How the Conservatives plan to turn a minority into a majority

Doug Finley on Harper’s election playbook

Harper’s playbook
Sean Kilpatrick/CP

From his second-floor office in Parliament’s East Block—once John A. Macdonald’s lair and still appointed with some of his furniture—Sen. Doug Finley has a direct sightline across Wellington Street to Stephen Harper’s office in the Langevin Block. He points out the Prime Minister’s window for a visitor. Asked if they ever wave to one another, Finley deadpans, “Not much.” Neither man is known for his playful gestures.

What they are known for is partnering to reshape the federal political landscape. But that relationship is now changing. Finley, 64, is undergoing chemotherapy for colorectal cancer, and is stepping down as Harper’s campaign director. He’ll remain, though, a key adviser to the Tory machine, which he largely assembled and kept oiled for eight years. He recently summed up his role this way: “I’m not the world’s greatest strategist, or the world’s greatest pollster, or the world’s greatest advertising man, but somebody has to pull these bits together.”

That’s a deceptively chipper job description for a notoriously hard-driving party boss. Finley’s few moments in the public spotlight solidified his reputation as a tough customer. He was once ushered out of a House committee room by security, after he showed up at hearings demanding to testify according to his own timetable, refusing to wait to be called. He banished would-be Tory candidates who didn’t meet with his approval. He lashed out at the CBC in a fundraising letter to Conservative supporters.

But in a rare interview with Maclean’s last week, Finley sounded like the methodical backroom organizer Tory insiders talk of in awestruck tones, rather than the intimidating figure who occasionally emerged to brief bursts of media attention. He sketched a road map to majority that the party will surely try to follow in the next election.

His starting point is elementary election arithmetic. Of the 308 seats in the House, each of the Conservative, Liberal, NDP and Bloc Québécois parties, he reckons, can reasonably be allocated about 40 seats at the outset of a campaign. That leaves just 148 up for grabs. So to claim a majority, the winner would need to grab 115 of those ridings. “To win 115 of 148 seats is a huge, huge undertaking,” Finley says. There’s no clear sign of either party cresting toward the roughly 40 per cent of the popular vote needed to accomplish that feat. Conservative and Liberal polling numbers have remained stubbornly consistent since the 2008 election, the Tories in the mid-thirties, the Liberals in the high twenties.

Still, that puts Harper several precious percentage points closer than Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff to majority territory. To get the rest of the way, Finley says, means converting voters who can’t be easily corralled under either of the two parties’ banners. “There’s a sizable group of people, perhaps enough to sway an election, who could be Blue Liberals or Red Tories,” he says. How to switch Liberal voters in that centrist group to his side? With a gruff laugh, Finley says they must be “transmogrified”—the trick Calvin, of the defunct Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, while playing a spaceman, accomplished using a hair drier as a ray gun.

In the political playground, the tools used to transform voters aren’t so harmless. Attack ads have been a hallmark of Finley’s style. The most recent batch of Tory TV ads again take aim at Ignatieff’s character. They accuse him of returning to Canada, after about three decades in Britain and the U.S., not to serve his country, but to satisfy his ambition. The acerbic tag line: “He didn’t come back for you.”

Other party tacticians might shy away when asked directly about the bruising side of their trade. Not Finley. “Most modern politics, campaigning now—it doesn’t matter where you go—is warfare,” he declares. “People say, I don’t like negative ads, and these guys like negative ads. Well, you go to the United States, you go to the United Kingdom, you go to Australia—their advertising, their approach, in many ways is many times more adversarial than ours.”

Finley, however, isn’t only about going negative. He stresses three big messages for the Conservatives—”strengthening the economy, strengthening the military, strengthening communities.” And he pinpoints the sorts of voters he hopes will respond. Finley’s approach is to identify “tranches” of winnable ridings, based on close analysis of voter demographics. Suburban seats remain the key prize, as they were in the 2008 election, and within the burbs “new Canadians” and “soccer moms” draw Finley’s closest attention.

On winning over immigrant voters, he praises the patient groundwork done by Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and, not incidentally, Kenney’s predecessor in that portfolio—Finley’s wife, Diane Finley, now human resources minister. Immigrants used to be bedrock Liberals. Finley claims the Tories have won many over by pointed reminders that “their values—family, hard work, entrepreneurism, etc.—are very similar to Conservative values.” As for those sought-after soccer moms, Finley says they crave safe communities for their families. So he expects the Tories’ ongoing push for longer prison terms for a wide range of crimes, along with more police, to appeal to them. Across many demographics, he sees economic policy as the Conservative brand’s backbone. “We’ve proven that our attention to our knitting, which is particularly the economy, job creation, tax reduction, is resonating with the Canadian public.”

Finley only sounds like a lifelong conservative. He grew up in Scotland, where as a young man he backed the Scottish Nationalists. Arriving in Montreal in 1968 as a manager in the aerospace industry, he was soon volunteering on Liberal campaigns. In the early 1980s, Finley moved to Winnipeg, and shifted to the right in politics, first to the Progressive Conservatives, then to Reform. By the 1990s, he was a Canadian Alliance organizer in southwestern Ontario, his wife’s home territory. When Harper merged the Alliance with the PCs in 2003, Finley became the united right’s linchpin organizer.

Since then, Harper has switched chiefs of staff often and shuffled his cabinet repeatedly. But the brogue and beard of his campaign director remained constants—until this week’s shakeup. Now Guy Giorno, who was Harper’s chief of staff until the start of this year, takes over as campaign chair; Jenni Byrne, the party’s director of political operations, becomes campaign manager. Finley expects to go on advising the duo replacing him, and take on special tasks they assign. His says doctors tell him his medical outlook is very promising. But if the government falls on its budget within the next few weeks, a possible scenario, he might still be in chemotherapy. “No matter what happens,” he says, “I will be an active contributor to the campaign.”

Whatever comes next, Finley played a central role in Conservative victories that came far faster than his boss expected. Back in 2003, Harper didn’t anticipate seriously threatening to oust the Liberals until after “at least one full election cycle, and by that I mean five years,” Finley recalls. But the 2004 sponsorship scandal fatally undermined Paul Martin’s run as prime minister, giving Harper’s new party a “kick start.” Finley’s disciplined operation, particularly superior fundraising, allowed them to seize their chance.

After five years in office, these Conservatives aren’t outsiders anymore. Harper’s Alberta roots no longer de?ne the brand. “Initially, there was a certain degree of, ‘We’re from the West,’ ” Finley says. “I think that’s very largely eradicated now.” Still, he has helped instill in Conservatives a reluctance to give up easily on their self-image as upstarts. It helps keep them motivated and unified. “We’re only, when all’s said and done, seven years old,” he says. “I don’t think we’ve become institutionalized.”

Maybe not. Yet Finley speaks those words in Sir John A.’s former office, now his own, where the winter sunlight is burnished by stained glass. It’s a grand space, redolent of insiderdom rather than insurgency. And Finley is, after all, a senator. Harper appointed him to the upper chamber in 2009, after abandoning his pledge to name only elected senators the previous year. Finley avows that he hopes Senate reform will one day put him out of a job or force him to stand for office.

As he steps aside as campaign chieftain, though, he finds himself an establishment figure—backroom sage of the party in power. He professes to find the aura that’s grown around him “a bit astounding.” Describing Harper as his own “prime strategist,” Finley calls himself, by contrast, “just an operations guy.” From a forceful political pro given to making persuasive statements, his claim is, for once, completely unconvincing.