The untold story of the 2011 election: Chapter 3

While the Liberals railed, the NDP stepped up
The velocity of indignation
Adrian Wyld/CP

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.

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Chapter 3: The velocity of indignation

Later, when everything went crazy and pollsters started projecting 100 seats for the NDP, the people running the other parties’ campaigns were still mystified about how it happened. Was it the debates? That’s when the New Democrats began a long, steady climb in the polls. But debates don’t usually blow a campaign wide open, and there wasn’t much in Layton’s performance that anyone could point to as a hall-of-fame moment.

Layton’s breakthrough had its roots in events long before the debates. By the campaign’s end, voters who had never expected to abandon their old allegiances were swinging toward Layton. His performance at the debates, and in the days after, scratched a very specific itch for those voters: a growing frustration with the politics of allegation and accusation that dominated Stephen Harper’s Ottawa. That frustration had been building before the campaign even began, and the 10-day period before the debates was just more evidence that something had to change.

For the Liberals it began on a bright note, with the release in Ottawa of the party’s electoral platform. Two years earlier, Ignatieff had told a reporter that the party’s next platform “is not a Red Book.” Now here he stood, waving a red book. Reaffirming basic principles might not be such a bad thing for a party that had taken a beating. This event played to several strengths of the current Liberal team. Ignatieff spoke off the cuff, and well. The event was webcast on the Internet (the party said nearly 10,000 people watched), so it felt modern. The platform’s themes and the event’s tone were reminiscent of the discussions during Ignatieff’s April 2010 thinkers’ conference in Montreal, so the Liberals looked like an organization with an attention span and some follow-through.

The centrepiece of the platform was a “Family Pack,” designed to pitch the Liberals as a party of modest, pragmatic activism. Five interrelated policies: tuition assistance, stronger pensions, a green renovation tax credit, family care, and a sort of gentle nod in the direction of public child care.

The platform was an effort to re-establish the party as a champion of working families. This was the “jets, jails and corporate tax cuts” line that Ignatieff and other Liberal MPs had been using since December. Ignatieff said Harper was so eager to throw money around on fighter jets, prisons and tax cuts that ordinary people had to wait for help. Public polls showed there was enough skepticism about every element of that troika that the Liberals could hope for some traction. “They had a pretty good narrative going on public policy choices,” one of Harper’s top advisers admitted. “They were set to go to the electorate with a choice where there was a difference between the parties—and the voters actually recognized that there was a difference.”

But the Liberals kept getting distracted by news that seemed to offer a quicker payoff. Scandals, some big, some small, every one irresistible to Liberals. While he was flitting from outrage to outrage, Ignatieff wasn’t speaking coherently about what Liberals would do as a government.

Where to begin? At the end of February, four senior Conservatives, including two senators, were charged under the Elections Canada Act with exceeding spending limits under the so-called “in and out” scheme. On March 9, Speaker Peter Milliken ruled that Harper’s government breached parliamentarians’ privileges twice. First, over the crudely rewritten memo to International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda; second, for refusing to answer questions on the cost of those jails and corporate tax cuts. Milliken had already found the government in breach for refusing to share documents relating to the alleged torture of Afghan detainees.

Then, in mid-March, the Aboriginal People’s Television Network broke a dynamite story over several nights: Bruce Carson, one of Harper’s most trusted former advisers, had lobbied Indian Affairs to land millions of dollars in water contracts for an Ottawa company where his fiancée, a former escort, worked.

A Liberal ad that ran before the campaign showed how hard it was to weave all these stories into a coherent narrative. The ad showed pictures of documents and a photo of a slouchy, glowering Harper. It was all a muddle. The voice-over would have to make the point.

Good luck with that. “Stephen Harper. He’s gone too far,” a woman’s voice said. “He’s refusing to fire his cabinet minister for forging documents and misleading Parliament. He’s shrugging off charges against his inner campaign circle, including senators and top advisers who could face jail time for breaking Canada’s election laws. He’s shut down Parliament to silence his critics. And now he’s dictating that the government of Canada should be called the Harper government.”

Huh? As the campaign wore on, the Liberals kept finding stuff to talk about that, a) made your head hurt if you tried to parse it and b) wasn’t their platform. It turned out Bruce Carson had been convicted of fraud five times before he became Harper’s chief fixer, which was three more than the number of convictions Harper claimed to know about before he hired Carson anyway. Meanwhile, the crowd control around Harper’s campaign events started to backfire. A steady trickle of headlines revealed that ordinary Canadians were being turned away from Harper events. In one case, the rejection apparently came because the RCMP had found a picture of the young woman in question standing with Ignatieff on her Facebook page.

So much for policy. Ignatieff started devoting large amounts of his town-hall events to welcoming, at Proustian length, anyone from any party who wanted to hear him. “It’s called democracy,” he would drawl in an odd, folksy accent from no known corner of the globe. In Toronto, Liberal adman Bob Richardson produced an online-only ad on a day’s notice: shots of a computer screen as somebody inspected, and then rejected, some innocent’s Facebook page. The “Hey Stephen Harper, Stop Creeping Me on Facebook” ad passed 100,000 views on YouTube within days.

Privately, these attacks drew mixed reactions from bemused Conservatives. After a few days of the ejections-from-rallies stories, Harper’s staff decided to be contrite. Giorno and Byrne found most of the complaints from the travelling press to be self-serving and not worth worrying about. But ordinary people were a different matter. “When [CBC-TV reporter] Terry Milewski is asking, ‘Why aren’t you letting me ask another question?’ we kind of like laugh at it,” the Conservative war room staffer said. “When Terry Milewski’s asking, ‘Why are you kicking people out of your rallies?’ we’re like, ‘This is not good. This needs to be fixed.’ ” After three days, Harper bit out a terse apology.

But even on more consequential stories about ethics, the calculation was that Liberals couldn’t draw blood because—well, because they were Liberals.

“Ethics is not a real wedge for the Liberal party,” a senior Conservative strategist said. “For an issue to be a wedge, you have to be on one side, the other guys have to be on the other, and the voters have to actually believe that you are on one side and the other guys are on the other.” Liberals couldn’t ever see this, but accountability and ethics were a lousy wedge for them. “It would only work if the voters actually thought the Liberal party was different on these issues. And I know [the sponsorship scandal] isn’t top of mind for most people right now, but the Liberal brand has not exactly been reinvented on this front. People think that they’re a bunch of scoundrels and we’re a bunch of scoundrels.”

Accusation and counter-accusation are frustrating in any era. What made this year different was the unprecedented velocity of the indignation. Laptop computer software has collapsed the cost of video editing almost to zero. YouTube and Facebook have made spreading these messages effortless. And just about every Ottawa reporter and senior staffers on every campaign had a Twitter account. Adding to the din was now as easy as typing 140 characters and hitting “send.”

The odd thing here is that the New Democrats were relative Twitter luddites. Brad Lavigne sent out 14 tweets in the entire five weeks of the campaign. Kathleen Monk, Layton’s communications director, sent out two or three in a day. Whereas on most days Giorno’s Conservative co-workers nearly had to pry the keyboard from his hands.

“He’s full of nervous energy and is obsessive,” the Conservative war room staffer said of Giorno, “and so he sees something and he just becomes obsessed with it. So his obsession is now Twitter. Here he is, he’s the campaign manager, but really, I would say, he spends 90 per cent of his time as the director of Twitter. It would be the equivalent of a cabinet minister really caring deeply about how their travel is booked and spending a lot of their time booking their own travel.”

Ready for their close-ups

By Monday morning, April 11, the English-language debate was a day and a half away. The Canadian Press newswire moved what would, in any normal month, have been a blockbuster story. “The Harper government misinformed Parliament to win approval for a $50-million G8 fund that lavished money on dubious projects in a Conservative riding, the auditor general has concluded. And she suggests the process by which the funding was approved may have been illegal.”

The little corner of Twitter devoted to Canadian politics promptly exploded. Accusations, spin, new revelations and unanswered questions from reporters started to ricochet across the ether. “The initial CP story was terrible for us because it accused us of illegality and contempt of Parliament. Contempt of Parliament is bad, illegality is terrible,” the Conservative war room staffer said later. “And so obviously a subsequent draft was leaked out.” The Conservatives found a later version of Sheila Fraser’s audit which reached almost all the same conclusions as the draft the Liberals had handed to CP, but in more decorous language. “That turned it into a process story as to who was the leaker. Competing drafts. That’s the sort of tactic of which Jenni Byrne would likely approve, because she knows how to make a quick decision. And she knows that sometimes when you’re losing, muddying the waters is considered a win.”

For war rooms, perhaps. Voters might be less inclined to pop the champagne corks. If only they had a choice. By coincidence, on the day before the auditor-general kerfuffle, the NDP started running an ad called, “You Have A Choice.”

At two minutes long, the ad aired only at NDP rallies and in those late-night free-time ad slots nobody watches. It did not produce the shift in attitude toward the NDP. But it almost certainly can help us decode it.

The ad is all text. For the first half, the background is Tory blue or Liberal red and the music is ominous. Blocks of text spell out the message. “For too long in Ottawa, scandals and political games have gotten in the way of getting anything done,” the text said. A little later: “And now other leaders are telling you that you have no choice. That you have to vote for more of the same.” Who could this be about? The screen helpfully displays a blue door and a red door, just as Ignatieff described them in his flop-sweat scrum. “Doesn’t sound right, does it?”

The tone of the music changes—to celestial trumpets. “They’ve been telling JACK LAYTON the same thing for over EIGHT YEARS,” the text reads. “Jack Layton has proven them wrong.” The blue background switches to orange. The doom music becomes peppy acoustic guitar, Layton’s preferred instrument for serenading trapped reporters on the NDP campaign plane. “Fighting for our families. Our veterans. Our seniors.” Here the content of the pitch changes, from hope to accomplishment. “New Democrats sit first or second in 104 ridings across Canada . . . ridings where only New Democrats defeat Conservatives.”

We’ll spare you the rest, except to note that in the ad’s remaining 45 seconds, the words “You can choose” appear five times.

You can choose. “I’ll never forget in 2008 when Mr. Layton started talking about applying for the job of prime minister,” Brad Lavigne said. “People said, that is not credible. And we didn’t care if the media thought it was credible. What we wanted to do was establish among the electorate that you have a leader here that you preferred. And you could vote for him locally to get him to that job. That was a path worthy of starting to build.”

Layton had been building for years, of course. With perfect hindsight, the former Toronto city councillor now looks like Aesop’s tortoise. In his first election as leader, in 2004, he nearly doubled the party’s anemic share of the popular vote, to 15.68 per cent, and grew from 13 seats to 19. By 2008, he was up to 18 per cent of the vote and 37 seats. Each gain was a disappointment compared to sky-high expectations, but it was still a gain.

In three by-elections last November, the NDP turned out very little of their vote. That persuaded both the Liberals and the Conservatives that Layton’s time had passed. The NDP leader had struggled with his health for more than a year, and largely sat out the squabbling about scandals and democracy that so fascinated the big parties and the press gallery. But all the while, Lavigne was preparing for the next step forward.

He assumed Layton would keep his core support of about 18 per cent of voters. He commissioned market research to tell him who might listen next. Respondents were asked to agree or disagree with the statement, “I would never vote for the NDP.” Those who disagreed, but weren’t yet NDP supporters, became the party’s target voters. If they all succumbed to Layton’s charms they might lift the party’s support to the mid-twenties. They tended to be older and a tad more affluent than the young renters of the NDP core. “They are in their 40s and 50s, and they are squeezed,” Lavigne said. “They’re simultaneously worried about their children and their aging parents.”

Preparing Layton for the debate was Brian Topp’s job. Most of the time he works for the show-business union ACTRA in Toronto. He spent many years as former NDP premier Roy Romanow’s chief of staff in Saskatchewan, and for some time he has written an online column for the Globe and Mail in which he annoyed Liberals and Conservatives by predicting Layton’s eventual triumph. In 2006 and 2008 he was effectively Layton’s campaign manager, but this year Topp stood back while Lavigne and Layton’s chief of staff, Anne McGrath, ran most of the campaign.

For the debates, Topp did what he often does first: he called Romanow for a reminder about how they used to do things in Saskatchewan. Romanow said long discussions of the strategic goals helped him before a debate. Rehearsing scripted smart-aleck answers just made him stiff and nervous. Layton had gone the scripted route in his first three leaders’ debates and had come off, sure enough, as a stiff and nervous smart-aleck. Topp asked whether he was prepared to wing it a bit more. You bet, Layton said.

“The format this year had changed,” Topp said later. “There would be a videotaped question from an ordinary Canadian, and then a direct exchange between two leaders, and a free-form exchange among all four. So we needed two sets of Lego blocks here. First, a substantive answer. We owed that person who had asked the question a substantive answer. And then in the plenary, saying some key things that brought out the differences with other leaders.”

Layton and Topp didn’t regard the one-on-one exchange with Harper as the only highlight of each debate. “In many ways, we had business with all three of the other leaders.” If an NDP breakthrough in Quebec was going to be blocked, Duceppe would do the blocking. Ignatieff had told the world he planned to play the same role outside Quebec. “The Liberal campaign was predicated on breaking our vote,” Topp said. “And also part of our vote is parked with the Liberals.” As for Harper, Layton had to appear plausible as an alternative prime minister.

Even with this more loose-limbed preparation, Topp still had Layton rehearse. Raymond Guardia, an ACTRA colleague of Topp’s who was the party’s Quebec campaign director, played Harper in the mock debates. Karl Bélanger, a Quebec City native who was Alexa McDonough’s spokesman before he joined Layton, played Gilles Duceppe. Two of the party’s press guys, Drew Anderson and Marc-André Viau, took turns as Ignatieff in the two official languages. “They were new to simulating Ignatieff, and it was a different guy who showed up every time, which made them actually a lot like him,” Topp said.

Okay, maybe they did script Layton’s answers just a bit. Ignatieff would present himself as a champion of democracy, Topp said, “because for about five days the Liberal campaign was about democracy.” Well then. “How do you bomb that bridge?” There had been stories in the papers only recently about Ignatieff’s lousy attendance record for votes in Parliament. This was simple physics: he had spent months learning how to do a leader’s tour, and you can’t be in two places at once. Still, “That seemed to me to be a vivid way to make our point,” Topp said. “Mr. Ignatieff talks a lot about democracy, but he’s got lead boots.”

Freshly rehearsed and relaxed in the Romanow manner, with just a touch of scripting, Layton entered the Ottawa Congress Centre on the evening of Tuesday, April 12.