Martin Wins Nasty Campaign

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on July 12, 2004. Partner content is not updated.

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on July 12, 2004. Partner content is not updated.

Martin Wins Nasty Campaign

MEDIA POLLING STOPS in a campaign's last days. So nobody saw the mood of the electorate turn until the election results came in.

Well, almost nobody.

As the campaign entered its final weekend, Stephen HARPER picked up the phone and made some calls. The Conservative leader keeps his own counsel and trusts his own instincts most, but he is not quite as introverted as he seems. He has built a network of advisers and learned to work the phones.

Now, according to the recipient of one call, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Harper confided he could feel the election slipping away. Harper was "very sanguine about the outcome," his interlocutor says. He might win, Harper said, or maybe not. But if one thing was losing the election for him, "it's the incoming attacks that I've had to sustain from my own troops."

Paul MARTIN's Liberal campaign, almost devoid of any project the average Canadian voter could identify, was based on warning that Conservatives couldn't be trusted. And too many Conservative candidates were acting as though they couldn't be trusted. Early in the campaign, Scott Reid had cast doubt on Conservative support for bilingualism. Cheryl Gallant had compared abortion to beheading. Now an old interview had surfaced showing Randy White expressing disdain for the courts' interpretation of gay rights. And Alberta Premier Ralph Klein couldn't seem to stifle his musing about contravening the Canada Health Act.

It was all starting to add up. And as Harper seemed almost to disengage from the election, asking a television cameraman fully 48 hours before voting day whether he was "glad it's over," Martin added a crucial refinement to his pitch. He had warned Conservative-leaning voters against voting for Harper. Now he warned NDP supporters against depriving Liberals of the votes they needed to stop Harper.

The NDP was wary of strategic voting. They tracked it every night of the campaign, asking Canadians whether they favoured the NDP but were thinking of voting for someone else. For eight straight days at the end of the campaign, the numbers went down. Then, on June 26, the NDP stopped polling - two days before the vote. It turned out to be a little too soon. "The Liberal surge was literally overnight," Jamey Heath, Jack LAYTON's closest adviser, said after the election. "They were pounding home the message in full-page ads, leaflet blitzes, radio ads."

New Democrats showing up at campaign events in Windsor, Ont., were greeted by strangers dressed in blue, handing out pamphlets that depicted Layton as a "Harper Helper." Full-page ads in Saskatchewan papers, where New Democrats Lorne Nystrom and Dick Proctor were hanging on by their teeth, warned voters they might as well vote Tory as New Democrat. In the end, Nystrom and Proctor lost. To Conservatives.

Polarizing the race and compressing the NDP vote are classic Liberal tactics, but Martin and his team pursued it with single-minded zeal. On June 22, at the B.C. campaign office of Dave Haggard, a union official and appointed star Liberal candidate, Martin test-marketed the theme. "If you are thinking of voting NDP, I ask you to think about the implications of your vote. In a race as close as this, you may well help Stephen Harper become prime minister."

In yet another twist, Haggard's New Westminster-Coquitlam riding also fell to a Conservative, Paul Forseth. The NDP was only 114 votes behind. Haggard finished well back. If Martin had urged New Westminster-Coquitlam residents to vote their conscience, there'd probably be one less Tory going to Parliament. But no matter. Especially in Ontario, home to more than a third of federal seats, the NDP and Conservative vote faded in the stretch. Paul Martin won. His 135 seats put him within shouting distance of a 155-seat majority, and those who predicted worse for him, like this writer, have been dining on crow.

Perhaps it won't be too self-serving to recall how much rosier Martin's future once looked. And to trace his descent from unlimited possibility to the point where only a last-minute blitz and the misfortune of his principal opponent kept him from losing the job he had coveted for so long.

FLASH BACK 10 months to Labour Day weekend, 2003. Paul Desmarais Sr., the kingpin behind Montreal's Power Corp., was having a little housewarming party at his 10,000-ha Xanadu at Sagard, in Quebec's Charlevoix region. The guest list was reported to include Jean Chrétien, Bill Clinton, Lucien Bouchard, Sarah Ferguson. Paul Martin was in the process of wrapping up delegate selection for the November leadership convention. Among his 60 or 80 top priorities was improving relations with the U.S. He spent part of the weekend at Sagard in a golf foursome with Brian Mulroney, Paul Desmarais Jr. and Martin's carefully selected golfing partner, George Bush Sr.

At one point, according to an observer, Martin told the foursome that his camp's polls were projecting he would win 220 seats in a 308-seat Parliament. It would give him one of the largest majorities in Canadian history. The others were not particularly shocked. The golf game proceeded apace. Martin's prediction matched the conventional wisdom at the time.

If there was any nobler rationale for prying Jean Chrétien's fingers from the levers of power than Paul's Tired of Waiting, it was that Chrétien's governing coalition was too miserly to be durable. The wily old guy was said to have written Liberal fortunes off in important parts of the country, principally the West and about half of Quebec. No problem - unless Canadians in the Chrétien fortresses of Ontario, Montreal and Atlantic Canada started turning against the Liberals.

This was the central tenet of the Martin camp, especially his advisers John Webster, David Herle and John Duffy: a bigger tent was needed to shelter the Grits against a "wave of change." As Susan Delacourt reports in her book Juggernaut, Herle made precisely this argument to a group of pro-Martin MPs gathered at the Regal Constellation on the Toronto airport hotel strip as far back as March 2000.

Canadians were displaying a tendency to vote against incumbent governments, Herle told the assembled pols. The audit scandal at Human Resources was a "major" issue that could sour Canadians on the Grits. The Liberals might weather the storm with Martin at the helm - he was, after all, uniquely attractive to soft Quebec nationalists and alienated westerners. Chrétien, of course, was too thick to understand all this. "Only the likelihood of losing the majority," Herle lamented, "will make [Chrétien] reassess" his insistence on keeping the leadership.

Word of the meeting leaked out. Chrétien sensed a coup plot. He clung all the more tightly to the leadership and led the party, later that year, to an increased majority. Unperturbed, the Martin team packed Herle's arguments away for a brighter day.

By mid-2003, the Herle-Duffy-Webster argument - wave of change, broaden the tent - had convinced Liberals and forced Chrétien to announce his retirement. Debate revolved around the size of a Martin majority: immense, or merely huge? Few expected the Martin juggernaut to face trouble from two sets of problems: internal fragility and a reinvigorated external opposition.

One person who probably did was Tom Flanagan.

FLANAGAN IS the soft-spoken campaign director to Stephen Harper, and he will be grateful if I tell you right away that he did not consent to be interviewed for this story. The University of Calgary professor likes to cultivate an aura of inaccessibility.

But like most academics, Flanagan writes. With the benefit of hindsight, one of his most obscure books seems prescient. It's called Game Theory and Canadian Politics. Published in 1998, this introductory university text applies a branch of economics (John Nash, the hero of the movie A Beautiful Mind, won a Nobel Prize for his contributions to game theory) to real-life Canadian political cases.

Game theory assumes the "actor" under study - a customer, a prisoner facing punishment, a political party, an electorate - will seek to maximize its advantage by calculating the costs and benefits of possible actions. One tenet of game theory is the notion of the "minimum winning coalition" - that it's better if fewer actors share a prize than if more do, because the payoff for each player is bigger and because it's easier to hold a small coalition intact. Say either three players can share a one-dollar prize, or two can. Well, you'd really rather be in a two-player coalition: you can win 50 cents instead of 33, and you don't have to listen to the third guy whining all the time.

Flanagan showed that this is true in Canadian electoral politics, too. Governing majorities that greatly exceed half the seats in the Commons are rare. They hardly ever form outside a serious crisis like a war or depression. And, prone to squabbling, they tend to fall apart very rapidly indeed. "Of the four largest parliamentary majorities in Canadian history," Flanagan writes, "two fell apart spectacularly within one or two subsequent elections." While he cautions that "there is no iron law," he found "some tendency for larger-than-necessary coalitions to disintegrate."

In November 2003, Paul Martin took control of a pretty big Liberal majority and set to work making it bigger. Canada faced no depression and no war. Martin wanted to grow his tent into red-meat Alberta and the most nationalist corners of francophone Quebec. Flanagan could have told Martin how perilously rickety that coalition was. But then, Flanagan doesn't grant interviews.

Martin cannot be blamed if he dreamed big for his own party, but perhaps he can be blamed for giving his opponents such a big target. Like the redcoat armies of British colonial days, the Martin Liberals were so bright and so slow-moving their enemies saw them coming and got organized.

Hugh Segal is a veteran Progressive Conservative strategist whose 1998 book Beyond Greed argued, essentially, that the Reform party was an extremist caste that must be kept away from the good china. So I was pretty surprised when I joined him for a beer in Montreal last September and he launched into a monologue about the necessity of getting the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties together. Martin's desire for an early spring election was Ottawa's most open secret. Segal's new thesis was that the two conservative parties had better hang together, because Martin would assuredly hang them separately.

"You know the old notion," Segal said in late June when I reminded him of that chat. "A gallows in the morning focuses the mind. The notion of Martin sweeping up a lot of middle-right voters was so compelling that unless the two parties got together to offer a coherent alternative, we were cooked."

Others were way ahead of Segal. As early as May 2003, Brian Mulroney told Progressive Conservatives in the throes of a leadership race that they should "turn the page" on old feuds and be "open and magnanimous" in the search for "potential allies." That race seemed to end badly, with Peter MacKay promising David Orchard in writing that he would not discuss merger with the Alliance. But Harper cannily offered PCs a choice: an alliance with the anti-free trade crusader Orchard, or an alliance with the Alliance. By the time Martin's government was sworn in on Dec. 12, a new coalition was forming to fight his own.

FOR ALL OF THAT, Martin's early wounds as prime minister were inflicted not by the newly coherent Conservatives, but by himself. His soaring rhetoric of revolutionary change contrasted starkly with his stubbornly prosaic administration. His big-tent talk clashed with his apparent disdain for Liberals who had been too close to Chrétien.

Despite Martin's long years of preparation for the top job, the government's early months were chaotic. One chief of staff to a Martin minister says it took six calls to the Prime Minister's Office to get any action on a promise Martin had made in his Throne Speech. Another recalls a panicky call from the same PMO: "We need to announce something. What have you got?"

The basic problem, according to John Godfrey, Liberal MP for Don Valley West, was that nobody in the Martin entourage ever thought they'd actually have to govern before an election. The first Martin government was an improvised, interim affair; there'd be a more serious rethink once Martin had put the small matter of an election behind him. "We were trying to show a new face and a new structure of government - but nobody ever thought it was going to be the final form," Godfrey said during the campaign. "So it was built for the short haul, not for the long haul."

And then the, er, haul lengthened. In February, Auditor General Sheila Fraser brought down her catastrophic audit of the Chrétien government's sponsorship program in Quebec. Strategists will be debating Martin's response to the so-called Adscam scandal forever. What's surprising is that, at first, some saw the audit as a golden opportunity to distance Martin from Chrétien. "Isn't this the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that you're an agent of change?" Herle asked Don Newman on CBC Newsworld five days after Fraser's audit was released. "Isn't this the perfect kind of issue on which to say, 'Here is something that happened in a previous government - under a different administration - and as soon as it's come out, here's the actions I've taken.' To me that is an agent of change."

Change! When Chrétien loyalists began to grumble that Martin seemed intent on tarring their man and firing his lieutenants, Martin loyalists responded that the Liberal party could either own change or be buried by it. John Duffy, the Martin camp's house historian, sent an op-ed piece to the Globe and Mail: "Liberals in the past couple of years have been understandably anxious at the prospect of seeking a fourth mandate in the face of a wave of political change that has now defeated five provincial governments from B.C. to Newfoundland and Labrador." When choosing between respect for cozy Chrétienite habits and change that risked putting noses out of joint, Martin must "tilt" toward change, Duffy wrote.

The polls were a disaster. The Liberals' mood was fractious. Martin put off an election as long as he could, but with a barely functioning government and a large number of Liberal MPs ready to retire, he would have had a very difficult time delaying until autumn or later. "There's a bit of The Guns of August," Godfrey said. "The trains are starting to roll toward the front, and at a certain moment there's no calling them back. You have to open your own campaign office and become part of the problem."

ON MAY 23, Martin called his election. He could not have looked more nervous at Rideau Hall: announcing the date of the vote, he misspoke three times. Three days earlier in Montreal, he had accepted the nomination as candidate for LaSalle-Émard with a similar display of nerves. "Compared to Mike Harris, Stephen Harper is a moderate," he said in French, before correcting himself. "Oh no. It's the other way around."

But soon enough the Martin Liberals got their attack lines straight. It was no great challenge: they were simple lines. Harper, the story went, was an unreconstructed Reformer who could not be trusted on social rights, bilingualism or economic management. The Liberal ad campaign told newspaper readers the election was about "which Canada" they would choose. Cabinet ministers with higher-than-average credibility were trotted out to critique the Tories. John McCallum, a former bank economist, took shots at Harper's tax-cut plan. Irwin Cotler, a crusading civil-rights lawyer turned justice minister, critiqued Harper's faith in the Charter of Rights.

Martin dove into this critique with unmistakable gusto. He showed only fitful interest in his own program and his party's record. Hours after Martin released his platform in his hometown of Windsor, Ont., near the end of the campaign's second week, he appeared again in front of reporters in Montreal to warn that Harper couldn't be trusted to protect a woman's right to choose on abortion. It was an extraordinary spectacle: a party leader chasing his own platform off the top of the news.

But then, there was a lot of that going around. Harper released his own platform on a Saturday. Chrétien's staff used to have a rule: when your opponent is beating himself up, don't help. For half the campaign it was Harper's central tenet. He kept his appearances to a bare minimum, and stuck stubbornly to a simple script about Liberal "waste, mismanagement and corruption."

On the ground, Liberal candidates were getting pummelled. It was worst in Ontario, where Premier Dalton McGuinty released a tax-boosting budget on the eve of the campaign. In Burlington, Liberal incumbent Paddy Torsney liked to start each morning waving at cars. "The first week was brutal with the Dalton stuff," she said. "People were very angry. I got more [middle] fingers than I needed to, the first morning's waving."

Independently and across the country, Liberals made a spontaneous decision: if Martin wasn't going to emphasize the Liberals' record, they would. "Change" would mean them losing their seats. They campaigned on continuity. Torsney's Web site sprouted a slogan: "Keep a good thing going." Should that have been the party's message from the beginning? "Yeah," she said.

In Quebec, Martin had imposed radical change on his party. It wasn't helping. Jean Lapierre, a Bloc Québécois co-founder who returned to the Liberals as Martin's hand-picked lieutenant in the province, wanted to broaden the tent by reaching out to francophone nationalists. Instead, he became one-stop shopping for gaffes that made him less than credible among nationalists. And what Martin and Lapierre didn't seem to understand was that the latter's presence was deeply offensive to many Quebec federalists - the core of Liberal support in the province. Being a federalist in Quebec in the early '90s meant believing in Canada when believing in Canada wasn't fun or popular or easy. Lapierre seemed emblematic of a Liberal party that had broken faith with its hardiest foot soldiers.

In the campaign's last week, Senator David Smith lamented that the party hadn't worked harder to shore up its federalist base before taking a flyer on people who almost never voted Liberal. Chrétien appointees such as Stéphane Dion and Pierre Pettigrew were more prominent in the campaign's last days, but Smith worried that it was perilously late.

"The fact that they were Chrétien loyalists is incidental and should be incidental," he said. "What counts is, they're federalists. If we could get out our traditional federal vote in Quebec, we're going to do better than if we don't get them out. And I think there's been a recognition of this."

Smith, who has worked closely with every Liberal leader since Lester Pearson, sighed. "But it's a little late."

Still, better late than never. Dion was hauled out of mothballs and sent campaigning, not only in Quebec but across the country. Martin discovered a hitherto well-concealed fondness for bilingualism, the Clarity Act, the fiscal track record of the last Liberal decade, and the decision to stay out of Iraq. And crucially, Conservatives kept acting the way Martin warned they would.

In an Ottawa café, days before the vote, Donne Flanagan paused to ponder the other parties. Flanagan used to work for Gary Doer in Manitoba before becoming Layton's chief of staff. "Until this past weekend [the second-last of the campaign] the Conservatives were running it textbook - and then they f...ed up," Flanagan said, pointing to the attempt to paint Martin as being lenient on child pornography. "I think child porn crystallized the fear that was always there but never had traction," he said.

In Manitoba, Reg Alcock took a break from door-knocking to take a call from a reporter. "I tell you, that element of fear has entered the conversation the last two or three days," the burly Martin cabinet minister said. " 'I'm afraid of this guy ...' - you know, that kind of stuff." A week later, the returns came in. The Conservative vote, and especially the NDP vote, were lower than expected. The Liberal vote came in higher. Martin's grand coalition was not to be, but he had lived to fight another day.

AT MID-CAMPAIGN, a nasty bit of gossip had begun circling among Chrétien people in Ottawa: Martin's fate would depend on the campaign's outcome. "There's three zones," one loyalist said. "A Green Zone, a Grey Area, and a Go Zone. If he gets 130 to 135 seats, he can keep the leadership, the party will rally and we'll try to win a majority later. At about 125, that's the Grey Area. What are we gonna do? Hard to say. And if he gets about 115, that's the Go Zone. There'll be calls for him to do the honourable thing."

Martin won 135. He made it to the Green Zone. He did it by resuscitating huge elements of the Chrétien legacy and appealing to the core Liberal values that no Liberal leader could afford to ignore. He stowed his talk of change - was there a single voter who believed he would fix health care for a generation? - and took a late assist from the self-destructing Conservatives. And on election night, of 174 MPs from all parties who sought re-election outside Quebec under the banners of the major parties, 154 were re-elected. That's an 89 per cent return rate.

Change lost on June 28. Yet Paul Martin managed to win. It's funny the way things work out.

It's Not That Easy Being Green

Kermit has a point. If Canada had proportional representation, the Green party's 4.3 per cent of the popular vote would have translated into a dozen MPs instead of none. The NDP would have gotten a big boost, too. How would the House look if, as NDP Leader Jack Layton advocates, seats were allocated based on each party's popular vote, rather than the existing first past the post system?

Party Current seats Proportional seats

Liberal 135 116

Conservative 99 92

Bloc 54 37

NDP 19 49

Green 0 12

Independent 1 2

Source: Elections Canada. Maclean's calculations based on provincial or territorial tallies, for parties or independents with more than one per cent of the vote.

Maclean's July 12, 2004