that most blue Liberals abandoned the Liberal party and voted for Harper to stop an NDP minority government.

            Your witless remark also forgets to take into account the campaign dynamics of the 2011 election. Harper had burned all his bridges with opposition parties. They were done working with him. He even ran on the premise that if he didn’t get a (fake) majority an opposition coalition would replace him.

            So all foolishness aside, odds are pretty strong the NDP and Liberals would’ve ousted Harper if we had ranked ballot voting back in 2011. A multi-party majority government with 50% of the vote and 53% of the seats is pretty much the norm in the rest of the developed world. (Let me guess: you didn’t have a clue about that one either…)

          • Yeah, that’s me, Ron. Just a drooling moron.
            Anyway, your position on this completely ignores the fact that electoral systems change and affect voter behaviour and party behaviour and choice. You automatically assume that voter preferences and party choices that exist under electoral system A would be exactly the same under electoral system B. But that’s emphatically not so. In Canada, for instance, we don’t tend to have a ton of viable “fringe” parties. In Israel, for instance, they do. That’s an example of an electoral system affecting party availability, viability and choice and that in turn affects voter behaviour. You assume that the lion’s share of people who supported the Liberals and NDP in the last election would automatically do so under a different electoral system. And I say that’s a demonstrably false assumption, given what comes to light when you do a comparative analysis electoral systems.

          • Yes you are a drooling moron. Israel uses *Proportional Representation* which makes it easy for fringe parties to get power. Preferential Voting (ranked ballot) does not award seats to parties according to the federal vote. It just makes representatives earn theirs seats with majority. So fringe parties do not benefit from the system any more than they do under FPTP.

            All of your lame hypothetical arguments aside, the fact is ranked ballot voting stops minority parties from getting 100% of the power on 40% of the vote. In a democracy, the *majority* has the power, not an arbitrary minority party.

  14. “Here’s the thing about winning: in elected politics you can accomplish
    nothing else until you win. The Chrétien and Harper legacies will be
    debated for decades. It’s the tribute posterity pays to power.”

    Hmmm, i hope you’d concede that you can jolly well have a major influence on events even if you don’t win out for the head boy? I cite the influence on the govt’s of Pearson and Trudeau via the ndp at various times, and the influence of the reform on Chretien/Martin. Of course there was nothing to compel any of those govt’s to comply with the loser’s agenda, nonetheless they did for some reason.[ arguably Harper is about to react to the heat brought by JT right now] It’s almost as if our creaky old system was designed to work that way. I think we ought to give a little more credit to the losers from time to time – sometimes they get it right. Certainly it’s their job to try.

    • Very good point. Oftentimes, the way that works is that the government of the day moves in a certain direction policy-wise to outflank the opposition, or to eat its lunch. I think Chretien-Martin did that with the whole fiscal responsibility/deficit slaying issue (and came to be seen to “own” the issue). Prior to that, focus on the deficit was first a Tory and then a Reform fixation (though Mulroney failed miserably in actually doing anything successful about it).

  15. This is a good article, one of your better ones. Not because i think you’re right about the absolute need to fully professionalize and control political interaction with the public, but because it puts the debate out there. Be nice if Chantal would come visiting right now and give the rebuttal. What i particularly don’t like is the unstated inference that this is the way it has to be, perhaps always was.[ undoubtedly politicians have always been politicians – what else could they be?]
    The march of events[ 24/7 news cycle], technological change[the internet thingy] and the never ending proxy war between the political class and the media class have all combined to push us toward the seemingly inevitable logic of more spin, less candidness with the public, more tactics, less clear direction, simple honesty or that vision thing. But where’s the evidence the public approves of it all? rather then just puts up with it.
    Even if the pundit/political class think that’s the cost of doing business. The nations business seems less and less to be the business of the people – i wonder why that might be Mr T. Mr H? It surely isn’t a good thing.

  16. “It’s a classic Canadian story. Who among us has not watched in dismay as our dad failed to become governor general?”

    Now I have to wipe up the coffee I just spat all over my keyboard while laughing.

    Worth it.

    • Gems like that reconciled me to the loss of Dr. Foth when a young upstart named Paul Wells suddenly appeared on the Back Page.

  17. To succeed, Topp writes, a leader’s message must be “crisp, direct and
    repetitive.” What kind of speeches should he deliver? “Prepared
    speeches.” What sort of answers dilute the message? “Detailed and
    wide-ranging answers.” What’s the job of media relations? “Control over
    the media’s access to the leader.” Should scrums be common or rare?
    “Rare.” What should campaign messaging do better? “Discrediting our

    Are we sure this guy doesn’t work for Harper?

    • No, he worked for the only other national party leader who, like Harper, gained seats and popular vote in four consecutive elections.

      • But I don’t understand.

        Layton is a saint. A hero. One of the most popular politicians in our history. They just dedicated a goddamn statue to him in Toronto.

        Harper is detested. A corrupt dictator whose tiresome talking points and canned messaging, thug like restrictions on access to the press, and horrible attack ads which unfairly discredit his political opponents allegedly threatens the very fabric of democracy itself. But all of these things are recommended political strategy from Jack Layton’s most important strategist.

        How can two men whose fortunes have been defined by such similar political tactics be viewed so differently?

        • I believe that’s sometimes called “reading in” in legal circles.

        • I agree with you. I always saw Layton and Harper as similar in style. They had a common enemy, and they worked well together to defeat it.

          In any event, my guess on why they are viewed so differently is that Harper is PM, and Layton never was. Easy to like the guy who has no power, and hate the one who has it.

          • That last point is a goodie. It’s just human nature. The David and Goliath thing. JT will get breaks that Harper may not – same reason.

          • I’m sure Mitt Romney would agree with that.

          • Maybe. Hard to compare the US with Canada. In Canada you do not have to be a multi millionaire to be PM. Hard to feel any candidate for the US presidency is “one of us”.

  18. Odd, i thought Topp was in the losers corner too.

    • Consultants never lose.

      I didn’t read all he said, but it was an interesting way to lose an election. There was one issue that galvanized everyone; the pipelines. The NDP had the advantage going in but threw it away by being for one, not the other, or something like that. Their supporters just stayed home.

      Harper has won because of his ability to build a party. That was the old Liberal playbook, organization and supporters everywhere. Each election they seemed to lose a section of the country, and Iggy didn’t do much to reverse that. JT seems to understand and have a knack for building, but the party is just getting to it’s knees after being prone on the floor. We shall see. That was Layton’s strength as well.

      • Apparently the BC libs did a good job of branding the ndp as against everything after Dix made a blunder by opposing pretty near all pipelines, instead of his ace in the hole, the gateway deal. Well, that and running endlessly negative stuff against Dix, some of which evidently stuck.
        Agree about party rebuilding. The liberals have been an empty shell for a long time. If anyone can rebuild the coalition between red and blue liberals it’s a Trudeau.

  19. “The Chrétien and Harper legacies will be debated for decades. It’s the tribute posterity pays to power.”

    What complete baloney. Nobody is debating the Chrétien legacy because there isn’t one, apart from our not going into Iraq. Nobody will be debating the Harper legacy because he neither has achieved nor will achieve anything at all. This is just a journalist thinking that his subject is important (didn’t you know that Paul Wells is THE expert on The Stephen Harper Era? No? Stick around and he’ll tell you!). The politicians are only interested in power. The journalists are only interested in power as described third-hand. Welcome to Canadian political culture.

    • There is no Chretien legacy, no Harper one? A legacy doesn’t have to be positive to be significant. And what should pols pursue if not power and journalists write about if not that pursuit – fairy tales?

      • Journalists are not destined to be groupies for a washed-up band. They can write about how to change the system. They can shame politicians into not being such pitiful cynics, instead of always (like Wells) being three steps ahead with the cynicism pose. The problem is that our journalists have been around for so long, writing about the same things, that they simply have no juice left.

        • I agree that there are plenty of journalists out there who are spent rockets, basically mailing it in, etc. But I also think that there are plenty of good ones out there, doing good, conscientious work. I still think PW is among the better ones and does do some top-shelf work, though like any human he has his faults. In the “mailing it in” category, I’d nominate Lawrence Martin — like, how many times can you write essentially the same column dressed up as a new one (with the same theme — Harper Bad, Liberals Good)? Partisan hackery masqerading as journalism.

          • I won’t be defending Lawrence Martin, but I’m curious what top-shelf work of Wells’s you are thinking of. The last time he challenged the status quo was on Rights & Democracy, which was 3 years ago and mainly involved him printing grievances (well justified ones, in my opinion) from inside that org. I guess he’s now more an editor than a columnist but the only working journalist in Canada I look to for anti-status quo opinions & facts is Aaron Wherry, plus Andrew Coyne for the week or so that his mind wakes from hibernation when the real sh*t hits the fan.

          • It partly depends what you see the role of journalist as. If ALL you are looking for is some person who “rips the lid off” stuff and “challenges the status quo”, in my opinion that’s part of the job of a journalist, but it’s not the whole job, not by a long stretch. Arguably, it’s an activist’s full-time job to challenge the status quo, not a journalist’s job, though I know there is lots of room for debate there. But in my personal opinion, a big part of a journalist’s job is to report and chronicle, and do it well, which includes having an open and critical mind, and the ability to be reasonably objective about it, and not fall into partisan hackery (because if you do that, you risk losing credibility as a source for honest reporting). It’s why a synonym for journalist is “reporter”. And a big part of that is simply whether or not you are a good writer or not. I think Wells is pretty good — his long-form pieces, or post-mortems, on Canadian federal elections are examples of good work in the “chronicling” category.

          • Boy oh boy! I sure have had the slogan ass backward all this time! So you mean that it should read as ‘Harper Good- Liberals Bad?’
            Thanks for the heads up on that one.

        • Wells isn’t all cynical. His description of Prime Minister Chretien, as all the reporters abandon him to go to a Paul Martin press conference, verges on the sentimental…

    • Well, one positive thing that can be considered part of the “Chretien legacy” is that we turned the corner on deficts and started making a real dent in paying down our debt (and part of Harper’s is that he undid everything Chretien did in this regard).
      Another, negative part of the Chretien legacy is that – two decades after he cancelled the contract to replace them – we are still flying S&R helicopters that are held together with duct tape.

      • Agreed that that EH-101 helicopter cancellation was one of the most craven, politically motivated and damaging things that Chretien ever did. What makes me doubly mad about it is that Chretien just ran away from the issue after causing the initial damage. Not only did he do the initial damage, he exacerbated the problem by never really addressing it.

  20. It’s a classic Canadian story. Who among us has not watched in dismay as our dad failed to become governor general?

    –made me laugh….

  21. “He threatened an election over Employment Insurance in 2009, held a day
    of crisis meetings with Harper. His book contains 14 words on the issue.”

    That, in a nutshell, was the problem. He wasn’t the slightest bit genuine. Now he’s proving it.

  22. Topp lost the NDP leadership to Mulcair. Topp’s campaign for Adrian Dix resulted in one of the biggest failures in Canadian poitics, with the Liberals offering the election on a silver platter.
    For those reasons, rather than buying his book, someone would have to pay me to take it. You don’t learn something from someone who is obviously clueless.

    • Good points. Related to that, it slays me that losers like Topp — along with lots of federal Liberals over the last few years — immediately grasp onto this mantra that because they lost, somehow “substance doesn’t matter”, tactics are everything, you must go incessantly negative and so on. First of all, there’s just as good and vaild an argument to be made that substance DOES matter. It’s not the whole enchilada, but it matters. When the federal Liberals won in ’93, a major factor was issues prominently highlighted in the Red Book, such as eliminating the GST (which they lied about, but we’ll leave that aside), getting out of FTA (which they lied about, but we’ll leave that aside), cancelling the EH-101 and so on. When Harper finally won an election, a very prominent part of his campaign consisted of promises such as the GST reduction, the child-care credit, the Accountability Act and so on. Even with that recent BC election, it’s not like there were no issues or issues didn’t play a role — pipelines were an issue, taxes were an issue, resource development was an issue. One thing about sore partisan losers in politics is that they cannot bring themselves to conceive that maybe, just maybe, the voters looked at the issues and decided that they favoured another party’s position on them. No, no, it must be because the other party was nasty, we weren’t nasty enough, the other party cheated, etc. etc.

      • I couldn’t agree with you more.

      • Then you might want to explain why Dix was leading by a country mile until he started to campaign. The issues the election would turn on were pretty much the same going into the election as a year earlier ie., liberal broken promises and corruption generally. It was his to lose, and he blew it. Clark upped her game and did by all accounts run a very repetitive negative campaign. [ all the kind of things Topp now seems to be saying he should have done]
        There isn’t any real evidence Clark pulled some rabbits out of the box that the BC electorate went for in a big way.[ although, the 5 conditions for gateway and the putting on of the Capt BC cape were very astute moves on her part. I confess she surprised me. I watched her in BC for years and saw fiasco followed by fiasco] As far as i can see Dix lacked personality, real media experience and a real or adaptable game plan.In short he wasn’t very good.

        All of these things were his[ and Topps fault]

        The assertion that liberals have been all about tactics and Harper all about substance is frankly bizarre.

        • Your last sentence completely misrepresents what I said. I mentioned the Liberals in 1993, for example, as an example of substance playing a significant role in a winning campaign. Try actually reading my post before responding.
          I didn’t say that tactics don’t play a signficant role, of course they do. All I was saying was that this current bleating by the BC NDP and certain federal Liberals to the effect that tactics is all that matters, is BS.
          As for Dix, he was “leading by a country mile” according to polls. I confess that I fully bought into that narrative myself. But one of the things that the BC election shows is the potential pitfalls and unreliability of polling. In hindsight, many observers have concluded (and I agree) that one of the problems with polling in this context was bad sampling (e.g., overrepresenting groups like young people) and unreliable responses (the phenomenon in which people bitch and whine and moan about the government but don’t actually have the inclination to either vote or vote against the government, because in fact they have serious reservations about the alternative). The latter phenomenon is similar to the phenomenon in which you bitch and whine and moan about how awful your spouse is, but you never actually leave — because you fear the alternative.
          Also, BC election post-mortems clearly showed that economic issues (e.g., economic and fiscal management) played a huge role in voters’ decisions to vote Liberal — that’s substance, not tactics. The BC NDP still can’t resist the inclination to slag business (especially resource extraction industries), and it hurts them electorally.

          • It simply isn’t my recent experience that liberals[ as in party members] are just inclined to draw the conclusion from poor performances that substance doesn’t matter. There has been an internal debate. Meanwhile, there are always those who will think, and will continue to think that MI and Dion lost because Harper was mean. He was, but they would likely have lost anyway,since MI was always a lemon in terms of electability[ except amongst Rosedale snobs] and Dion, much as i liked him turned out to not have the temperament for leadership – at least on the retail side.
            We could argue all day as to why the ndp lost. You say it was because they abandoned substance, i say it was complacency and a poor leader, combined with some nifty footwork from Clark’s team. We probably overlap a fair amount on the whole.

          • I think we do overlap a fair amount. I don’t think the BC NDP abandoned substance, what I’m saying is that now, in these Topp-like post-mortems, NDP partisans seem to be arguing that the lesson to be derived from that campaign is that substance doesn’t matter and it’s all a matter of tactics. Which I think is bollocks.
            In any event, federal Liberals are going to have a much easier time of it next time out with JT as leader, IMO. He has a Ralph Klein-like ability to “screw up” yet still remain popular, and he has that aura of honesty and authenticity about him that is money in politics (which, again, Klein possessed, he of the booze-ups at the St. Louis Hotel).

          • I can sign off on that – both points.
            Interesting how i’ve come full circle[ well almost] on Ralph. As a youngster in AB i couldn’t understand why ABs picked him and hated/despised him on principle because i was a liberal. I still don’t think he was half the pol that Lougheed was, but i’ve mellowed and come to accept that there are other ways to be a good politician. And Klein was one. I should have known i’d come around the day he threw the money at the bums at the single men’s hostel. It wasn’t right,but it was funny and i bet some of the guys there thought so too, even if all the liberals in AB were mortified.
            It’s an interesting comparison. Not quite right, but not too bad either. Ralph was funnier though.

  23. “I read one newspaper column that contrasted Topp’s advice with the way
    Jack Layton used to run a campaign, but any contrast seems based on
    false memory. ”

    I’d guess you’re talking about Chantal’s morose column on Topp. I can’t see such an upgrade in tactics helping Mulcair out much against Trudeau, and it’s hard to see how much more negative he can get generally about either JT or Harper. It’s not working now, why should more of it work any better? And Mulcair’s problem is hardly lack of focus, is it?

    I think Topp has drawn the wrong conclusion after the BC loss, just as those who think MI would have been just fine if Harper hadn’t picked on him.He was always going to be a lemon, even if he still doesn’t know it. I wouldn’t conclude from that bc election that nice and positive is for losers. It was Dix who was the principle problem – switch him up with say someone like Cullen and who knows what might have happened? It’s the same with MI and the liberals – he was the principle problem.
    For good or for ill personality has even more of a bearing on politics in this country then when i started to pay attention in the 80s. Even Harper fits the mold[hehe]. Not my kind of a guy, but for those inclined Conservative the button down, no nonsense business type IS charismatic[ god help them] There’s just no accounting for taste.
    In any case Topp isn’t just calling for more focus, he’s aping the master.Who’s to say it will work for anyone other then Harper? Chretien is often held up as a model of sorts for Harper, but personality wise they couldn’t be more different. I guess it’s a case of Harper’s tactics suiting him.

  24. Jack Layton was the MuchMusic of Canadian politics. Most relatively successful politicians tend to be structured. Stephen Harper is like a stoic newsman who sits in one spot to provide his news-message. It’s boring and not interactive with the viewers. Jack Layton was like a MuchMusic VJ who appeared to randomly move around the studio and interact with others around him. While MuchMusic VJ’s appear to move randomly, their moves are actually tightly choreographed by the director and floor director who make the controlled movements seem random. Jack could provide an oxymoronic controlled spontaneity.

  25. Paul Wells has hit the nail on the head!

    That said, at what point in our history will individuals like Michael Ignatieff be granted the opportunity to demonstrate that the ability to think about issues in all their complexity can be an advantage. Some will say, that’s why he has advisors and ministers, to do the thinking for him. And others will still say, he spent too much time away from Canada.

    When I see our country crumbling around me, with individuals in their little positions of power abusing it, through spending, lying, ruining others’ lives, I can’t help but wish for someone who might try a different approach to leading our country.

  26. Quite a different take on the Ignatieff book in today’s (Sept 29) Sunday Star by someone clearly outside the Ottawa media pundit elite.
    I like the point that the book will have a huge impact on how history sees the Harper years.

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