If Justin Trudeau loses, it will be because of Andrew Scheer’s secret weapon

Paul Wells on how the Conservatives’ hopes of dislodging the Liberals ride on a little-known operative who has beaten long odds—and a budding wedge issue

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Andrew Scheer (left) and Justin Trudeau. (Justin Tang/CP; Chris Young/CP)

“What’s Hamish Marshall’s title again?” I asked a Conservative MP over after-work beverages in Ottawa in late July.

“National campaign manager.”

“And when does he start campaigning?”

“He’s campaigning now. A bunch of micro-campaigns—messages to target audiences on several issues to test phrasing and collect email signatures.”

On the Conservative party’s website, there’s a link that takes visitors to the party’s “One Term Trudeau Fund”—really just another window into the Conservatives’ constant fundraising drive. Every party runs similar operations through their websites. The Conservatives have been more successful lately. In the second quarter of 2018 they raised $6,045,466, nearly doubling the Liberals’ $3,099,218.

They’ll need the cash, and some luck. In 2019, Andrew Scheer, whose near-anonymity was the central feature of national press coverage when he became the Conservative Party of Canada’s leader in May 2017, will try to stop Justin Trudeau’s stint in office after a single majority mandate. Conservative sources say they’re playing to win. Okay, what else would they say? But they’ve also begun identifying weaknesses on the Liberal side and methods for exploiting them. Only three years after a hard defeat, with an untested new leader, they’re starting to wonder whether it’s okay to hope.

The opposition party has a big weapon: growing resistance to a signature Trudeau Liberal policy, the plan to impose a carbon tax on provinces that refuse to put their own price on carbon.

And Conservatives acknowledge they’re worried about an unlikely Liberal ace in the hole: the president of the United States, Donald Trump.

READ MORE: Maclean’s Live with Andrew Scheer—Paul Wells in conversation with the opposition leader

We’re going to unpack all of that for you. But before we get into a bunch of fancy hypotheses, it’s only fair to acknowledge that a plan to win isn’t the same as a guarantee. There’s a very good chance that next year’s federal election ends with the Trudeau Liberals’ re-election.

When Canadians elect a new government with a majority, it normally takes them more than four years to give up on the party that forms that government. The only exceptions in the history of the country were R.B. Bennett, who got elected with a majority in 1930 and then lost the next election in 1935; and Alexander Mackenzie, who won a majority in 1873 and was thrown out of power at the next election, in 1878.

Both Bennett and Mackenzie, incidentally, were defeated by the men they themselves had just defeated. Bennett defeated William Lyon Mackenzie King’s Liberals, only to lose to King at the next confrontation. Mackenzie seemed to have ended Sir John A. Macdonald’s political career, only to lose to a Macdonald comeback.

If history is any lesson, the biggest danger to Trudeau would have been a Stephen Harper-led Conservative Party of Canada. Of course, Harper won’t be his party’s leader next year. What Scheer is trying to do—hold Trudeau to a single term in an office Scheer himself has never occupied—is unprecedented.

READ MORE: Andrew Scheer’s little tent

Conservatives get that. In private, they acknowledge that the task before them is daunting. What gives them hope is a string of polls showing the two parties are consistently close in national support. The polls also show that after a year of difficult headlines, a bit of bloom is off the second-generation Trudeau rose. And they know the Liberals’ biggest fight is still ahead of them: their plan to implement a national carbon pricing regime, complete with a federally imposed carbon tax in provinces whose governments refuse to co-operate, by the end of 2018.

It’s a fight Conservatives—Scheer’s party in opposition in Ottawa, and sympathetic Conservative parties at the provincial level across the country—plan to make as difficult as possible. Liberals are, naturally, focusing on the environmental benefits of dissuading Canadians from using fossil fuels. Catherine McKenna, the environment minister, is fond of saying that “our kids deserve better” than a party with no plan to tackle carbon emissions.

Conservatives take a simpler tack: Nobody likes to pay a tax, and a carbon tax will feel like any other tax when you pay it.

The man who’ll help the Conservatives make the case is Marshall, a bookish Oxford M.B.A. who’s had a succession of jobs in boutique advertising and consulting firms since he left a job as Harper’s chief pollster early in Harper’s first term in office.

Supporters take their seats during the opening night of the federal Conservative leadership convention in Toronto on Friday, May 26, 2017. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Scheer has faced criticism for keeping Marshall on as his campaign manager, because Marshall used to serve on the board of Rebel Media, the virulently anti-immigrant and intermittently race-baiting internet “news” service run by Ezra Levant. I know that whenever I write about Scheer, somebody on Twitter demands that I pay more attention to the Conservatives’ ties to Rebel. But Marshall was never a Rebel commentator, and guilt by association may not be the most interesting thing about Marshall.

READ MORE: Hamish Marshall on cutting ties with The Rebel

The most interesting thing about Marshall is that the 2019 campaign won’t be his first. He ran Scheer’s campaign for the leadership, for instance. But he also helped lead a less-noticed campaign in 2015: the “no” side of a referendum battle in the Vancouver region in which voters were asked to support a new 0.5 per cent sales tax to pay for an ambitious $7.5-billion regional transit plan.

When the campaign began, the “yes” side had the support of just about every mayor in the region, most news organizations and a powerful business coalition. The “no” campaign was run by Jordan Bateman of the B.C. branch of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and by Marshall. At the outset of the campaign, they were way behind in the polls. Throughout it they were massively outspent by the well-funded “yes” coalition. At the end, “no” won by 24 points.

Listen to Paul Wells talk about the Conservatives’ secret weapon on The Big Story podcast.

Learn more at The Big Story Podcast.

And then they wrote a book about it all.

Everyone… But the People: How Everyday Taxpayers Overcame Vancouver’s Elite and Defeated the TransLink Tax isn’t a page-turner. It’s a deeply self-congratulatory account by two young men of their big victory over the forces of better urban transit. But it’s also the only book-length account I’ve ever seen, before a national election campaign, describing how one of the national parties’ campaign managers likes to frame and win elections.

Nobody in Ottawa ever talks about Bateman’s and Marshall’s book. Sometimes the best trade secrets are hiding in plain sight.

Everyone…  But the People calls Marshall “a calm, even-keeled presence on any campaign.” (Bateman would have written that passage: each of the co-authors wrote the passages describing the other.) “Hamish is not afraid of being creative, realizing that it takes a lot to cut through the clutter facing voters.”

Marshall began the TransLink campaign with a detailed poll of the region’s voters. Who was likelier to trust the regional agency that would administer the improved transit plan, and who was likelier to be mad about a new tax? “Better views of TransLink mapped almost perfectly to the demographic profile of left-wingers: young, very well-educated, very poor or richer than average. People who saw TransLink as wasteful were more likely to live in the eastern suburbs, be male, over 35, be less well-educated and be middle income. This was a decent predictor of the eventual coalition that would defeat the TransLink tax.”

Bateman and Marshall tailored their campaign to those voters living away from downtown cores, less likely to read newspapers, relatively more likely to worry about every dollar of household expenses.

“The message we pushed . . . was designed to appeal to undecided voters who were not experts in transit,” Marshall and Bateman write. “The goal was not to persuade YES side activists or university professors or the elites crowding on to the YES bandwagon to switch their votes. We wanted everyday taxpayers.”

To that end, Bateman never called the plebiscite a transit referendum in public: for the “no” coalition, it was only a TransLink referendum, because the agency’s wasteful spending habits had provoked voter suspicion for years. Winning a campaign is, in part, about framing a ballot question. So this one wouldn’t be about “transit,” which is attractive, but about taxes, which aren’t, and “TransLink,” which was perceived as inefficient and wasteful. The agency’s board obliged by firing the CEO of TransLink a month before ballots were mailed out, which only validated the “no” campaign’s message.

So the target voters were less-educated commuters. The message was to ignore the proposed benefits and concentrate uniquely on the unpalatable method, a tax, and the untrustworthy vehicle, the transit agency. And for a cash-strapped campaign, the choice of a campaign medium was crucial.

In a choice that will not surprise anyone running a modern campaign for any party, Marshall and Bateman leaned heavily on Facebook. “Twitter is great for getting a message out to the media and thought leaders, but poor for reaching everyday, severely normal people,” Marshall and Bateman write. “It’s also virtually useless as a persuasion tool.”

Those attributes are almost completely reversed on Facebook. “The everyday people are on Facebook. More than 70 per cent of adults in the Lower Mainland are active on Facebook. Regular people use it to discuss the issues of the day, but since Facebook is mostly private, those discussions never appear in the press.”

With their tight focus on message, target voters and medium, Bateman and Marshall started to eat away at the pro-transit coalition’s lead. Inevitably this provoked a backlash. Bateman, the campaign’s public face, “was accused of being against everything, of being a front for the oil companies, of being ‘Dr. Evil,’ of wanting to destroy the region, of wanting to confine people to cars, of wanting to privatize TransLink, of taking money from the infamous Koch billionaires, of driving an SUV . . . and almost anything else you can think of.” Marshall was criticized, too, for his connections to the Harper government. He told Bateman not to worry about the attacks.

“Hamish was right,” the co-authors write. “We were not on the ballot, and by trying to make us an issue, the YES side wasted valuable time, resources and media coverage that they could have used to make their case. It was yet another example of the YES side knocking themselves off message.”

The view from Hamilton’s ArcelorMittal Dofasco steel mill, toward Toronto. (Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star /Getty Images)

The parallels between the 2015 TransLink referendum and a possible Conservative campaign against a Liberal carbon tax are obvious. Already the Conservatives are ignoring the putative climate benefits of a carbon tax and concentrating on the fact that it would be a tax. The Conservatives are, like every party, active on Facebook, not only on carbon taxes but on a range of issues: gun control, the pro-choice requirement on the summer jobs program, and others that appeal deeply to different elements of the Conservative voter base.

Conservatives aren’t sure how much of their campaign will focus on carbon taxes. It’s way too early to eliminate a range of contingency plans. Harper told associates that the 2008 campaign, in which he defeated Stéphane Dion’s Liberals, was about three things in five weeks: general affordability and cost-of-living questions at first; then the continent-wide banking collapse as an economic management issue; and then jobs, as a major recession loomed.

READ MORE: The conservative case for a carbon tax in Canada

For now, Conservative sources say the carbon tax may play simply as part of what one calls “a broader narrative of affordability.” But if gas prices keep going up, carbon taxes could be the very centre of the campaign. And if that happens, the campaign could resemble nothing so much as the great 1988 free-trade election, deeply polarized between two sides of a major national dispute.

Would the Conservatives be sure to win that? Not at all. And several mentioned a big concern. “The Liberals have, literally, a Trump card,” one said. When Trump started virulently criticizing Trudeau after this June’s G7 summit in Quebec’s Charlevoix region, a long Liberal slide in national polls flattened out. There’s a rally-round-the-flag effect when such a flamboyant antagonist picks a fight with any national leader. “George W. Bush was unpopular,” one MP said. “Trump is all-consuming.” In a Trudeau vs. Trump fight during a national campaign, “we’d be struggling for any kind of oxygen in national coverage.”

But surely Trump would be as unpredictable a foil as he is an ally. The Liberals have shown no ability to switch him on and off like a household toy. Meanwhile, they’re proceeding, with no evident relish, to implement a new national tax in the prelude to a re-election campaign. Their opponents are watching, and waiting for their chance.