The Biggest Losers

A long-time Liberal strategist explains the defeat of the once-mighty Grits

Illustration by Dushan Milic
Illustration by Dushan Milic

It was 10:09, the morning after election night, the precise moment at which the immensity of the Liberal Party’s loss appeared on Michael Ignatieff’s haggard face. He stood before journalists at a Toronto hotel and called himself “a teacher born and bred.” He was done with politics, he said, and was going back to the classroom. (Indeed, within a few days he would announce that he had accepted a position at the University of Toronto.) And that was that. The Liberal Party of Canada was leaderless and reduced to the ignominy of third-party status in the House of Commons.

Ignatieff’s senior advisers, the ostensibly smart ones he had brought in to make him a winner, had invoked a backroomer’s cliché—that “campaigns matter”—to persuade the leader to defeat Stephen Harper’s Conservative government on a confidence motion at the end of March. Ignatieff’s team told him he could only do better on the campaign trail than his predecessor, Stéphane Dion, had. And, in fact, Ignatieff did. Throughout April, he proved to be a far better campaigner than Harper as well. The reporters who travelled with Ignatieff, and the Liberals who came out in the thousands to hear him, were surprised by his passion. Why, then, did he lose so badly? Didn’t the campaign matter?

Campaigns matter, sure. But for the once-great Liberal Party, the 2011 election was lost before it was even called. First of all, the Tories’ multimillion-dollar anti-Ignatieff advertising campaigns, however despicable, were highly effective. By the time Ignatieff and his palace guard decided to strike back, it was too late. And, ironically, the election campaign attack ads marshalled by both the Conservatives and the Liberals principally benefited the New Democrats; disgusted voters were propelled toward a third party.

The second reason for the Liberals’ failure was the terrible strategic error of voting to defeat the government when they did. The Tories had been outpolling the Grits for months and had an overwhelming fundraising and organizational advantage. Experienced senior Liberals, like campaign manager Gordon Ashworth, pleaded with Ignatieff to wait for the political environment to become more favourable. Despite all this, however, Ignatieff pushed for an election he could not win.

The third factor in the defeat is more contentious, but just as real. When Ignatieff had a chance to effectively eliminate NDP leader Jack Layton as the only other progressive choice; when Ignatieff had an opportunity, long before the election, to craft a deal with the NDP, for co-operation, or a coalition, or even a merger, he emphatically said no. In June 2010, with his former leadership rivals Bob Rae and Dominic LeBlanc standing behind him in a House of Commons hallway soberly nodding their heads, Ignatieff declared that he wanted nothing to do with the NDP. Forming an alliance with the NDP was “ridiculous,” he snorted.

That declaration gave Stephen Harper what he most desired. For good measure, he even invoked the spectre of the “Liberal-socialist-separatist coalition” on the very first day of the campaign. Once again, Ignatieff fell into line. The Liberal Party “will not enter a coalition with other federalist parties,” Ignatieff insisted. If it hadn’t had such brutal consequences, Ignatieff’s willingness to dance to Harper’s tune would have been comical.

In crass political terms, co-operation (or coalition, or merger) makes sense. The Conservatives’ grip on power is maintained, more than anything else, by the inability of progressives to get their act together. For the past three elections, Harper has remained in office with the support of no more than 40 percent of the electorate. If some, or all, of the other 60 percent were to come together in a single, formidable force, the Conservatives would be defeated.

A united Liberal–New Democratic option would benefit both parties. The two neatly offset each other’s weaknesses. Liberals have gravitas and experience in governing, skills the federal New Democrats still lack. The NDP has a robust fundraising capacity, as well as a strong relationship with its grassroots, both lingering Grit deficiencies. In policy terms, more unites the two parties than divides them. New Democrats are, as Jean Chrétien likes to say, mainly “Liberals in a hurry.” A united progressive party—a Liberal-Democratic Party, if you will—acknowledges the natural evolution, and the binary political universe. A united left is commonplace in most other Western democracies. What’s unusual is that it hasn’t yet happened in Canada.

One day back in October 2009, Ian Davey, chief of staff to Ignatieff, slumped in a chair in his modest Parliament Hill office. “I tried,” he said, looking grim. “He won’t do it.”

Davey and I and others had been attempting to convince Ignatieff that he desperately needed a winning ballot question. His late-summer promise to defeat the Harper government and force a general election had sent the party into a tailspin. Whatever popularity we had enjoyed was slipping away. Simultaneously, the government had been equivocating on ending Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan in 2011. Despite an all-party resolution favouring the conclusion of our combat role, it was clear that many among the hawkish Conservatives wanted us to stay.

Davey—the son of the legendary Grit rainmaker, Keith Davey, and a friend who had brought me to Ottawa to run the Liberal war room—thought an election fought on extending the war could end badly for the Conservatives. Even better, it would banish a few ghosts for the Liberals. Ignatieff had secured the leadership months earlier, and was still dogged by concerns from the party’s left wing. In his writing and media appearances, the former Harvard professor had been an enthusiastic proponent of the war in Iraq, unambiguously pro-American and, seemingly, an advocate of “coercive interrogation” with terror suspects. His position had put him at odds with others in the party. After nearly a decade in Afghanistan, some of us felt we had done our share, with too many Canadian lives lost. We thought it was time for other Western nations to step up. In the coming election, Liberals should be the ones favouring an end to the war. Let the Harper regime, with its bellicose military rhetoric and its willingness to give the generals whatever shiny new toy they desired, become the party that favoured war with no end.

“We can banish the pro-American, pro-torture, pro-Iraq war stuff in one move,” I had said to Davey and others in the Office of the Leader of the Opposition. “We’d pick up a ton of NDP and Bloc support. And Harper will be caught in the quagmire like John McCain was. It’s perfect.”

But Ignatieff wouldn’t do it. Not only would he not even discuss the notion, Davey said; he was angry that we had suggested it in the first place. When I asked Davey what he’d said to Ignatieff, he replied, “I told him we just wanted him to, you know, win the fucking election. That’s all.”

Winning elections, of course, is what the Liberal Party used to be good at. It held power for almost sixty-nine years in the twentieth century, making it the most successful political entity in the developed world. Its principal opponent was seen as disputatious, mutinous, and self-destructive. Now the roles are reversed. It’s the Conservatives, with their iron communications discipline and relentlessly strategic leader, who seem unbeatable. And it’s the Liberals—still not fully recovered from a decade-long tribal war, and seeking their fifth permanent leader in eight years—who appear doomed. The morning after election night, one former Ignatieff staffer shook her head in wonder. “Harper was popular for two years,” she said. “Why did Ignatieff’s senior staff think he would suddenly stop being popular in a campaign? Were they insane? ”

There are multiple reasons for Harper’s strength and popularity. For a decade and a bit, the Liberals kept Harper and his cronies far from power by publicizing every boneheaded and bigoted utterance by members of the now defunct Reform and Canadian Alliance parties, depicting their members as Alberta-centric rage-aholics. When Harper became leader of the merged Conservative Party, he purged most of the homophobic, xenophobic, red-necked mouth breathers and cultivated a phony (but effective) Tim Hortons, Everyman populism, reminding anyone who would listen that he grew up in Etobicoke, not Calgary. Once he was elected prime minister, his social conservatism was further curbed by the exigencies of minority governance. We still have abortion, gay marriage, and separation of church and state. (Though, now that the Conservatives have secured a majority, I expect those rights to come under a vigorous assault, likely through the sleight of hand of a private member’s bill.) On the economy, circumstances also obliged Harper to eschew his Reform Party roots. The great global recession saw the prime minister—the one-time president of the National Citizens’ Coalition, no less—transformed into a conventional pork-barrelling politician, merrily dishing out billions on hockey rinks and road paving. All of these factors combined to greatly limit the Liberals’ and NDP’s prospects. But few have been as damaging as the Conservative Party’s advertising campaigns.

If someone tells you political attack ads don’t work, you are either talking to a liar or a fool. I’ve written two books on political advertising and have never minded “going neg” about an opponent’s public record. Ignatieff was wary of me at the start, and that was fine by me; no party leader should ever know everything that his or her war room is up to. With Davey’s approval, my team in Ottawa and Toronto produced a series of nasty anti-Conservative Internet ads under the name “Grit Girl,” in the spring and summer of 2009. The idea was to give the Reformatories, as I called them, a taste of their own medicine, and to do to Harper what his black-hearted admen had done to Paul Martin and Stéphane Dion. The “Grit Girl” ads depicted the Conservatives as corrupt and confused.

One sunny day, Ignatieff spotted me outside his parliamentary offices and expressed his concern about the ads. I sighed. The Conservatives’ barrage of “Just Visiting” commercials, which questioned Ignatieff’s loyalties after his years spent abroad, hadn’t aired yet. But we had heard they were coming, soon, and would be bolstered by a huge ad buy. “Listen, sir,” I told him. “These bastards are getting ready to rip your face off. So I want to rip their faces off first.”

In the end, we dialed down the “Grit Girl” campaign, and very soon the “Just Visiting” spots had accomplished what they were designed to. Ignatieff’s personal numbers were an unmitigated disaster, and whatever honeymoon he had enjoyed was undeniably over. Ignatieff, like Dion, had made the fatal mistake of letting his opponents define him before he could define himself.

By November 2009, with the Liberal Party continuing to slump in the polls, Davey and others had been summarily (and shabbily) dismissed. I wasn’t fired, but I didn’t like the newly minted chief of staff, and he didn’t like me. In May 2010, I emailed Ignatieff and told him I was quitting. “My reasons are myriad,” I wrote. “Chief among them is the regrettable state of the party, and also the appalling way in which my friends have been treated.” Ignatieff sent back a nice note, saying that he would miss my help, but that he understood.

The phrase “the regrettable state of the party” was a bit of politesse. My list of frustrations included the undeniable rightward tilt of the party—on Afghanistan, on the oil sands, on health care—and its yawning policy vacuum. It included the collapse of whatever election readiness we had built up, and the fact that Ignatieff hadn’t been cured of any of his bad habits: namely, always talking tough about the Reformatories (for example, calling them corrupt, incompetent, and bullies, blah-blah-blah) but never actually acting on these criticisms by voting against them.

Unencumbered by duties in Ottawa, and worried about the possibility of a Conservative majority, I started talking to other Liberals about finding a fix. The source of our inspiration was an unlikely one, to say the least: Stephen Harper. We had noticed that even with his principal opponent down on the mat, he kept going on about the looming Liberal-socialist-separatist coalition, in his attack ads, in the House of Commons, in every focus-grouped talking point. Harper’s criticism of coalitions was peculiar, because the Conservative Party was itself the result of a successful merger, and he had been its chief architect. In fact, if history is to remember the prime minister for anything, it would be for bringing together the warring factions on the right.

We knew why Harper fulminated against a coalition on the left: he feared it. Polls indicated that Canadians were mostly supportive of the concept, provided it didn’t involve the Bloc. And a coalition on the left could defeat Harper, just as one on the right had taken down Paul Martin in 2006. It was simple—or maybe not. It took three election losses (in 1993, 1997, and 2000) before the Reform, the Alliance, and the Progressive Conservatives realized they would benefit from a merger. Would it take just as long for the Liberals and the New Democrats to come to the same conclusion? Based on our own recent experience, probably.

Here’s a little history: At a provincial Liberal fundraiser at the Royal York hotel in Toronto in November 2008, Brian Topp, an adviser to several federal and provincial NDP leaders, approached me and Paul Zed, the former Liberal MP who would soon become Ignatieff’s chief of staff. Topp said he needed our help to form a coalition to topple the Conservatives. We thought he was kidding.

“Mr. Dion and Mr. Layton have spoken,” Topp said, not sounding the least bit drunk. “And Mr. Broadbent has spoken to Mr. Chrétien. There are others.” Topp wasn’t bullshitting. We continued our chat in the Royal York’s bar. By early the next morning, news of the coalition talks had spread to other Liberals, and most of us were decidedly unenthusiastic. We wanted to form government the old-fashioned way: by winning a general election. Harper, we felt, would depict the coalition as an undemocratic plot to overturn the election result, and the Liberal Party would pay dearly. In the end, Topp’s overture was declined. And that, as it turned out, was a mistake.

In the spring of 2010, a number of eminent Liberals (among them Jean Chrétien) and New Democrats (Ed Broadbent, Roy Romanow) started musing, once again, about bringing the two parties together—through co-operation, or a coalition. The impetus was simple: Harper and the Conservative Party were getting stronger; Ignatieff and the Liberals were getting weaker. Grassroots progressives were worried, too. After four years of a Conservative minority government, many in each party’s base were prepared to consider a coalition, despite concerns by some about the suitability of the right-leaning Ignatieff as its leader.

Liberal Party national president Alfred Apps, a bespectacled, chain-smoking Toronto lawyer, was one of those who had persuaded Ignatieff to leave Harvard and lead the party. Apps was a formidable fundraiser, and was generally well liked. In early May, Chrétien told me that Apps had been active in the secret Liberal and NDP discussions. Chrétien and others wanted to know what Apps was up to. When I called Apps on the morning of May 11, he wasn’t shy. “There is a lot of interest in a merger in the NDP,” he said as I took notes. “There have been many discussions at a high level… involving the NDP saints.” (The saints were Broadbent and Romanow.)

I asked him how the arrangement would work. He said that resolutions would need to be passed first. “The NDP is really pushing this,” he said, adding that for a merger to work the NDP would have to agree to three conditions: “One, renounce socialism and embrace a mixed-market economy. Two, be prepared to have Michael Ignatieff as leader. Three, the senior saints must [promote the concept].”

It sounded risky, but Apps remained undeterred. He was candid with others, too. John Mraz, a long-time Liberal activist and a freelance National Post columnist, confirmed that Apps had spoken to him. When Mraz raised the subject of the backroom chats for a possible column, Apps said, “You don’t know the half of it.” But when CBC’s Wendy Mesley broke the story a few days later, Apps vigorously denied that he had been involved in any such talks. Ignatieff, Rae, and other prominent Liberals also condemned the idea.

The moment had passed, again. The NDP’s saints, as Apps had called them, were no longer interested. Only when the Liberals got their act together, and only when Ignatieff was out of the picture, would they possibly be prepared to revisit the idea. Besides, some of them told me, the way the polls are going, it might be the NDP and not the Grits who would form the Official Opposition after the next election.

Here we are: the NDP is, indeed, the Official Opposition, and after years of acting as if he presided over a majority government, Harper is doing just that. And it was the Liberals and the New Democrats alike who let him get there.

With more than 100 NDP members in the House of Commons, Layton will be labouring to demonstrate that the confidence Canadians placed in his party was merited, and that his inexperienced caucus members are the only ones who can heretofore be counted on to provide opposition to the Conservatives. For their part, some Liberals, such as Bob Rae, have reversed themselves, and are now musing out loud about the need to unite the centre-left. Yet others, unconvinced, continue to argue against a coalition or merger. They say that the Grits can come back, that our current miserable state is temporary, that we shouldn’t repudiate our history.

Personally, I’m motivated to do what Stephen Harper himself did and bring together like-minded partisans to do some good for the country. And, you know, win a fucking election.

This appeared in the July/August 2011 issue.

Warren Kinsella
Warren Kinsella, a Liberal Party campaign strategist since 1990, has written six books.
Dushan Milic
Dushan Milic has won numerous awards, most recently from Applied Arts magazine and the Society for News Design.