When Justin Trudeau was hurting in the polls this past spring, the obvious tack for the Conservatives was to stick with what was working. The outcry over the SNC-Lavalin affair had the Liberals reeling. The opposition’s job, it seemed, was just to keep its focus relentlessly on allegations that the Prime Minister and his aides had improperly pressured Jody Wilson-Raybould, when she was federal justice minister, to give the Montreal-based engineering company a chance to avoid a damaging bribery trial.
Yet the Conservatives opted, at least temporarily, to switch channels. They had planned—long before Wilson-Raybould quit Trudeau’s cabinet and then was kicked out of his caucus—to make the federal carbon tax their big issue for 2019. So, sticking to that script, the party made news in late March with a mass text-message blast to voters in New Brunswick, Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, reminding them that the tax was kicking in on April 1 in their provinces. Some harried Liberals welcomed the change of topic.
It was a classic Hamish Marshall moment. Staying the course is what Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s campaign manager is all about. “He’s got a plan. He’s going to be disciplined and stick to that plan,” says Matthew John, an old friend of Marshall’s and a long-time Conservative insider. “It’s harder than people think, because you don’t know if you’re right until the end.” Of course, the end Marshall is driving toward is the Oct. 21 federal election, and hammering the carbon tax, no matter what distractions arise, is central to his script.
Back in 2016, when Scheer recruited Marshall to manage his bid for the Conservative leadership, the duo didn’t strike anyone as particularly intimidating: a former House Speaker without any obvious flair, backed by an owlish data nerd whose firm designed and hosted websites for politicians and groups. They had bonded nearly two decades ago as novice Parliament Hill staffers and had stayed close, attending each other’s weddings. On why he signed on to back Scheer, Marshall says simply, “My friend called and asked for help.”
That seems straightforward enough, but for Marshall, making any political decision that’s not grounded in meticulous research isn’t normal. Conservatives who have worked closely with him uniformly stress how he’s driven by information, especially demographic analysis of voters. “He’s not interested in flying blind,” says James Moore, who served in former prime minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet and has known Marshall for nearly two decades. “The fuel of politics has to be data, not fantasy or aspirational statements.”
If Marshall’s decision to back Scheer started with warm feelings, he ran his leadership campaign with cool discipline. Maxime Bernier led through most of the race, presenting Scheer and Marshall with continuous temptation to attack the flamboyant front-runner. But Marshall’s game plan was to present Scheer as a unifier, so they mostly held their fire. In a contest decided by ranked-ballot voting, selling Scheer to his rivals’ supporters as an inoffensive second choice proved crucial to his come-from-behind victory.
Not surprisingly, Scheer turned to Marshall to helm his first campaign as Conservative leader. It’s a job Marshall seems to have been building toward for a long time: he served in Harper’s Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and then as Conservative pollster in Harper’s successful 2008 federal campaign. Arguably even more telling is the way Marshall orchestrated the No side’s win in a fiercely fought Vancouver referendum over a proposed transit tax in 2015.
It’s all been enough for Marshall, 41, to establish himself as among the most respected Tory backroom figures. Striving to make Scheer, 40, prime minister, though, poses a far greater challenge. They bring shared baggage to the task. When they met as junior Hill staffers after the 2000 federal election, the Canadian right was going through the tortuous task of healing the split between Reformers and Progressive Conservatives, which culminated in the creation of the new Conservative Party of Canada in 2003. Those formative years during the unite-the-right efforts instilled a deep aversion to internal divisions in Scheer, Marshall and others of their generation.
Harper’s genius was to keep the new Conservative party united under his incremental leadership, and Marshall remains an unabashed fan. “I was excited to work with a leader whose views line up with mine on many, many things,” he said in an interview. As well, the Harper era provided openings for a data-driven, tech-savvy strategist to make his name. After the Conservatives won the 2006 election, Marshall served as his PMO’s director of strategic planning and then went on to work in polling, advertising and website services. He’s now on leave from his partner’s position at One Persuasion Inc., a public affairs consulting firm where he specializes in polling.
He was born in 1978 and grew up in West Vancouver. His father was a lawyer. His mother stayed home when Marshall and his sister were little, and then worked as an administrator at non-profits and the local school board. Dinner-table talk about politics was common, and his parents encouraged him to plunge into whatever caught his interest. By his late years of high school, Marshall says he knew he was interested in conservative politics.
He headed east to study at the University of Toronto in the late 1990s, arriving in Ontario during then-premier Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution. Harris’s small-government ethos drew Marshall to a campus provincial Conservative club, where he made lifelong friends. Marshall studied international relations, read right-leaning pundits such as David Frum and began cultivating what would be enduring fascinations with British politics and classical history. He cites Tom Holland’s Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic as an all-time favourite book.
By late 2000, Marshall had graduated and moved to Ottawa to work for a newly elected B.C. MP. Across the hall was another rookie parliamentarian from the West Coast, James Moore, who remembers the first time Marshall dropped by to introduce himself. “Introvert,” Moore says of his initial impression, but adds, “He kind of blew me away with the breadth of his knowledge, given his age.”
In 2003, Marshall went to Oxford to spend two years earning his MBA. To his surprise, he says, he got his best mark in a mandatory first-year statistics course. He subsequently earned a reputation for expertise in conducting useful research into what voters want and for trusting that data over mere political instinct. But he’s no colourless number cruncher. For instance, he wishes Canada had something like Guido Fawkes—an edgy, often funny, right-leaning U.K. website of political comment and gossip, founded by a pro-Brexit blogger—which Marshall says he reads daily.
Marshall says equipping himself to be a professional partisan wasn’t what he had in mind when he went to Oxford. “I didn’t plan on going back to politics,” he says. “But it keeps sucking me back in.” Even his family life is steeped in the Conservative movement. He met his future wife when they were working on a by-election campaign. They were married in 2009 and have a four-year-old daughter and a son who was born this past spring. Kathryn Marshall, now an employment lawyer in Toronto, rose to prominence in Conservative circles when she was in her mid-20s as the public face of the populist, pro-Alberta oil-sands lobby group Ethical Oil.
That group was founded partly by right-wing provocateur Ezra Levant, who also figures in Hamish Marshall’s backstory. Marshall is a former board member of Levant’s Rebel Media. That linkage turned toxic in 2017, when Scheer declared he wouldn’t grant any more interviews to Rebel, after its sympathetic online coverage of neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville, N.C. At the time, Marshall told Maclean’s he had already decided to sever ties with Rebel several months earlier, after Scheer won the Tory leadership. In any case, he said his role with Rebel was limited to providing technical services. “I have never had any involvement in any editorial or content decisions,” he said.
That disavowal hasn’t stopped Liberals from hammering Scheer over his campaign chieftain’s Rebel past. But Marshall doubts those attacks will inflict serious harm. “Generally speaking, in politics it’s a mistake to go after people who are not on the ballot,” he said. More broadly, however, Conservatives have to brace for Liberal assaults on Scheer over values issues. “It’s going to be non-stop that we’re all intolerant bigots,” Marshall predicts.
For his part, Marshall wants Conservatives to be non-stop about elitist Liberals burdening suburban voters with unfair taxes. That’s how he shaped the No side’s message in that 2015 transit tax referendum in Vancouver. On the ballot was a proposed 0.5 per cent sales tax to finance a $7.5-billion regional transit expansion. Marshall led the Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s campaign against the scheme, along with the CTF’s Jordan Bateman. They won by a wide margin.
Their pitch to middle-income, suburban commuters: downtown snobs want to hike your tax bill and hand the money to an incompetent transit agency. “It was fairly class-based [messaging]—a bunch of rich people want to spend a lot of money on a transit system for only rich people or only poor people to use,” says one former Yes campaigner, who asked not to be named because his current job doesn’t allow him to comment publicly on politics.
According to this vanquished opponent, Marshall doggedly stuck to delivering variations on that simple juxtaposition—out-of-touch elites versus hard-working commuters—and refused to be lured into proposing any grand, alternative vision for Vancouver’s future. “Even if you’re conservative, and you’re trying to protect something, trying to keep something the same, it takes a lot of discipline not to be vision-oriented in your communication,” he says.
The insight that Marshall is deeply wary of lapsing into the politics of big visions could be key to forecasting the tone of this fall’s federal Tory campaign. In a panel discussion at a Conservative convention in Halifax last summer, he urged party activists to stick to basics. “What our campaign is going to be about,” he said, “is how we as Conservatives in government can make lives better, and focus on tangible outcomes, instead of focusing on a battle of philosophy.”
The 2019 campaign could empathize with voter unease about the cost of living rather than argue with Liberals about the broader state of an economy that is, after all, providing plenty of jobs. “There’s this feeling that people are working harder. They’ve got jobs and they have a house. They’re doing everything right, but they’re not getting further ahead,” Marshall says. “It’s a very different kind of economic disquiet from the way you think of it with Jean Chrétien and ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ in 1993.”
But is the federal carbon tax—the core Trudeau policy that Marshall and Scheer have fastened upon as proof that today’s Liberals just don’t get ordinary folks’ money worries—clear-cut enough to make their point? The Liberals built into their policy a tax rebate designed to pay back more than the carbon levy costs for at least 70 per cent of taxpayers. As a result, the coming federal campaign clash doesn’t seem to offer Marshall as clear a target as the Vancouver transit tax referendum did.
But he also says this election will come down to which leader voters trust more. That’s why Scheer so often plays up the contrast between his own modest middle-class roots and Trudeau’s upbringing as the first son of a famous, fairly rich prime minister. Any voter craves a candidate who “understands the lives of people like me, the choices I have to make,” Marshall says. “I think it all comes back down to trust—these are all indications of trust.”
That’s a potent way of framing what might be the true, underlying ballot question. Musing about trust, however, isn’t exactly the same as sticking, as Marshall insists Tories should, to talking about what a party would tangibly deliver if voters give it the chance to govern. Tax policy and trust might be linked, but the former can be quantified and the latter can’t. Even for the most disciplined of political strategists, democracy has a way pulling the conversation beyond data.
This article appears in print in the September 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “‘Stick to that plan.’” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.