The untold story of the 2011 election: Chapter 2

Harper was tightly controlled, Ignatieff loose and freewheeling. Layton? Just a guy most Canadians would rather have a beer with.

Not feeling the love

Jason Ransom/PMO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter 2: Not feeling the love

If everyone involved is telling the truth about what happened on budget day, then the election happened because the Conservatives and New Democrats didn’t understand each other.

Brad Lavigne is a former chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students. Since 2009 he’s been the national director of the NDP, appointed with a mandate to make the party ready for an election at any moment. On March 23 he and Jack Layton read the budget Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was about to table. “It became obvious very quickly that the Conservatives wanted an election,” Lavigne said later.

In fact, Flaherty had told a news conference a few hours before his budget speech that he had made specific concessions to obtain NDP support. So the Conservatives thought they were being conciliatory, and the New Democrats didn’t see any sign of it. Stephen Harper’s government fell into the gap between those two viewpoints.

“The PM didn’t want an election,” a Conservative war room operative said later, once the campaign had begun. “That’s not spin, that’s a reality. I know that for a fact because I was in the budget lock-up so I got briefed on the budget before the journalists got briefed on it. And so we all saw the budget, and our reaction was, ‘Wow, maybe this guy really does want to win the confidence vote,’ you know? ‘Not only are there no poison pills. There are genuine attempts to reach out.’ ”

But how far? At Harper’s invitation, Layton had met with the Prime Minister in the Langevin Block, a 19th-century sandstone building across Wellington Street from the Parliament Buildings, five weeks before budget day. Layton had listed measures he wanted to see in a budget. These included restoring the EcoEnergy home retrofit program, increasing the Guaranteed Income Supplement, bolstering the Canada Pension Plan and hiring more doctors and nurses. Both leaders’ offices said later it was a cordial chat.

Harper decided Layton could settle for not quite half a loaf. The budget included $400 million for energy retrofits but didn’t make the program permanent. And it enriched the Guaranteed Income Supplement, though less than Layton had hoped. There was nothing on the other demands. But the Conservatives figured Layton was not eager for an election. He was recovering from hip surgery and cancer treatment, walking with a cane. All the polls showed the NDP riding low. Surely Layton would take what they had offered as cover for a tactical retreat.

Sometimes you guess wrong. “Mr. Harper had an opportunity to address the needs of hard-working middle-class Canadians and families, and he missed that opportunity. He just doesn’t get it,” Layton told reporters in the Commons foyer, minutes after Flaherty’s budget speech. “New Democrats will not support the budget as presented.”

The “as presented” bit made everybody run around for a few hours trying to figure out whether Layton was hoping to be wooed with new concessions, but nothing came of it. Politically, the budget was dead. But the government had not yet been defeated. That happened on Friday, when the three opposition parties passed a Liberal motion of non-confidence over the contempt-of-Parliament finding.

The Conservatives would spend the entire campaign saying it was their budget that had triggered the election. “Our messaging was always: we’re defeated on the budget,” the Conservative war room staffer said. “You know, we kind of elide that distinction as to the specific vote on which we were defeated.” Harper’s campaign message was that he wanted to focus on the economy and his opponents were interested only in mischief. In contrast, the war room staffer said, “They had a narrative going in which was: this is going to be a campaign about contempt and disrespect for democracy.”

Note that “they,” here, refers to the Liberals. For the Conservatives, for more than half of the campaign, there was no other opponent. Harper wanted to deny the Liberals a chance to tell the story Ignatieff wanted to tell. The Coalition Monkey that Terry Milewski and others perceived on Ignatieff’s back helped. Properly rattled by the leader’s flop-sweat scrum in the Commons foyer after the confidence vote, the Liberal campaign staff finally sat down and wrote out a statement for Ignatieff on the coalition question.

“Let’s be clear about the rules,” the statement said over Ignatieff’s signature. “Whoever leads the party that wins the most seats on election day should be called on to form the government,” the statement read. And that would be the end of that? Not quite. “If that is the Liberal party, then I will be required to rapidly seek the confidence of the newly elected Parliament. If our government cannot win the support of the House, then Mr. Harper will be called on to form a government and face the same challenge.”

A-ha! What if Harper failed that challenge? What if the opposition parties ganged up to defeat his government?

Guy Giorno, who was Harper’s chief of staff through the end of 2010, was his campaign manager now. Giorno, a Toronto lawyer, had been famously taciturn at the PMO, never speaking to any reporter about anything the government did. Now he spent his days sending out a surprising number of messages every day on Twitter. “Ignatieff statement pretty clear he will try to form government even if Harper wins most seats,” Giorno tweeted as soon as the statement was out.

Reporters at Rideau Hall asked Harper whether this was in fact Ignatieff’s plan. You bet it is, Harper said. Reporters replied: but what about a letter Harper, Layton and Gilles Duceppe sent to the governor general in 2004 after Paul Martin won a majority? Oh, that wasn’t about a coalition, Harper said.

Gilles Duceppe has a Twitter account too. “Harper lied to the people, he agreed with the coalition,” the Bloc leader tweeted.

For the next three days, every national leader had to face questions about whether they were planning a coalition government after May 2. Harper, meanwhile, was asked continually whether he had plotted to form one in the past.

This was fine with the Conservatives. “The PM has, according to our focus groups, so much source credibility on coalitions—by which I mean Canadians just don’t believe he’s going to form a coalition. They just don’t believe it,” the Conservative war room staffer said. “Regardless of what was happening in 2004, they just don’t believe it. And so our view was that by keeping that in the news, by keeping the word ‘coalitions’ in the news, it was probably still a net positive, even though guys like Terry Milewski and so on were focusing on our coalition, not Ignatieff’s coalition.”

Harper is one of the great fatalists in Canadian politics. He does not expect the world to be perfect, so he is sanguine when trouble comes his way. He asks only that it not be the trouble his opponents wished upon him. “To the extent that Ignatieff wanted at least the first week of the election to be dominated by coverage of contempt, he failed miserably,” the Conservative staffer said.

Who do you love

While Harper was visiting the Governor General, the Conservatives released their first two campaign ads. One was an attempt to frame the “ballot question,” the idea that Conservatives hoped would stick in the heads of voters right through to voting day. “Ballot question” is a term of art among political strategists, but the Harper Conservatives have never thought it is possible to be too literal-minded, so this one began with an election ballot unfolding to reveal the words of a question. Ballot. Question. “What’s this election all about?” a soothing female voice asked. “It starts with leadership. Stephen Harper has led our country through a global recession with a steady, determined hand . . . why would we risk changing course?”

The second ad, perhaps unsurprisingly, made fun of Ignatieff. “Fact,” said a male voice in a tone of unmistakable disdain. In case anyone had missed that, a single word appeared on the screen: “FACT.” “This election, a vote for the Liberals is a vote for Michael Ignatieff,” the voice said. Words on the screen supplemented this information: “A VOTE FOR THE LIBERALS IS A VOTE FOR MICHAEL IGNATIEFF.” The ad cut to black-and-white footage of Ignatieff (identified in block letters as MICHAEL IGNATIEFF) saying, “Nobody speaks for the Liberal Party of Canada but me.” Together, the snide voice and block letters then informed viewers that this was the tale of an OPPORTUNIST who liked HIGHER TAXES and preferred a RECKLESS COALITION.

The 30-second ad managed to find room at the end to repeat that a Liberal vote was an Ignatieff vote, and to replay that clip of Ignatieff speaking for Liberals.

Taken together, the two ads stripped the Conservative message to its essence: our guy good, your guy bad. This was not a profession of faith. It matched the market research that Muttart, Giorno and the rest of the Conservative campaign used compulsively to test what would work with voters. “The one thing the internal polling is showing is that across the country, ‘Stephen Harper/Michael Ignatieff’ is more advantageous to us than ‘candidate vs. candidate,’ ” the Conservative war room staffer said.

“That is to say, if you do [Fabian] Manning,” a Newfoundland Conservative candidate, “against whoever he’s running against, Manning’s margin is smaller than Stephen Harper vs. Michael Ignatieff in Newfoundland. By which I mean that [Harper]’s the guy who wins us. He’s the only reason that we’re talking about winning a majority.”

Hence the “somewhat imbecilic” Ignatieff’s-a-Liberal ad, this staffer said. “That summarizes our appeal. It is, ‘You may even consider yourself a Liberal, but if you vote Liberal you’re voting for that guy.’ And if Canadians are thinking that, that does more to move votes in our corner than any other question.”

The Conservative mentioned a Léger poll that ran in newspapers of the Sun chain at the start of the campaign. It asked which leader Canadians wanted to have a beer with, which one they wanted as a neighbour, and so on. “About the same number of Canadians said they would want their daughter to marry Elizabeth May as would want their daughter to marry Michael Ignatieff.” In both cases the number in question was about seven per cent.

Lost in this fascination with a fairly small subset of the Léger data was the pollster’s top-line conclusion. The leader likeliest to look like marrying material for respondents’ daughters was Jack Layton. Their preferred neighbour was Layton. Their favourite hockey coach for their kids was Layton. Respondents wanted to have a beer with Layton and would rather have him as their parent. They did score Harper over Layton as the best-dressed leader, but as for the rest, it was a clean sweep. “Jack Layton is the nice guy. The good guy. The buddy,” Léger vice-president Christian Bourque said.

What he wasn’t, for now, was the guy voters were flocking to see. Layton kicked off his campaign at the Château Laurier in Ottawa and then hit the road, stopping in Edmonton, then doubling back to Regina and Moose Jaw. “Here in Saskatchewan, only New Democrats defeat Conservatives,” he said again and again on the latter stops.

He was not saying it to large rooms. “Did you hear about Jack last night?” Peter Donolo asked reporters as Michael Ignatieff’s tour buses rolled down Spadina Avenue in Toronto. “Regina. Birthplace of the NDP. Seventy people in the room.” Donolo shook his head in an approximation of sympathy.

Nobody was less surprised than Brad Lavigne when the NDP didn’t light the country on fire during Layton’s first week on the road. This was their fourth campaign together, and before it began, Lavigne had assembled the entire NDP staff in their renovated downtown Ottawa headquarters for a pep talk. “I said, ‘Anybody who is here for their first time, we’ll walk you through the ground rules.’ Giving them the vision of the campaign. And I remember we said, ‘Listen, I’m going to make you two promises. The polls are going to go up; and the polls are going to go down. The key thing to remember is that when they go up, you don’t slow down your work and you don’t get overconfident. And when the polls go down, you don’t slow down your work and get disappointed. We know where we need to go. We know what we need to do in this campaign.”

Lavigne also knew what the competition would do. This took no particular insight. Harper had been repeating for two years that he saw the next election as a choice for voters between a Conservative majority and an opposition coalition. He first made the argument, at length, in an interview with Maclean’s in January 2009. He had never wavered from that message since.

As far as Lavigne was concerned, the Liberals had already tipped their hand in an article in Maclean’s published before the 2011 campaign began. “They basically said, ‘The New Democrats at 19 per cent and the Bloc at 10 per cent, we need to get those numbers down,’ ” Lavigne said, paraphrasing the Liberal argument. “Essentially saying, ‘They have no right to be this high.’ ”

Lavigne knew the Liberals, with their road-tested leader and his handpicked staff and accompanying armies of veteran reporters who still remembered how to cover a Liberal triumph, were coming right at him. “They did exactly what they said they were going to do. It’s the old jiu jitsu. They’re coming at our supporters, saying, ‘You must vote for us. You have no choice.’

“But flip it over. Say, ‘Wait a minute. You do have a choice.’ ”

A sea of troubles

Easy to say. Who was listening? Ignatieff had half the press gallery bigfeet on his bus and Harper had the rest on his. The emerging story by the end of the campaign’s first week was the contrast in the two leaders’ styles. Harper had an event every morning at a secluded location in front of a handpicked crowd at which he’d re-announce part of his budget and take five questions from reporters. Never six. Every afternoon, somewhere else, he’d attend an invitation-only rally where he would stare at a teleprompter screen and read a tale of woe. He told a crowd west of Montreal that it was great to be in Quebec. “But this is not where I should be. All members of Parliament should be in Ottawa working on the economy. We should be working to protect our economic advantage.”

In St. John’s, he repeated language so familiar the reporters at the back of the room were already reciting it under their voices along with him. “Yes, Canada is doing relatively well. But a sea of troubles is lapping at our shores.” And in that uncertain world, Canada itself was facing more uncertainty. “There won’t be a Conservative minority government after this election,” he told the crowd in St. John’s. “There will either be Mr. Ignatieff, put in power by the NDP and the Bloc Québécois, or there will be what Canada needs . . . a strong, stable, majority Conservative government.”

It was stultifying. But the whole thing was hand-stitched with exquisite care. “More so than the last campaign, we have aggressively focus-tested our script,” the war room staffer said. “You know, words like, ‘Unless Canadians elect a stable national majority Conservative government, they will get this.’ We phrase it that way. We don’t say, ‘We want a majority.’ We say, ‘Unless you do this, you will get that.’ It’s deliberate.”

Harper had begun rolling out new policy, such as an income-splitting scheme to reduce couples’ tax burden, but only after the deficit was eliminated, a few years down the road. Ignatieff was making extravagant fun of it all. “He’s not going to deliver it until rainwater turns to beer!”

But the Conservative staffer swore these odd, time-delayed promises would work to Harper’s advantage. “Focus-tested, that’s what Canadians want. You put Ignatieff’s promise of ‘now’ versus Harper saying, ‘We’re going to balance the books and then we’re going to do it,’ in our focus groups our target demographic prefers it phrased the way Harper phrases it.”

As for the cap on questions—four from the travelling Ottawa bigfeet, one from a local reporter—that was partly strategy, but it was mostly just word from the top. “The PM doesn’t like taking more than five questions. You can’t force the PM to do something he doesn’t want. The PM doesn’t care who asks the five questions, but he says, ‘I’m walking after five questions.’ ”

For at least one of his senior advisers, that was just fine. Jenni Byrne was a young veteran of Conservative campaigns, but for the first time she had the top role as campaign director. Hers was more of an operational role than Giorno’s. Her loyalty to the leader was absolute but not blind. She believed Harper’s uncanny ability to pound a message home could derail in two ways. Sometimes he became “Angry Stephen,” getting way too hot for his own good. And sometimes he became “Professor Stephen,” wandering off into theoretical discussions that produced awkward news clips. The longer he talked, the more likely Angry Stephen and Professor Stephen were to wander by. In 2008, Harper said the looming global recession presented “great buying opportunities.” That visit from Professor Stephen bought that campaign a week of trouble, and according to lore around the Conservative war room, it came in response to a seventh question. So seventh questions were banned.

In contrast to Harper’s utter discipline, Ignatieff’s campaign was hurtling toward something like free jazz. On March 29 at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., he gave a detailed presentation of his plan to make university tuition more affordable. But it was the evening rallies he liked, and when he turned a couple of them into town-hall events where anyone could ask him about anything, he was hooked.

He had rehearsed the town hall format throughout his 2010 tours. The Liberals had a catchy name for them: “Open Mike.” He was Mike. He was open. “It was an attempt to strike the contrast” between Ignatieff and Harper, who is “controlled, hidden, cocooned,” a senior Liberal strategist said.

The risk was obvious. If you take a dozen questions on as many topics, you have zero control over the clip that will play on that night’s TV news. But the freewheeling energy of the events was intoxicating to everyone on the Liberal bus. Crucially, Ignatieff had more of his best thinkers, including Donolo, travelling with him, than Harper did. Caught in the bubble, with no perspective.

When the travelling Liberal campaign staff collapsed at tonight’s hotel and turned on the TV, they were bemused by what they saw. None of the Open Mike energy was making it onto the news. The travelling reporters, relaxing down in the hotel bar, were telling one another that this was a fresh, energized Michael Ignatieff. But on the first Thursday-night CBC-TV At Issue panel of the campaign, the pundits said not a word about Open Mike. “It just didn’t get reported,” one disappointed Liberal said.

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