The untold story of the 2011 election: Introduction and Chapter 1

Behind the scenes of an epic campaign that turned Canadian politics on its head, and finally gave Harper his majority.

Politics turned over

Photograph by Chris Bolin

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.


Introduction: Politics turned over

“What a great night! Quelle belle soirée!”

By now Stephen Harper is getting used to making these speeches on the floor of the Telus Convention Centre in Calgary. This was his fourth since 2004, his third as Prime Minister-elect since 2006. Canadians have been watching this man for nearly a decade: his cadences, his body language, his preferred topics and the terms he uses to discuss them are familiar.

It’s just everything else that has changed.

“Friends, I have to say it,” the modern architect of Conservatism as a durable governing force in Canada said. “A strong, stable, national, majority Conservative government.”

It was what he had asked for, in those words, on every day of this astonishing campaign. By now it was an inside joke. But it was also a totem of victory, because for the first time Stephen Harper had won clear command of a Parliament within which no coalition could block or replace him. He is the first party leader in the history of the country to fall short of that goal three times and then succeed. By now the victims of his resilience are stacked outside like cordwood, and it may at last be getting hard for them to hang onto their easy dismissive smirks.

He thanked the voters of Calgary Southwest for returning him—and “for giving me the honour of following in the footsteps of Preston Manning,” a bit of family detail that has been true since he first represented the riding in 2002, but which he had not mentioned in front of a national audience until this night. He spoke of his love for his children, Ben and Rachel, and for his tearful wife, Laureen. He thanked the voters, who “chose hope, unity of purpose and a strong Canada.”

Hang on. Unity of purpose? Six voters in 10 did not vote for his party. Those who voted against him were so desperate for an alternative that more than a million of them abandoned once-sturdy vessels, the Bloc Québécois and the Liberal Party of Canada, in favour of a bicyclists’ party led by a former city councillor with a bum hip.

Jack Layton is the evening’s second great story, in some ways fresher: a career politician with a Ph.D. whose opponents, and some of his allies, wrote him off for years as a naïf or a citified bumpkin. Harper himself would say in private that he had urged Layton to take a chance from time to time, but then the Conservative leader would always shrug: “You can’t teach an elephant to dance.” That’s okay. Elephants don’t have to dance. They just walk right over things.

Every election comes down to a choice between “change” and “more of the same.” But in a parliamentary system we get to have both. Harper set the terms for this election two years ago. His agenda was never secret. He would propose stability and warn against risk. He knew the choice would split the electorate, and hoped only for the larger part.

In the end, those Canadians who wanted stability have it. Only seven incumbent Conservatives were defeated on Monday night, compared to 82 incumbents from other parties. The Conservative vote keeps growing, but most of the voters who supported one of Harper’s candidates were doing so for the fourth time. As they head back to the drawing board, Harper’s opponents should start by admitting to themselves the extraordinary buyer satisfaction Harper provides his supporters. He is becoming what he has hoped Conservatism could become in this country: a familiar habit.

But even the voters who rejected Harper’s stability proved him right by preferring risk—and taking a big one. A vote for the Bloc Québécois has, for 20 years, been a respectable way to wave the home flag and choose, in other important ways, not to play with others. A vote for the Bloc combined pride and safety, and why would anyone ever give up a blanket like that? Unless they started hoping for more. Quebecers did. Monday’s awesome swing in that province is many things, but among them it is an expression of hope. So Jack Layton became the first anglophone leader of a national party to win in Quebec when a francophone was on offer. Half of his caucus will now come from Quebec, so he will need to put more French into his speeches than he did in accepting the people’s verdict on election night. He’ll adjust.

Sixty-four per cent of the NDP vote on Monday came from outside Quebec. Layton has MPs from eight provinces. In Saskatchewan, where a trick of the electoral system locked him out, his party won nearly a third of the vote. He is a truly national Opposition leader, facing a truly national Prime Minister, and that alone is good for the country. So it was not mawkish but accurate of the Prime Minister to say Canadians “chose hope” on Monday, even if they chose such starkly different kinds of hope. Even if the results throw some into despair. But we’ll get to the Liberals in a minute.

“Because Canadians chose hope, we can now begin to come together again,” Harper said. “For our part, we are intensely aware that we are, and we must be, the government of all Canadians, including those who did not vote for us.”

This will be the test of the next three or four years in this country. Will Canadians judge that Harper has listened to them? Will he take his majority mandate, as his opponents always warned he would, and take such radical action that Canadians feel betrayed? Or do his opponents now have something worse to fear: the possibility that more Harper will mean more support for Harper, as has been the case now for four elections in a row?

The Prime Minister offered a few hints. “Friends, hear me on this. All those lessons of the past few years—holding to our principles, but also of listening, of caring, of adapting—those lessons that have come with a minority government, we must continue to practise as a majority government.”

So he plans, or says he plans, to stay the course. “Our first job will be to implement what we set out in our budget.” The budget the other parties, including Layton’s, said they would oppose, a budget they cannot now block. The months ahead will show both the extent and the limits of Layton’s new clout.

So the Harpers move back to 24 Sussex, but little of what lies ahead is familiar. The story of how we got here is one of the most amazing stories in the annals of Canadian politics. Once again, Maclean’s has deployed all the resources at our disposal to tell that story. A team of Maclean’s reporters, led by myself, John Geddes and Aaron Wherry, travelled the country to cover the 2011 campaign. We interviewed key members of every leader’s campaign staff, often on the understanding that nothing we were told would be revealed until after Canadians had voted.

Here is that story. In part it is the tale of an election strategy decided by Harper himself in the days after the 2008 coalition crisis nearly took his job away. He announced his plan as soon as he concocted it—a clear choice between a majority and a reincarnated coalition—in the first week of 2009, in an interview with the publisher of this magazine. Michael Ignatieff had two years to prepare but he never found a persuasive answer.

This is also the story of a party, the NDP, that has courted French-speaking voters in Quebec for literally half a century, through good days and bad, and of a leader who has been written off as an also-ran for every one of the four elections in which he improved his party’s standing.

But the story has to begin with Michael Ignatieff. To understand anything else in this election, we have to understand how he became the leader of a once-great party, and how Stephen Harper took him apart, piece by piece.

Chapter 1: The first mistake

The first mistake

Photograph by Christopher Pike

Michael Ignatieff’s gaze drifted upward, past the ceiling of the foyer of the House of Commons and, as it seemed, toward heaven.

It was Friday, March 25. The House of Commons had just voted, by 165 votes to 145, in support of this Liberal motion: “That the House agrees with the finding of the standing committee on procedure and House affairs that the government is in contempt of Parliament, which is unprecedented in Canadian parliamentary history, and consequently, the House has lost confidence in the government.” Tomorrow, an election campaign would begin. Now, the Liberal leader had come out of the Commons chamber into the grandly decorated foyer, backed by a handful of his most telegenic MPs and faced by a pack of reporters and cameras.

The press wanted to know whether he would conspire with the other opposition parties to take power from Stephen Harper after an election, just as Stéphane Dion had tried to do in 2008. Ignatieff was trying to explain that if he had his wish, there wouldn’t even be any other opposition parties. He just wanted a fair fight between his Liberals and Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. His attempts to make this argument were not going well.

“Let me make it more clear: if you vote for the NDP, if you vote for the Greens, if you vote for the Bloc, you’ll get more of this,” he said, tilting his head back toward the Commons chamber, where the Harper government had so vexed him for two years now. “And Canadians are saying, ‘Enough.’ I can’t be clearer than that.”

Tonda MacCharles, who writes for the Toronto Star and does not like vague answers, cut in. “No, you’re not clear at all. You’re not clear at all, sir, actually. Do you believe that a coalition is a legitimate parliamentary option that you will pursue?”

Ignatieff smiled wanly. Go talk to the Governor General if you want to debate “abstract constitutional principles,” he said. His formidable eyebrows arched up, then pressed downward and together, like twin dolphins at yoga class. He rambled on a bit more.

There is a 2004 novel by the Toronto journalist and author Patricia Pearson called Playing House. Its main character runs into the dashing Harvard academic and essayist Michael Ignatieff at an Italian restaurant in New York City. She’s briefly smitten. “He was, I mused, everything that I’d ever dreamed suitable,” Pearson’s narrator says. “Accomplished, bold, socially gracious, a touch mischievous, emotionally pent-up in a wonderfully provocative way. One could sense real excitement within that crumpet. I was half in love with him by the time he’d analyzed the Middle East and the tartufo had arrived.”

But that was seven years ago, in the pages of a novel. This was right now under TV lights. The leader of the oldest political party in Canada looked as though he might turn to salt.

Finally, Terry Milewski from the CBC put Ignatieff out of his misery and into some deeper misery. “Surely this coalition monkey is going to stay on your back every day of the campaign,” the veteran broadcaster scolded him. “Because people will assume that if you don’t rule it out, that’s because you’ve got something to hide.”

Ignatieff’s forehead was shiny as he started to perspire. “You’re buying the Conservative line here. There’s nothing to hide. I am saying as clearly as I can to the Canadian people, looking them straight in the eye”—here he focused his gaze into the TV camera directly in front of him, so it would seem to a television viewer that Ignatieff really was looking him in the eye—“if you want to replace the Harper government, you’ve got to vote Liberal. It can’t be clearer than that.”

With that, Ignatieff wheeled 90 degrees and fled to the safety of a nearby corridor, his telegenic MPs marching briskly in his wake. The beginning of the election was still a day away. The Liberal leader was already fighting ghosts. He couldn’t get a clear shot at Harper because he had to wrestle with something he might someday do, or not do, depending. It was like struggling in molasses.

A week later, with the campaign under way, a senior Liberal campaign strategist sat in a leather chair in a Toronto office tower and looked back on that scrum as the first sign of trouble in the Liberal campaign. “I thought it was a terrible day,” the strategist said.

“I thought he didn’t answer the question right on the coalition thing—a total Ottawa issue which I hadn’t heard a single person outside of Ottawa talk about. But anyway, I understand why it is what it is.

“But I thought he looked bad; he looked evasive answering the question. He was sweaty. I don’t think he was dressed properly. Other than that, I thought it was a terrific day.” The strategist paused to consider whether he had laid on the sarcasm so thickly that his meaning might be obscured. He decided clarity would be best: “I thought it was just a shitty day.”

Oh, well. The campaign hadn’t even started yet. Five weeks of rallies and speeches lay ahead. Ignatieff had trained for this for a year. No opposition party leader could choose, alone, the moment a campaign began. But right now, hard on the heels of a deeply unimpressive Conservative budget, was the moment the Liberals had used for months as the basis of their election planning. Ignatieff had the best staff, the best equipment, the most up-to-date software, the most motivated troops any Liberal leader had brought to a fight in at least a decade.

But there was something big he did not know, or maybe he knew it in his heart but still hoped it wasn’t true. The something big was this: this campaign had started long ago. Its central target was Ignatieff himself. He and his party had already taken hits so severe that he could not now recover.

Not a politician

Most stories about Michael Ignatieff’s return to Canada after many years abroad begin with three Liberal activists—Ian Davey, Alf Apps and Dan Brock—visiting him at Harvard University in early 2005. But the story really begins a little earlier, in December 2004, when Ignatieff was in Toronto to deliver a dinner lecture. Apps invited him to the boardroom at his law firm, Fasken Martineau, with Brock, another Fasken lawyer, and a few other Liberals. Ignatieff showed up with his wife, Zsuzsanna Zsohar. Ignatieff said he felt his roots were with the Liberals. His hosts said the party, after only a year of Paul Martin, needed fresh leadership. The meeting ended with Ignatieff saying he was flattered and he had been thinking about Canadian politics for years—especially since the close call of the 1995 referendum.

What was the selling proposition for a guy like this? “Not a politician,” Brock said this spring. “Not part of the internal struggles in the party in the previous decade. In a curious way, a liability of being away, we thought, could be converted to a positive: somebody coming in with a different perspective. Fluently bilingual. Notwithstanding having been away, had a good understanding of the country. And was a risk-taker. Bold and provocative.”

His admirers wrangled an invitation for Ignatieff to deliver a keynote speech at the national Liberal convention in early 2005. Peter C. Newman, the patriarch of Canadian political journalism, wrote a week earlier in the National Post to explain what it all meant. Here was a leader born and bred, Newman wrote, for a party that has often preferred to “pluck from obscurity an untried but inspiring outsider.” King! Pearson! Trudeau! All had come from outside to shake up the party. And now this crumpet. “Even those untutored Liberal apparatchiks who think charisma is a brand of French perfume will recognize his magnetism,” Newman wrote.

At the convention, Ignatieff fumbled for a bit on the podium after realizing he had lost a page of his prepared text, then delivered a very loose-fitting vision of Liberalism built on national unity, Canadian sovereignty and social justice. Less than a year later, he was a candidate for the party’s leadership after Paul Martin managed to lose to Stephen Harper. The timing wasn’t ideal. “None of us thought it was a good idea for him to be in the leadership race after his first election,” Brock told Maclean’s.

But you play the hand you’re dealt. Ignatieff’s CV made him the 2006 leadership campaign’s front-runner. His fondness for freewheeling conversation made him an easy target. He said he wasn’t losing sleep over the war that erupted that summer between Israel and Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, then overcompensated by calling the Israeli bombing of Qana “a war crime.” “In the high relief of media reporting and then the dynamic of a leadership race, it was incendiary,” Brock said. “So did it need fixing? Listen, you can’t succeed in politics if you have a propensity to light yourself on fire.”

Ignatieff set about learning how to douse flames, and then to avoid igniting them. After he lost the December 2006 leadership vote to Stéphane Dion, he worked methodically on rehabilitating his image. He wrote a long article for the New York Times Magazine recanting his support for the Iraq war. He visited Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto to try to correct the impression he was anti-Israel. He muzzled his earlier support for constitutional reform as a remedy to Quebec nationalism.

His admirers worried he might become too bland. “So many people in the party said, after the first leadership race, ‘He needs to become a better politician. He needs to be better at politics,’ ” Brock said. “And our sense was, that’s a mistake. The moment he becomes a good politician, he loses the sense of being kind of over politics.”

Late in 2008, Dion lost the next federal election badly. Ignatieff announced again for the Liberal leadership. But then, weeks after the election, the Harper government delivered a fall economic update that threatened to end public funding for political parties; the great coalition crisis of 2008 was on. Dion and Jack Layton organized an alternative government with Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe’s support. Ignatieff was a reluctant conscript—the last to sign the letter to the governor general that every opposition MP signed, as if his place on the document made any difference.

The coalition effort collapsed. Dion resigned. Ignatieff’s opponents in the leadership race threw in the towel. The dejected Liberals handed him the leadership months before any formal mechanism could ratify the coronation. Still a rookie in federal politics, Ignatieff had become the third Liberal leader, after Bill Graham and Dion, in three years.

The party had never known such frequent turnover at the top. Pierre Trudeau led it right through the ’70s, Jean Chrétien for all of the ’90s. You used to be able to build your life and career around that party. Now the whole organization was buffeted and exhausted by wave after wave of defeat and failed renewal. A few hawks around Ignatieff, including Ian Davey, wanted to provoke an election immediately and take the idea for a coalition into an election in early 2009. It would split the country, but Ignatieff and Layton might take the upper hand. Party veterans, including the aging Sen. David Smith, told Ignatieff the party was in no shape for such a fight.

Ignatieff, unready for the top job and unsure of himself, decided he needed a pause. He extricated himself from the coalition with Layton by supporting Harper’s January 2009 budget. But he tried to look tough by demanding updates every four months on the budget’s progress. “We’re putting Stephen Harper on probation,” he told the cameras. What he had done was give Harper an excuse to spend millions bragging that he was spending billions.

“You make a deal that says every three months they’re going to issue a report on how they’re doing on the recovery plan,” Brock said. “And every three months they do a major media show to talk about all the great things they’re doing. So I don’t know where that idea came from, but it was a colossally stupid one. We had let the PM off the hook.”

Stephen Harper on the rebound was a dangerous character. On May 13, 2009, the Conservatives launched a multi-million-dollar ad campaign against the new Liberal leader. The long-time expat bon vivant was “just visiting,” the ads warned. “He didn’t come back for you.”

The architect of the campaign was Patrick Muttart, a soft-spoken political consultant whose fastidious market research and flair for communication made much of the difference between Harper’s 2004 defeat and his 2006 victory. Muttart had the party register a website in Montenegro so its URL could be www.ignatieff.me, reinforcing the notion that the Liberal was “just in it for me.” They stuffed it full of embarrassing old quotes. Ads ran for weeks on television and radio.

“I don’t think we really understood how effective it would be if done over a sustained period of time between writ periods,” Brock said. “We thought, ‘Canadians are going to reject this, because this is just over the top. Canadians are going to say, “You shouldn’t be doing this.” ’ And that’s exactly wrong. Canadians aren’t going to say that. They’re too busy living their lives. They pay a little bit of attention to [politics], and if that little bit of attention is dominated by a particular message, effectively delivered and repeated over and over again, it’s going to sink in. And it did.”

The ad barrage must have felt like a carpet bombing, but in many ways it was more like a surgical strike. Halfway through the 2011 campaign, a Conservative war room operative sat down in an Ottawa pub to discuss the party’s entire strategy against Ignatieff.

“They say that we try to portray Ignatieff in our ads and so on as a weak and flailing professor,” the war room staffer said. “No, that’s how we portrayed Dion. Dion was weak, you know, Dion was ‘not a leader.’ We’ve never said Michael Ignatieff isn’t a leader. We’ve never called him weak. And we’ve never called him a flip-flopper. Even when he changes his mind, we don’t say he’s a flip-flopper. Michael Ignatieff, in our narrative, is a political opportunist who is calculating, who will do and say anything to get elected.

“He’s a schemer. When he says one thing and then he changes his mind the next week, it’s not because he’s indecisive and a flip-flopper. It’s because he’s an opportunist who will say different things to different people. I don’t think we’ve even used the phrase, even internally, ‘He’s a malicious human being.’ But that’s kind of the sentiment we’re getting at. With Dion, we were trying to portray him as weak. You can’t trust him to lead us out of the economic recovery because he’s a weak man. With Ignatieff, it’s ‘He’s a bad man,’ right? He’s someone you don’t want your daughter to marry, right?”

The Conservative staffer’s laudable effort to specify the precise nature of this sustained assault on the character of a national party leader brought to mind a passage from former British prime minister Tony Blair’s 2010 memoir, A Journey. Blair explains how he did away with a succession of Tory opponents.

“So I defined [John] Major as weak; [William] Hague as better at jokes than judgment; [Michael] Howard as an opportunist; [David] Cameron as a flip-flop, not knowing where he wanted to go,” Blair writes.

“Expressed like that, these attacks seem flat, rather mundane almost, and not exactly inspiring—but that’s their appeal. Any one of those charges, if it comes to be believed, is actually fatal. Yes, it’s not like calling your opponent a liar, or a fraud, or a villain, or a hypocrite, but the middle-ground-floating voter kind of shrugs their shoulders at those claims. They don’t chime. They’re too over the top, too heavy, and they represent an insult, not an argument. Whereas the lesser charge, because it’s more accurate and precisely because it’s more low-key, can stick. And if it does, that’s that. Because in each case, it means they’re not a good leader. So game over.”

‘It was Bob Rae’s idea’

In September 2009, Ignatieff arrived in Sudbury for the annual Liberal end-of-summer caucus retreat. He was in a fix. He had spent the spring demanding changes to Employment Insurance to make it easier for jobless victims of the recession to get benefits. This was worth fighting an election over, he said. Harper sent emissaries to discuss the notion, but negotiations had come to nothing, and now Ignatieff had to decide what to do about it.

At this sort of event, the leader always gives an opening speech to his assembled MPs and senators. “In June, we set out four tests for Stephen Harper,” Ignatieff said. “Mr. Harper, you’ve failed all four. After four years of drift, four years of denial, four years of division, four years of discord”—here he stared right into the camera facing him—“Mr. Harper, your time is up.” The caucus applauded. “Give ’im the boot!” a voice from the crowd said. Ignatieff did a nervous little fist-pump thing to demonstrate a simulacrum of enthusiasm.

Ignatieff’s staff was quietly appalled. “None of us thought that was a good idea. We didn’t have the tools to bring the government down on our own,” Brock said. Then whose idea was this? “Bob Rae’s.”

A couple of days before the speech, Ignatieff convened senior members of caucus to discuss the meeting. “Bob’s exact line was, ‘You can’t be half-pregnant. Either we’re taking these guys on or we’re not. And if we’re taking them on, say so.’ Seems sensible, except it completely ruins your room to manoeuvre.”

As a reward for acting bold, Ignatieff failed to defeat Harper in the Commons. Jack Layton and the NDP supported the Conservatives. For trying to force an election, the Liberals sank in the polls while the Conservatives soared. “People were getting disheartened. The poll numbers were discouraging,” Brock said. “And Ignatieff personally just completely lost his confidence. Completely lost his confidence.”

Four days before Halloween 2009, minutes before 5 p.m., rumours started flying around Ottawa that Ignatieff had fired his chief of staff, Ian Davey, his communications director, Jill Fairbrother, and Brock, his principal secretary. Peter Donolo, who had served as Jean Chrétien’s spokesman through most of the 1990s, was the new chief of staff. It was a desperation move. According to one rumour, the party of Chrétien and Trudeau had sunk to 18 per cent in internal overnight polls.

Patricia Sorbara, a long-time Ontario Liberal organizer, was reading about Donolo’s appointment online when her phone rang. It was Donolo. “Are you calling to talk about how crazy you are?” she asked him.

“No,” Donolo said, “to talk about how crazy you’d be to come with me.” The two had dinner at Terroni, an Italian restaurant in downtown Toronto. Neither knew Ignatieff well. Neither had worked hard for the national party for more than a decade. But lifelong partisans hear calls of duty where others might hear only cries of despair. Donolo would be the ideas man. Sorbara would bring discipline and order. Most of the bright young staffers Davey had hired would stay.

The party they were going to help Ignatieff run was in lousy shape. It needed fresh policy and a campaign-ready leader, but most of all it needed an organization on the ground. Donolo and Sorbara visited meetings of the party’s provincial wings, where they spotted riding presidents who’d held the same jobs 30 years earlier. They’d stepped back into their old roles because there was nobody else around to do them. It was hardly a sign of strength.

A thinkers’ conference in Montreal helped refresh the party’s storehouse of ideas. A summer-long bus tour by Ignatieff was obviously designed to get him used to the rigours of campaigning. The tour’s less obvious purpose was to give Liberals on the ground a reason to pick up their game. “So where we had a candidate, for example, in London West, we would call the candidate and call that person’s team and say: ‘Okay, you’ve got to build us a 400-person summer event,’” a senior Liberal organizer said. “And if they could do it, you could get a sense that they were ready.”

For every stop on Ignatieff’s bus tour, teams of local Liberals had to have a venue and a crowd waiting. They were practising for a campaign, along with Ignatieff. The goal: “Get the leader ready, but at the same time get the ground realizing that we’re in a fight,” the organizer said. At one stop on the endless and encouraging Ignatieff bus tour, Sorbara turned to Donolo and said, “The Liberal party is not dead. The Liberal party was just having a little nap, and we’ve managed to wake it up.”

When Ignatieff hired them, Donolo and Sorbara had asked for a year to get ready for the next election. By the fall of 2010, the year was up. Liberals started to tell one another it would soon be time for an election, and then, being Liberals, they began to tell reporters. Late last fall, La Presse ran a column by Vincent Marissal in which he quoted senior Liberals who said they didn’t intend to let the next Harper budget pass a confidence vote if they could help it.

The Conservatives took Marissal’s column as gospel, and pounced. “If the Conservative party wins again, I think the single biggest strategic mistake the Liberal party made was telegraphing their intentions to bring down the government in the fall of 2010,” a senior Harper strategist said. “This basically gave the Conservative party and the operatives and the people who control the money licence to do two things: one, delay the budget as long as possible; and two, start an attack-ad campaign as early as possible and run it as long as possible.”

Jim Flaherty had delivered the 2009 budget on Jan. 27, a not unusual time. This year he waited and waited before finally admitting he would deliver one on March 23. The Conservatives filled the space with by far the longest and heaviest anti-Ignatieff advertising barrage they had ever run. Earlier campaigns had run a few weeks. “This one went on for part of January, all of February and almost all of March,” the Harper strategist said. “And the Grits actually did that to themselves.”

Of course, whenever the Conservatives started a new ad barrage, the Liberals debated about how to respond. Bob Richardson, a Toronto lobbyist who would be in charge of campaign advertising, figured the campaign was on as soon as the Conservatives fired a shot, and was eager to fight back. Donolo had the same instinct.

Gordon Ashworth was Ignatieff’s campaign manager, a role he had played every time Jean Chrétien ran for prime minister. He was more worried than his younger colleagues about the cost of an ad war before an election. Down in the polls and saddled with a leader still learning the craft, the Liberals were not an effective fundraising organization. Ashworth also insisted the Conservative ads wouldn’t do lasting damage, although that attitude may have been influenced by the cost of a real fight back, even if Ashworth had wanted one. “It was a fight that we simply could not win,” a participant in those debates said, “because [the Conservatives] had more resources than we did.”

In the end, the Liberals and NDP finally produced some ads to counter the Conservative barrage. But only the Conservatives had the resources, thanks to effective fundraising, to fund more than a token display. In the weeks before the budget, a Liberal strategist said, the Conservatives bought airtime to run 1,600 ads. “We had 131, and the NDP had, like, 25 or something,” the Liberal said. “It was a massacre.”

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