It was a telling moment. Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals had just brought down the government. The Conservative war room had shown its hand, the phrase “reckless coalition” welded into every minister’s media lines, an automatic response whenever the word “Liberal” was uttered. Here was Michael Ignatieff’s chance to scotch Conservative claims that, given the option, he would depose another Harper minority and seek to form a coalition to govern with the NDP and Bloc Québécois. And Ignatieff, former journalist, author of umpteen books on international affairs, former Harvard professor, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and all-round smart guy, blew it. There is a “blue door and a red door,” said Ignatieff in a non-answer so classically evasive that the scent of a self-inflicted wound set the Hill reporters into full howl.

By the following morning, Ignatieff was back before the national media clarifying that he would indeed not form a coalition government. Thus began the official election campaign of 2011.

Yet the unofficial campaign had been going on for weeks. Indeed, Harper’s Conservatives had not stopped campaigning since they first assumed power in 2006, missing no opportunity to demonize and discredit any threat, perceived and real, from the opposition benches. Ignatieff in particular had been targeted, as had Stéphane Dion before him, as an intellectual snob. It had worked before and, if anything, Ignatieff was more vulnerable. He had spent the best part of his adult life outside Canada working as a so-called public intellectual. So the Conservative attack machine got some traction, especially with its base, when it kicked into gear with the endlessly repeated tag line “Michael Ignatieff. He didn’t come back for you.” The inference, of course, was that Ignatieff had “come back” to fulfill a personal agenda, a grab for power as might befit the patrician heir to a Russian aristocratic line, a prince in waiting.

That Ignatieff and the Liberal message machine did not hit back with an equally forceful line of attack ads targeting Stephen Harper is one of the enduring mysteries of this campaign. Stéphane Dion had never recovered from a similar pre-campaign ad blitz after failing to understand that a leader must define him-or herself in the public imagination or risk being defined negatively by his adversaries. For reasons known only to God and the Liberals, Ignatieff chose to keep his powder dry. Only when the campaign was officially underway would he appear to Canadians as a pretty likeable guy, not terribly pretentious. Heck, he could even look reasonably comfortable serving up a plate of hot dogs, dressed casually for the cameras in a tasteful blue sweater. Was that a dig at Harper’s attempt in the previous election campaign to appear more folksy? More average? More real? Where Harper had looked stiff and unnatural mixing with regular people, Ignatieff seemed to be at ease.

This prime-time introduction of the leader translated into a bump in Liberal fortunes. The numbers jumped a few points. The cash spigots opened. The pundits seemed to warm to the man if not necessarily, or immediately, to his message. The arrows seemed to be pointing in the right direction.

And why not feel hopeful? The Conservative campaign was a lifeless affair of endless repetition, constructed to keep Stephen Harper insulated from controversy. It was a necessary strategy for a prime minister with five years in power, the point for any government when some of the unsavoury aspects of political life start oozing into public awareness. The strategy permitted Harper to deflect awkward questions about a former senior adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office, a man with multiple (and apparently unnoticed) fraud convictions. It kept Harper from the fallout when it was revealed that Conservative operatives had misled the public by claiming credit for prudent spending, as outlined in a report by Auditor General Sheila Fraser, when she had really been referring to the Liberals. It insulated Harper from charges that his chief spokesperson had meddled in the appointment of a new head for the Port of Montreal. And it kept Harper from having to respond substantively to uncomfortable questions about his government’s record, questions about multi-billion-dollar, single-source fighter-jet agreements, detainees in Afghanistan, the elimination of the long-form census, the real need for more horrifically expensive prisons, the pork-barrel spending on the G20 conference, the shenanigans around Integrity Commissioner Christiane “I See Nothing!” Ouimet’s half-million-dollar severance package, Bev Oda’s magical (not) memory and all of those other less-than-happy moments that had contributed directly and indirectly to a contempt of Parliament finding and the fall of the Conservative government.

Harper’s strategy was to keep the media at a distance, limit the number of questions to five at any given event and never, ever, willingly deviate from his message. In all respects this was a classic front-runner’s strategy with a message track that boiled down to a few basic points: The country needs strong economic management because the recovery is still fragile. The priority is to eliminate the deficit. Then we can think about new spending. Those other guys will derail the recovery, raise your taxes and spend us all into penury. They will form a reckless coalition. Stick with the proven team. Give the Conservative Party a majority.

Canadians saw a grounded and controlled Stephen Harper in relatively concise snippets on the evening news, the message stated and restated until, as intended, it became the Conservative mantra. On the rare occasions when he was forced off his message track, Harper dealt with matters in a direct and unambiguous fashion. When party operatives blocked a young woman from attending a campaign event because she had appeared with Michael Ignatieff in a Facebook posting, she got an apology and an invitation to future events. When a prairie candidate mused about reopening the abortion debate, Harper stated directly that abortion was not on the agenda. When he took media heat for crassly trolling for votes in a Quebec community dependent on asbestos exports, he simply shrugged, said there was nothing illegal about it and moved on. In one of the weirder moments of the campaign, when a party operative was exposed trying to flog a picture purporting to be Michael Ignatieff toting a gun in Afghanistan, Harper dismissed him without a second thought. Love him or hate him, the prime minister’s campaign strategy went off without a substantial hitch. Even when the opposition was throwing mud by the bucketful, nothing seemed to stick.

Ignatieff in particular had been targeted, as had Stéphane Dion before him, as an intellectual snob. It had worked before and, if anything, Ignatieff was more vulnerable. He had spent the best part of his adult life outside Canada working as a socalled public intellectual. So the Conservative attack machine got some traction, especially with its base, when it kicked into gear with the endlessly repeated tag line “Michael Ignatieff. He didn’t come back for you.”

The truth is that none of the campaigns were particularly inspired. The Liberal “Family Pack” platform was reminiscent of the broad-based wealth redistribution programs of a different political epoch. It was aimed, as always, at poaching votes from the NDP and whatever progressives were willing to defect from the Harper camp. Harper was in his bubble. Gilles Duceppe had dusted off the “defend Quebec’s interests” drum and was beating it at mainly small gatherings of the nationalist base, assured in his own mind at least that he was on the way to an enhanced mandate. And Jack Layton of the NDP looked sick and tired.

Indeed, as the election campaign got underway there were questions about whether he would make it to voting day. Layton had been fighting prostate cancer. He had just undergone hip surgery. He began the campaign on crutches. He was thin, pale, tired and obviously in pain. His pitch, as always, was to squeeze corporations in order to fund social programs of one sort or another, to appeal to large voting blocks: students, the elderly, parents struggling to make ends meet. It was a tired and predictable message from a man who looked like he was going through the motions. Then something changed. The planets aligned and the New Democrats were reminded that timing in politics, as in comedy, is everything.

It began with a very positive reception on Radio-Canada’s popular current affairs talk show Tout le monde en parle. There was Layton, at ease, handling himself with good grace and humour, speaking French like a bilingual native anglo-Quebecer. As in previous campaigns, Layton wasn’t shy about trotting out his Quebec credentials. But this time people seemed more open to the pitch, even when the media pointed out that he had not lived in the province for his entire adult life. Layton was energized by his visits to Quebec.

He appeared to get a genuine charge out of slinging pints at a local Montreal watering hole, tapping into the energy as the city geared up for the NHL playoffs. He managed to look fairly normal in his Canadiens’ jersey. He threw away the crutches and picked up a spiffy black cane. He filled out a bit. Lost his pallor. He began to connect.

Then there were the leaders’ debates on April 12 and 13. They were vitally important to Michael Ignatieff, his chance to show Canadians that he could put Stephen Harper on the spot. He failed. Harper managed to get his message across while attempts to pin him down on matters of governance and integrity failed to stick. In fact, it was Ignatieff who was caught off guard by a torpedo from Jack Layton. “Why do you have the worst attendance record in the House of Commons?” asked Layton. Ignatieff had no answer. It was the pivotal moment and Layton owned it. This was an election that the Liberals had forced on the issue of the Conservative Party’s contempt of Parliament. How could the Liberal leader argue that it was any less contemptuous to not bother showing up? How could he convincingly argue that he would “be there” to do the hard work expected of a prime minister? The “he didn’t come back for you” message in the Conservative attack ads suddenly seemed to hold some water.

In the meantime, Layton took his own share of hits and returned them with a smile. “Smilin’ Jack” was back! And this time the sunny grin that so many had found annoying in past campaigns took on new vitality. The guy was a fighter, an optimist. And he was tough. He could grin, literally, through the pain. In the French-language debate the following night, Layton gave as good as he got with Gilles Duceppe. He capitalized on that mostly mythical Quebec identity he had been playing up and managed, in the eyes of many, to turn the French language debate into a discussion between Quebecers.

Suddenly the NDP platform didn’t look so far-fetched. Enhanced pensions, more generous family and maternity leave benefits, money for renovating houses and subsidizing their cost, limits on credit card interest rates, a federal minimum wage. Much of it was standard NDP boilerplate. All of it was to be paid for with increased corporate taxes of one kind or another. And Layton speculated that an NDP government would be prepared to nurture the “winning conditions” needed to entice the province into the federal fold. Of course, this was rhetorical pipe dreaming but Layton had nothing to lose. He knew the message would appeal to certain Quebecers and he knew it was extremely unlikely that he would form the government this time around. He also knew that renewed federalism was the last thing any of the other leaders wanted to talk about. If it was time to turn away from the same old Bloc message, here was a way for left-leaning and federalist-inclined Quebec voters to do so with relative ease.

And the connection came at just the moment when his main rival in Quebec started to lose his way.

When the Parti Québécois held its annual convention April 16 and 17, adopting a number of toxic motions that were surely intended to give a kick to the sleeping dog of the language wars, there was Gilles Duceppe shoulder to shoulder with PQ Leader Pauline Marois with a message of unwavering support. Though it must have been a bitter pill, Duceppe had no choice. Marois had just achieved an astonishing 93 percent approval rating from the PQ rank and file, putting the last nail in the coffin for any aspirations that Duceppe might have had for taking over the PQ in the foreseeable future. In essence, Duceppe was being sent back to play second fiddle in Ottawa, where the Bloc’s true aspirations were always destined to be muddled by the party’s own internal contradictions, its ultimate aim, a sovereign Quebec, interminably sidetracked by matters out of the party’s control. Duceppe was a lame duck. The best he could hope for was more of the same, representing Quebec’s interests, whatever they might be, by playing a game that had been crafted in the 1990s and hadn’t changed much since: the game of perpetual political gadfly. And when Duceppe, in his April 17 speech to the PQ convention, said, “Et tout redevient encore possible,” he was echoing the separatist slogan of the 1995 referendum, “Oui, et tout devient possible.” It was the last thing, the promise of another referendum to divide them, that Quebecers wanted to hear.

If Quebecers were looking to put a real burr under Stephen Harper’s saddle, were Duceppe and the Bloc up to the task?

Maybe. But a mass vote for the NDP would be radical and more than a bit playfully diabolical. And it would have the added benefit of blowing a raspberry at those entitled Liberals who still considered themselves the only alternative to the Bloc. While Duceppe resumed his campaign, visiting cheese shops and greenhouses, the voters of Quebec quietly reframed the entire Canadian political landscape.

As an added bonus, Jack Layton was not Stephen Harper and he was definitely not Michael Ignatieff, who, it seems, had started channelling his inner working-class Baptist.

He claimed a Bruce Springsteen song had inspired him. And the crowd of Liberals in Sudbury that post-debate Friday night certainly seemed appreciative. But when Ignatieff exhorted his followers to “Rise up!” he sounded more like a southern preacher than the Boss. Either way, he did not sound like someone who had lived in Canada all his life — more grist for the Conservative mill. Furthermore, that call to action, founded on a litany of purported Conservative wrongs, what Ignatieff called “a pattern of abuse,” may well have been heartfelt, but it also smelled of desperation. Ignatieff had to be aware of the “surge” of support developing behind the NDP in Quebec. He apparently was not aware that people, once inspired to cast off the shackles of oppression, are not, in fact, bound to vote for you. In Quebec, at least, more voters were saying they wanted to “rise up” behind Jack Layton.

Then, in a “one-on-one” interview on CBC’s The National, Ignatieff made what may have been the fatal blunder of the Liberal campaign. On a question from anchor Peter Mansbridge, the former Harvard professor decided to deliver a civics lesson on the legitimacy of coalitions. No, as promised, Ignatieff’s Liberals would not form a coalition with the NDP and Bloc but, yes, coalitions were perfectly permissible in the Canadian system. After all, rules are rules. There could not have been a Conservative operative in the land who wasn’t smiling through his or her astonishment at that moment. The professor had just brought his intellect to a knife fight and he would pay dearly.

It showed as the campaign entered the Passover and Easter weekend, a time for families to get together and, as most campaigns hoped, make some decisions about where to cast their votes. The following week would be a time for the parties to shore up committed supporters and make a final pitch for undecided voters. But two factors made this final campaign week different from most others and both ended up favouring the NDP. The first was the tenacity of the Montreal Canadiens. The second was the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Anybody who was watching game six of the Habs and Bruins series, played in Montreal on the evening of April 26, would have noticed that the commercial breaks were dominated by political ads. The Conservatives, as they had from the beginning, continued to target “Michael Ignatieff and his reckless coalition.” Only a majority Conservative government, claimed the Harper machine, would save the country from a “coup” by those scheming Liberals, lefties and separatists who were just waiting to knock off another minority government and assume power. Remember, went the subtext, Ignatieff had all but admitted as much on national television.

Meanwhile, Ignatieff’s “Rise up!” moment had marked a switch in the Liberal campaign to a more confrontational strategy. The Liberal war room was now running ads as toxic as anything the Conservatives had come up with, characterizing Harper as a taxcutting, program-slashing demagogue, a threat to Canadian values, a proroguing, power-hungry and secretive antidemocratic autocrat who was lying about just about everything. The Liberal ads were meant to reframe, remind and pound home the Liberal position on Stephen Harper’s contempt for Parliament, the real reason, the Liberals claimed, for the election.

But as the two big parties snarled at one another, as the tactics of fear oozed out in the vicious language of innuendo, foreboding music and acid images, the NDP stepped up with Smiling Jack Layton, a ray of sunshine, and an ad that asked Canadians to “imagine a leader who actually cares.” “Together we can do this,” said Layton as the ad ended, “You know where I stand. You know I’m a fighter. And I won’t stop until the job is done!” The contrast was stark. And if Layton’s message, with its scarcely concealed references to Obama’s transformational “Hope and Change” campaign of 2008 was borderline hokey, it didn’t matter in the least. The Habs won that night, going right to the wire against a much bigger, much nastier Boston team. Imagine that!

If right-leaning Liberals ran from an impending train wreck straight into Stephen Harper’s arms, then left-leaning Liberals, who were never going to support Harper, would serve Conservative strategy better in the NDP camp. Split the vote in key Ontario ridings, let the Conservative candidate run up the middle and achieve that elusive majority.

By the time the Canadiens took to the ice in Boston for the final game of the series (they lost in overtime), attention was already turning to the royal nuptials in London. The momentum behind the NDP was now undeniable, and with media attention focused elsewhere there was little the other parties could do. Both the Bloc and Liberals had resorted to trotting out their respective elder statesmen in an attempt to remind voters of the stakes in play. Did an octogenarian Jacques Parizeau set the sovereignist fires alight? Or did he send the message that the cause was tired; that a different approach might bear better, if different, fruit? Did Jean Chrétien’s appearance with Michael Ignatieff remind voters of past Liberal success and the strength of Canada’s “natural governing party”? Or did it put into stark contrast the difference between the two men, and not to Ignatieff’s advantage? For the last week of the campaign, amid the dawning realities of massive loss and the rising conditions of panic, both the Liberals and the Bloc went into defensive mode: Sauvez les meubles! Save the furniture!

Strangely, perhaps, it was the Conservatives who were best positioned to take full advantage of the NDP “surge.” After refusing to acknowledge that a major shift was underway in Quebec, Harper’s team simply shrugged and switched their negative messaging from Michael Ignatieff to Jack Layton, that other “coalition partner.” On the issue of the NDP’s speculation about reopening constitutional talks with Quebec, Harper advised caution. Then in the final days of the campaign he did something unexpected. He said that an NDP opposition would actually clarify matters by giving Canadians a clear sense of the ideological divide in the country. It was almost as though the prime minister were sending a small note of encouragement to NDP supporters. Of course, that’s exactly what he was doing. If right-leaning Liberals ran from an impending train wreck straight into Stephen Harper’s arms, then left-leaning Liberals, who were never going to support Harper, would serve Conservative strategy better in the NDP camp. Split the vote in key Ontario ridings, let the Conservative candidate run up the middle and achieve that elusive majority.

As we now know, that’s exactly what happened.

So, what about Quebec?

Stephen Harper has four years to think about Quebec. In the meantime, he has his majority. The Bloc has taken such a drubbing that it may never recover. The Liberals are in disarray. The NDP, for all its success, is likely to find out sooner rather than later just how fickle Quebec voters can be, especially with a party that has absolutely no power to deliver much of anything for a province gearing up to elect a PQ government. But for all of that, what a very Canadian election this was! Plodding and grinding and mostly uninspired right up to the moment when some of us decided to do something completely unexpected, to send a message to our would-be elected representatives rather than swallow wholesale the stuff crafted in the backrooms of political machines.

It almost makes a body want to throw on a blue sweater, crack a bottle of Orange Crush and remember, as my artist friends remind me (and at least until political reality kicks in), that those two colours, blue and orange, combine in a way that enhances our appreciation. They are, in the end, complementary.

Photo: Shutterstock

James McLean is a professor in the Department of Journalism at Concordia University in Montreal. His interests include political war rooms, how they craft messages and how journalists are implicated in strategic political speech.

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