Are we in the midst of a great Canadian election?

A Q&A with John Duffy, the author of ‘Fights of Our Lives,’ about whether this exciting three-way race could be one of the all-time greats

John Duffy. (Andre Van Vugt)

John Duffy. (Andre Van Vugt)

Elections matter. At least, that’s the argument in the book Fights of Our Lives by John Duffy, a former adviser to former prime minister Paul Martin, who’s seen campaigns from the inside. In this interview with Maclean’s, Duffy discusses Stephen Harper’s long odds and the excitement of a true three-way race.

Q: So John, we’re at the midway point of this rather long campaign. Where would you say this one is set to rank, compared to past election fights?

A: I think it could rank very, very high, and it’s on course to become a great Canadian election. There are three criteria [I mentioned] in Fights of Our Lives 12 years ago that constitute a great election. The first is: Does the election deal with a great national issue or set of issues? The second is: Does the election move structural change in Canadian politics? And the third criterion, of course, was: Is it a good fight, is it compelling, is it fun to watch, does it get the juices going? And I think, on all three scores, campaign 2015 is shaping up to be a great one.

Q: How much of that is due to the fact that it’s—and correct me if I’m wrong—the first real three-way fight we’ve had?

A: That’s a big factor, Aaron, and that, by definition, almost qualifies this election as a great national one. It’s possible to say that 2011 was a great three-way fight, but nobody knew it until about two-thirds of the way through, when Jack Layton—may he rest in peace—made it into a fantastic three-way fight and nearly put the Liberals out for the count.

This one features a couple of things that are making it unusually important in the structure of Canadian politics. First, it is a three-way fight. Poll after poll show that the parties are essentially bunched up neck-and-neck, fighting it out riding by riding, region by region, street by street, house by house. Because of that, we’re likely to see coming out of this a reshaping of politics. At a minimum, you’re looking at  Canadian politics having transitioned from a two-and-a-half party system to a three-party system. That looks like it’s likely to occur at the end of the piece, although we’ll see what happens when the votes are counted.

The second thing that is so important here is the regional pattern. The NDP are now absolutely dominant in the province of Quebec. At this point in the campaign, they are continuing, it appears, to grow and gather the consensus of Quebec, particularly francophone Quebec, in their favour. The other pillar of the NDP coalition in Canada is British Columbia. Now, we have never seen before in Canadian politics a national party fundamentally based in British Columbia and Quebec. That’s an extremely unusual alignment, and it suggests an approach to politics that’s actually a tectonic shift, given the agendas of voters in those two provinces, which are a little bit different from those in the traditional heartlands of Canadian politics in Ontario and the island of Montreal and Atlantic Canada and Winnipeg. So there’s some big stuff happening out there.

    Q: I have two questions. One, can the NDP make that leap to government? But the other concerns the existential question of the Liberal party’s existence. Do you think the Liberal party has found a place it hasn’t had in the last few years?

    A: I think the Liberal party has been zig-zagging a bit over the past few years from coming off of its long period in government under Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Martin. And I think the Liberals have been wrestling with a couple of issues: economics, but also, in a funny way, the environment. The environment is playing a role in all of this that’s kind of deep and subtle. And I think what’s happening in British Columbia and Quebec has something to do with this. But for the Liberal party under Justin Trudeau, they have decided to be a party of the progressive centre, and emphasize that progressive aspect. That seems to be giving them a real lease on life in Ontario and in Atlantic Canada. It’s the same decision, actually, that the Ontario Liberal party made in choosing Kathleen Wynne as leader, and in the development of the policy offering that carried them to a majority.

    So the Liberals as a party of the centre-right is in eclipse right now. Definitely the formulation is the party of the progressive centre. That puts it in direct, head-to-head competition in the same space with the New Democrats. Normally, one would think that would have created a big enough political opening for the Harper government to be able to cruise into re-election. I think what’s happening in this election so far is that the thirst for change is so great that even two parties occupying essentially the same space are able to divide a large enough vote for change that they both appear to be viable contenders for national power. That’s how big the change market is right now: It can actually accommodate both McDonald’s and Burger King, leaving Harper as poor old China Panda saying, “Hey, anyone want an eggroll over here?”

    Q: Is the B.C.-Quebec coalition that the NDP is building a different kind of left-wing coalition than we’ve had in the past?

    A: I think so. Look, I’m from downtown Toronto, so I don’t want to go on at great length about the ins and outs of Quebec or British Columbia, which are both territories that have their own rhythms, and there are other people better qualified to talk about that than me. That said, environmental politics is extremely important in British Columbia. It’s a perennial theme. We know the importance of issues of that kind: land use, Aboriginal rights, pipelines, these kinds of things.

    In Quebec, as well, environmental consciousness is higher. Quebec is more of a clean-energy-oriented society. They invest seriously in that, as a province and as a society. And I don’t want to overstate this. In a riding like Kamouraska or the old Manicouagan up on the north shore of Charlevoix, people aren’t going around hugging trees. It’s not the same as the urban environmentalist sensibility in a Kitsilano or a Vancouver–Quadra. But there is an undercurrent of alignment around that issue in awareness and concern about the environment that’s pretty intriguing, if you’re looking at what connects British Columbia and Quebec in this NDP ambit. It’s kind of hard not to see that issue sticking out.

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    Q: How would you compare Stephen Harper’s situation to previous incumbents? It’s tough to win four terms in a row, but where does he fit in the historical context?

    A: Right now, he’s in very, very tough territory; I would say almost unprecedented. We didn’t have polling before the 1940s in this country, but to see an incumbent government at or below 30 per cent at the 10-year mark midway through a campaign is like one of those football situations where the commentator says, “Well, we’ve never seen, in playoff football, in the Super Bowl, a team that has ever overcome a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter, blah-blah.” So the odds are long.

    The other way to measure this is when people say, “Oh, but there’s a whole campaign to go.” Somebody smart pointed out to me the other day that no government has ever called a five-week election in this position in public opinion, unless they were constitutionally obligated to do so. So right now, Stephen Harper, if it were a normal-length campaign, wouldn’t call this election. Nobody would at 30 per cent. That’s the kind of territory the government’s in right now.

    However, five weeks is a very long time, and there’s a lot of room for the Conservatives to thwart that, to let a pivot happen. There are things in the Prime Minister’s body language that make me wonder if that isn’t what he’s trying to make happen. You can’t rule the Conservatives out; you never can, not under Harper. They’re really good. They’re really, really good.

    Q: For all the things that are unique about this election, how much in every campaign is history repeating itself? Do we end up reliving things a fair bit?

    A: Sure, we do. I mean, those eternal rhythms, they’re wonderful. They feel familiar. They’re part of the democratic spectacle, and I think they help bring engagement, actually: the sense of the leaves starting to fall and the conversation starting to turn to politics. We have a feeling in our bones almost like going back to school. So you do see a lot of recurrent story arcs.

    One thing that always changes, though, relentlessly, and is different every time, is the onset of technology. If there was one theme I was really struck by since I wrote Fights of Our Lives 20 years ago–if I were to write it again, I’d really spend more time thinking through and writing about what technology has done that changed the way the political game is played. The game now is so different from how it was played even 10 years ago when I was doing federal campaigns, let alone when I was learning this stuff at my professors’ knees 30 years ago in college.

    Q: We’ve had campaigns covered by radio and TV. How are campaigns waged now with the Internet?

    A: Start with what technology’s done to the electorate itself. It’s broken up traditional loyalties. Campaigns a hundred years ago were about mobilizing pre-existing power blocs of religious and ethnic groupings who all moved as a group, and it was a question of what deal you had to make to get that bloc to move. Those blocs don’t exist anymore. For all the talk about the Conservative base, that base has proven to be somewhat elastic. People thought that it was rock-solid, but if it had been, the Conservatives would be up in the mid-30s now—they’re not. Similarly, with the Liberals, we all thought that, once upon a time, francophones outside of Quebec, la Francophonie hors du Québec, was immutably, unchangeably, and forever Liberal. That’s not true anymore, either. When was the last time the Catholic vote mattered? I can think of some ridings in the Maritimes where Catholics and Protestants do vote differently, but that’s about it. Everywhere else in the country, these loyalties are now incredibly fluid. So technology is responsible. That technology and urbanization changed voting behaviour.

    Then you add to it the onset of technology as it’s used by the parties, and that stuff has completely changed the game. The people who are most important in campaigns now are less and less these big-picture narrative folks, and more and more people who have command of the literal machinery that hums and clicks and organizes voter contact and lets you target resources and messages in a way that’s much more persuasive and effective at a breakthrough level than anything that was done in the past. It’s breathtaking how fast the change is coming.

    Q: Obviously, election results have a fair bit to do with how you’re remembered as a political leader, but where do you think these leaders rank compared to the conflicts and personalities we’ve seen?

    A: It’s far too early to tell with Trudeau and Mulcair. They’re both rookies. For Mr. Harper, this election is going to be really important. If Harper comes through this thing and pulls this one out of the fire, he will certainly be one of the great tactical prime ministers, up on a level with these folks with nine lives like [Mackenzie] King. Jack Granatstein, the great historian of Canadian politics and military history, wrote that, under King, the prime ministry achieved tactical perfection. So Harper could sort of reach apotheosis if he manages to pull this out of the fire. Even if he doesn’t, he’s worked pretty assiduously to recreate the Conservative offering in Canada as much more confrontational, ideological, polarizing, Republican-style, more the U.S. Republicans and less the British Conservatives. So Harper is really, really reinventing conservatism in Canada in his own image and in that of the Reform Party. He will be, no matter what, remembered as an important figure in Canadian politics. [As for] his governing legacy, it’s far too early to judge. I would simply say that that is what voters are going to have on their minds on Oct. 19, among other things.

    Q: A common complaint during this campaign is that issues aren’t being discussed, or they aren’t being discussed very well. I feel as though that complaint gets made in every election. How do we put that in perspective?

    A: First of all, yes, you’re right: It’s always cool by the pool to say there’s no content in these elections. Sometimes there’s more, sometimes there’s less, and I’ll tell you why. The Harper government is so different from any other Canadian government in the past. John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker coined the phrase “the Laurentian consensus” to describe previous Canadian governments as being essentially of the same cloth. The thesis can be overstated, but there’s a fair bit of truth that there was more continuity than discontinuity in the rotation of governments in Canada up until Harper.

    Harper is a discontinuity moment. To use an Ontario example, it’s a lot like [former premier Mike] Harris. It’s a different coalition, it’s a different outlook. That means that, when a government like Harper’s is fighting for its life, as they are right now, something basic about the approach of the federal government to Canadian affairs and to the future course of the country is on the line. That doesn’t come down to any one single issue; it hasn’t yet, anyway. But you put together the Conservatives’ approach to climate change, taxation, the deficit, a laissez-faire industrial strategy, refugee policy, defence and security—it all feels pretty coherently of the clear conservative­—small C–movement right.

    And the other two parties have grouped fairly clearly and coherently around the progressive centre. That’s where they’re trying to be. So I think Canadians, at a gut level, understand there’s a basic question of approach, and one outcome or another will be very different, depending on the fate of the Conservatives.

    This interview has been condensed and edited. To hear the full interview, listen below.

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