The untold story of the 2011 election: Chapter 4

The election would soon turn on two key speeches: one by Ignatieff, one by Duceppe

Turning up the heat

Fred Chartrand/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 4: Turning up the heat

The Government Congress Centre across from the Château Laurier used to be the old Ottawa train station. In the 1960s, government planners decided they had a better idea and moved the trains out to a secluded corner of southeastern Ottawa. As is often the case with government planners, this was not, in fact, a better idea. They made taking the train a pain and left one of the grandest buildings in the Parliament Hill precinct nearly derelict. Sometimes men in suits shuffle in for conferences. Once a year, reporters are locked up in the old building for a few hours with sandwiches and copies of the federal budget. And for two nights in April, Stephen Harper faced his tormentors for the nationally televised leaders’ debates.

“There was a sense coming out of the debates last time”—in 2008—“that it was a four-on-one ambush,” a Conservative strategist said later. “Harper was under attack from all sides, and our positioning in the last debates was too defensive and we didn’t look our best. We knew that we would still face that three-on-one or four-on-one dynamic this time.” In the end it was three. Green party Leader Elizabeth May wasn’t invited. “The goal was to try and recast or reframe it so that rather than looking like we were the ones under attack, there would be a pivot away from the others, into the camera, to use the opportunity to drive the ballot question with the viewers at home. Number one, don’t make a mistake. Number two, try and strategically minimize the others by making a more direct connection with the viewer at home.”

And indeed, Harper spent the debate’s first night physically pivoting away from whoever was accusing him of something and staring into the camera. Angry Harper would come out if he fought back at his opponents, so he basically didn’t engage. “That’s simply not true,” he said again and again, before telling the home audience a tale of modest, responsible government that had not very much to do with whatever the other guy had just shouted at him.

For his part, Ignatieff spent most of the night turned toward Harper. The Conservative leader had spent two years making him hurt. Clearly for Ignatieff it was payback time. “You waste public money,” he said in one typical exchange. “That’s the issue. And that’s why the auditor general’s report is saying, not just that you wasted money, but you didn’t tell Parliament the truth about it.”

The surprise, perhaps, when Ignatieff came back to Canada, was that this veteran of Harvard and the BBC was not a wonderful debater. In fact, the Liberal leadership debates of 2006 suggested he kind of sucked at it. His skin was thin and his tendency to over-personalize the questions at hand was acute, so that once when Bob Rae made an offhand, not unkind remark about Ignatieff’s mother, Ignatieff wandered way off topic to defend his family’s honour. This horrified his young entourage, and when he became Liberal leader in early 2009, they actually scheduled rehearsal time to improve his game. Dwight Duncan, the Ontario finance minister, would show up for these rehearsals and pretend to be Stephen Harper. He would go up one side of Ignatieff and down the other, and gradually it became harder and harder to get Ignatieff to make time for the sessions. Eventually they stopped.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t cancel these debates.

In the English debate, Duceppe was off to one end. The luck of the draw plunked Layton down between Ignatieff and Harper. He was able to strike a more conversational tone. The others had to shout past him to get at each other. Layton set about making the populist pitch that had been the basis for Ignatieff’s “jets, jails and corporate tax cuts” attack. On the tax cuts: “You did get it through,” he said to Harper, “with the support of Mr. Ignatieff, who now, by the way, pretends to oppose the things that he voted for.”

Then he made a more general point. “I’m asking myself, because I remember a Stephen Harper once upon a time who came here to change Ottawa. Was going to stick up for the little guy. But you’ve become what you used to oppose.”

And, when his one-on-one with Ignatieff came, Layton bombed the democracy bridge. He talked about Ignatieff’s lousy attendance record for Commons votes, and by most accounts he probably stretched the truth of that record a bit. But the look on Ignatieff’s face, as the smile he happened to be wearing at the beginning of the indictment slowly curdled, was probably worth it. “You know, most Canadians, if they don’t show up for work, they don’t get a promotion,” Layton said, slipping in the shiv.

Now, here’s the thing: after that debate, when Layton cheerfully whacked Harper for selling out the common man and Ignatieff for needing a map and a guide to find Parliament, a surprising number of Canadians decided he was the only statesman on the stage.

The Angus Reid polling group ran a series of focus groups using an Internet-based response tool called Reaction Plus. For years pollsters have sat audiences down and made them watch debates with a dial to record whether they like what they’re seeing or not. Angus Reid measured their responses on 10 different axes to indicate whether they were “curious,” “engaged,” “confused,” “happy” and so on.

“The primary reaction of Canadians to the English debate was annoyance,” Angus Reid reported later. “Certain feelings, such as engagement, excitement, happiness and even interest, barely registered.” This would not come as any surprise to anyone who had been knocking on doors for a political candidate so far during the campaign.

The next bit is striking and, arguably, crucial, coming as it did after the Conservatives had spent $12 million destroying Michael Ignatieff’s good name and Ignatieff had devoted much of his own campaign to picking at the bones of Conservative misdeeds. “The level of annoyance grew markedly when the leaders attacked each other, and respondents reacted more favourably to the leaders when concrete policy statements were made, particularly in the areas of the economy, health care and education.”

Canadians were sick to tears of watching Harper and Ignatieff go at each other. “The level of interest and happiness definitely soars,” the Reaction Plus report read, “when attacks are avoided and the party leaders express their policy ideas in a clear and concrete fashion.” And despite his digs at Harper and Ignatieff, respondents felt Layton had done that the most.

The next night, the leaders debated in French. Angus Reid stored up a bunch of clips and showed them to focus groups wielding the 10-dimensional Web reaction thingy. “Respondents clearly reacted more strongly to some leaders and themes than to others,” the firm reported later. “Prime Minister Harper elicited strongly negative reactions, no matter what he was talking about. Duceppe and Layton inspire more interest and happy sentiments, whereas Ignatieff provokes a decidedly mixed reaction.”

That’s leaders. What about themes? Here again, Angus Reid found that attacking and interrupting were a bad idea. The audience was in a much better mood “when leaders outline concrete policies or talk about working collaboratively more.”

Take that as a guide, not merely to understanding the clips a focus group watched after the debates, but to understanding what happened next. Attacks may hurt the victim, but they hurt the attacker too. Co-operation is a big asset.

Leaning toward apocalypse

But this entire election was stacked to the rafters with leaders who wanted to do anything but co-operate. For two years Harper had said: give me a majority or anarchy will take this country down. It was a marvellously polarizing argument because a little less than half of the electorate—more than enough to give Harper a majority, if they all went his way—thought an opposition coalition would be the worst thing that could happen to Canada.

The rest, however, thought a coalition was a pretty good idea. There are coalitions in other countries, after all. Coalitions are about working together and overcoming differences. And what did those voters see when they looked at the alternatives to Harper? They saw Ignatieff, who offered them a red door and a blue door. They saw Duceppe, whose separatist party destroys the legitimacy of coalitions even when it wants to participate in them.

And then, as if for the first time, they saw Jack Layton, whose message was: you have a choice.

As for the other guys, they filed out of the Government Congress Centre and kept on whaling the tar out of one another. The Conservatives and Liberals released ads sounding the alarm about parallel threats to the nation.

The Liberals have always tended toward the apocalyptic in their diagnosis of an opponent’s plans. “Where would Harper’s cuts leave your family’s health? The stakes are too high,” the Liberal ad said, as a cardiogram line on the screen flatlined. This ad came out even though Ignatieff had not asked a single question about health care in question period in 2011, and even though the two parties had made similar pledges in statements from the leaders, but not in their platform documents, to keep increasing health care transfers at six per cent per year.

The Harper Conservatives have always preferred narrower incentives. “The iPod tax,” their ad said. Seventy-five dollars extra for some tunage! What a buzz kill. “It’s just the beginning of the coalition’s high-tax agenda.” Liberals, Conservatives and reporters set about merrily debating on Twitter whether the ad had any basis in truth.

The skirmishes continued. A Conservative student at Guelph University contested the legality of an advance polling station on campus. Overheated early reports claimed, falsely, that he had grabbed the ballot box and tried to make off with it. Helena Guergis, dumped from Harper’s cabinet and caucus and running as an independent, said she’d still like to be a Conservative again. He said no. Twitter buzzed merrily about all of this, as partisans called each other names in 140 characters or less.

Later, Ignatieff’s staff would admit what they did not see at the time: that all these five-hour outrages simply came across as white noise to a population looking for a government. De-emphasizing the “family pack” platform in favour of the so-called health scare ads? “The decision was made during the campaign,” a senior Liberal said, not as part of an advance plan. “It was getting difficult to get a break.” The platform just wasn’t getting any coverage. “It’s unfortunate for us because it was a pretty creative platform.”

But once the Liberals started changing channels they couldn’t stop. “The daily Tory scandals may have actually got us off-script. They became distractions, but not enough to cause damage [to the Conservatives].”

This was only evident in retrospect. For now, the Ignatieff campaign was running the way its leader did, riffing on whatever came up.

Then the weekend came and with it, two speeches: one by Ignatieff, one by Duceppe. They would turn the election. Neither in quite the way its author had hoped.

A tale of two speeches

On Friday, April 15, Ignatieff stood in the middle of a hotel ballroom in Sudbury, doing the town hall thing. “While I was on the bus this afternoon I found myself thinking about a wonderful singer called Bruce Springsteen,” he said. “Does everybody like Bruce Springsteen? I like Bruce Springsteen.” He told the crowd about a wonderful song called The Rising. And in that song there’s a wonderful refrain: ‘Rise up.’ ” As armchair Springsteen scholars would soon point out, that refrain is actually in My City of Ruins, but it’s a common error. “And I began thinking about it today. Because we’re in a funny place in this election campaign right now.”

Not really all that funny. Ignatieff was crouched forward, the not inconsiderable bulk of his tall body curving gently around the microphone in his hand.

“We’ve got a Prime Minister who shut down Parliament twice and Canadians kind of shrugged,” he said, quietly. “We’ve got a Prime Minister who’s found in contempt of Parliament. It’s never happened before in the history of our country and people say, kind of, ‘So what?’ We got a Prime Minister who tried to shut down the long-form census and people thought, that’s crazy, but kind of, ‘So what?’ And then we have a Prime Minister who just went out and smeared a member of his own caucus, tried to destroy her public reputation, and people say, kind of, ‘So what?’ ”

There was more in this vein. “And then,” he said near the end of his peroration, “we’ve got a situation where at Guelph university the other day, students lined up for two hours, some of them voting for the first time in their lives, to vote. And a Conservative operative tried to shut it down and stop it. And some smart Conservative lawyer downtown tried to write a letter to get 700 votes by Canadian students disallowed in a federal election in Canada. And people say, kind of, ‘So what, it’s just all political games, who cares?’ ”

Nobody travelling with the Liberal leader had planned or expected any of this. He used to be a broadcaster, after all. Not a great debater, but he does know how to ad lib. “And I kept hearing that refrain from Bruce Springsteen—Rise up. Rise up. Rise up, Canada!”

He nearly shouted this. The crowd began to clap, but Ignatieff kept going. “Why do we have to put up with this? Rise up! Rise up!…Rise up! This goes beyond partisan politics! This goes beyond the Liberal party! This is about our country! This is about our democracy! Rise up! Rise up!” By now the crowd was on its feet.

Later, on the flight to Regina, the campaign videographer showed the footage of the sermon to Peter Donolo, who clearly approved. The video guy then took his computer further forward, to the front of the plane where Ignatieff sat. The campaign crew made two decisions: first, get that Sudbury footage up on YouTube post-haste. Second, get more of the off-the-cuff Ignatieff in front of Canadians. This idea came from Patrice Ryan, one of the leader’s Quebec advisers, a son of former Quebec premier Claude Ryan.

The Liberals had been counting on the debates to turn the polls. They had done nothing of the sort. Now Ignatieff needed to pull something as big as the debates out of thin air. Right there on the flight to Regina they decided to buy a half-hour of TV time eight days hence, on Easter Sunday, to show Michael Ignatieff to Canadians once again.

But when the “rise up” video went online, with Ignatieff’s sermon accompanied by quiet inspirational music, the reaction from Conservatives was surprising. They started sharing the footage as widely as possible. “With any luck,” the party’s war room communications director Jason Lietaer wrote on Twitter, “this will go viral.”

Conservatives were persuaded that the spectacle of Ignatieff urging crowds to rebellion could look good only to Liberal partisans. “You’ve got Stephen Harper on the one hand saying times are dangerous and we need a stable government,” our Conservative war room source said later. “And then you got a guy yelling at people to rise up?”

Think back to the Angus Reid dial groups. “The level of annoyance grew markedly when the leaders attacked each other.” Here was Michael Ignatieff acting out the moments of the debate that felt the most like itching powder to the home audience.

Which brings us to Gilles Duceppe. The Bloc leader’s support had been a little soft so far in the campaign, but nothing too preoccupying. So he was not overly worried as he attended the national convention of the Parti Québécois in Montreal. Pauline Marois is that party’s leader. She leads the province’s struggling Liberal premier, Jean Charest, but given all his trouble and woe, she would probably be leading by more if she were not a profoundly unimpressive political performer. Still, the PQ is fresh out of better ideas for the moment, so on April 16, delegates gave her a resounding 93.08 per cent endorsement as their leader.

Duceppe had once flirted with competing against Marois for the PQ leadership, but now he could use her help, and her partisans’. The BQ often presents itself as a big tent within which all Quebecers are welcome, but now he decided separatist backbone was handier than ecumenical diversity.

“My friends, I say this often,” he told the convention. “Before being Péquistes and Bloquistes, we are all sovereigntists. We are going to finish the campaign side-by-side. More united then ever. We have only one task to accomplish. Elect the maximum number of sovereigntists in Ottawa and then we go to the next phase: electing a PQ government.”

He had not, in fact, been campaigning on a promise to make his party a cog in a great separatist scheme. This was something of a rebranding exercise. “A strong Bloc in Ottawa. A PQ in power in Quebec. And everything becomes possible again.” That last sentence echoed the “yes” camp’s slogan during the 1995 referendum, which had split the province against itself.

The crowd in the room loved it, as the crowd in the room had loved Ignatieff’s “rise up” speech. Partisans always love the partisan stuff. The people outside, who have had quite enough of feuds and quarrels, not so much. The day before Duceppe spoke, the daily Nanos tracking poll put the Bloc at 38.7 per cent support in Quebec. Within a week they would lose one-fifth of that support and fall to 30.3. And from there the collapse would only accelerate.

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