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Monday, March 1, 2004

ELECTIONS AND THOSE WHO TRY TO WIN THEM John Duffy and Preston Manning: Political Strategists


March 1, 2004,  Books in Canada

Fights of Our Lives
Elections, Leadership, and the Making of Canada
by John Duffy
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
ISBN: 00-00-2000089-X

Think Big
Adventures in Life and Democracy
by Preston Manning
McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
ISBN: 0-7710-5675-3


John Duffy's Fights of Our Lives are five general elections that he claims have shaped Canada. They are actually eight elections as he pairs the elections of 1925 and 1926, 1957 and 1958 and 1979 and 1980. The other two are the election of 1896 and the "Free Trade" election of 1988. Only the last looks like an election that decided a major issue. And perhaps it did not. Duffy reports that 40% of Canadians told pollsters that John Turner would sign the Free Trade Agreement if elected. They may have been right.

Reviewers have quibbled over Duffy's choice of elections. As he gives summary accounts of the thirty four elections since Confederation excepting Jean Chr├ętien's three victories, and sets the political context, it does not matter. Smartly produced, Fights of Our Lives is a kind of illustrated political history of Canada.

The emphasis is on the strategy and techniques of elections. Duffy is a lobbyist who is an occasional Liberal operative with a deep attachment to Paul Martin. He combines a worldly wise cynicism about the political game with a childish idealism. For Duffy, whatever the machinations and lies that decided elections, all is for the best in the best of all possible Canadas.

By Duffy's account, in the 19th century most voters were what would today be called "tribal" Tories or "tribal" Grits attached to parties by religious, racial or class interests and unlikely to change vote from one election to another. The swing vote was small. The millions of Canadians who voted for Mulroney's Tories in 1984 and anyone but in 1993 would have been unthinkable. The party machines existed simply to see that known Conservatives and Liberals got out and voted.

But perhaps Canadians just consistently found Sir John A.'s the best government on offer from 1867 to 1891, pausing to teach him a lesson in 1874 after the Canadian Pacific Scandal. Many of the same voters who returned 52 Tories out of 92 Ontario seats in the Dominion election of February 22, 1887 had returned 64 Liberals to only 26 Tories in the provincial election of December 28, 1886. They must have been equally content with Sir Oliver Mowat's Grits while he was Premier from 1872 to 1896. With governments smaller, less active and less intrusive in the 19th century, voters may not have seen any reason to switch votes between elections, while perfectly prepared to do so.

Duffy's first election is the Liberal win in 1896. Macdonald had died in 1891 after his last, comfortable, victory that year and the Tories had in Sir Charles Tupper their fourth leader in five years. The big issue of the day was the Manitoba Schools Question. The Manitoba Act, 1870, by which the Province of Manitoba had been created, had guaranteed the continuation of existing Catholic schools. The Liberal government of Manitoba had abolished them. Court proceedings that went all the way to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council had held that it was up to Ottawa to override the provincial government. The Manitoba Premier, Frank Greenway, remained obdurate in the face of Ottawa's attempts to negotiate a compromise.  The Tories, by Duffy's account practically a branch of the Orange Order, had steeled themselves to pass remedial legislation to protect the Catholic schools in the face of an upsurge of anti-Catholic and anti-French agitation. Laurier would have none of it. He said he would solve the problem by taking the "sunny way", implying that a Liberal Prime Minister could do a deal with a Liberal Premier that had eluded the Tories. Laurier calculated he could count on the support of Quebec for a native son and safely woo the Protestant vote. He was right. Laurier won and was Prime Minister for 15 years. The Liberals have governed Canada for 76 of the last 107 years.

Duffy analyses each of his elections on the analogy of football plays with droll drawings to outline each play. For 1896 he has Laurier playing the "Quebec bridge", holding a divided country together, while Tupper is playing a "Double tribal whipsaw", stirring up hatred between English and French in the hope of undermining a moderate and statesmanlike Laurier. This is close to the exact opposite of the truth. Duffy greatly exaggerates the threat to Confederation presented by the Manitoba Schools Question and passes over the fact that Laurier made common cause with the anti-Catholic and anti-French tendencies championed by D'Alton McCarthy, whom he was ready to take into his cabinet when McCarthy died in 1898.

1896 was the year of the Liberals' original sin. The "sunny way" was tantamount to a lie. Laurier sold out Manitoba's Catholics for power. In doing so he did not bridge the sectarian divide that was at the root of the Manitoba Schools Question. He levered it. He played to Protestant fears of clerical rule by exaggerating the power of the clergy and the courage of his defiance of them. What Duffy sees as a brave liberal stand persuading English-Canadian Protestants that a French-Canadian Roman Catholic was not a tool of the bishops in fact played to Protestant paranoia, encouraging their suspicions that the Roman Catholic clergy were an interfering menace. As Laurier knew, the Catholic Ultramontane clergy were on the defensive. But they were useful bogeymen.

Duffy jumps forward almost thirty years from 1896 to the elections of 1925 and 1926 in a bizarre and reverently Liberal chapter. After World War I, agrarian and populist parties sprang up in Ontario and the West sending 65 Progressives to Ottawa in 1921, the second largest party after Mackenzie King's Liberals. As the PC's in the 1990's hoped Reform/Alliance would fade the Progressives did and in 1925 116 Tories, 99 Liberals and 24 Progressives were elected. King decided to cling to power and had scraped through for eight months when in late June his government faced censure in the House of Commons over a customs scandal. Rather than face defeat King asked the Governor General, Lord Byng, for a dissolution of Parliament and an election. Byng refused and called on Arthur Meighen, the Tory leader, to form a government. No serious constitutional scholar doubts that Byng was right to refuse King. Whether Meighen was wise to accept his invitation to form a government is another question, but, as he had won the most seats in the election only eight months before, it seemed a reasonable thing to do. Meighen formed a government but in less than a week was defeated on a specious Liberal procedural motion which divided the undisciplined Progressives and passed on the vote of one Progressive MP who breached a pairing arrangement by which two members on opposite sides agree not to vote to allow for their absence.

In the campaign that followed King ranted on about Byng's refusal of a dissolution and pretended that it reduced Canada to colonial status. His whole campaign was one long lie and Duffy admits as much. But he still claims that the election marked a turning point in Canada's relations with Britain and constitutional development, buying King's lie. In fact Canada's full independence was sealed by the Imperial Conference of 1926 and Byng was acting in accordance with its principles in refusing to refer his decision to London as King had urged him to do. King then alleged interference from Downing Street. As for the role of the Governor General, there is no reason to suppose he or she would act differently today, if a similar decision arose, and quite rightly. But King had upped the stakes in political mendacity from Laurier's effort in 1896 and succeeded and mendacity has been a first principle of Liberal politics ever since.

Duffy's perspective on each election is that of the political strategist, a strange breed, who often pop up in the media, as Duffy himself does, but do their work in the backrooms. For the political strategist the winning of elections is something largely detached from the character of candidates, the merits of their policies or the honesty of their advocacy. It is a question of polls and positioning, image and message. The strategist thinks he knows what makes people vote and can tell the politician what to do and say and where to go to make people vote for him. There are no hard standards by which political strategists are judged. For them defeat is the fault of politicians who fail to take their advice. Thus, according to Duffy, Trudeau lost the election of 1979 because he insisted on preaching about national unity and a new constitution against the advice of his strategists, who wanted him to show concern for bread and butter issues. But Trudeau was never interested in bread and butter issues and after 10 years the voters knew that. Joe Clark demonstrated his incompetence in nine months in power and and Trudeau would have won the 1980 election whatever he had said.

Duffy rates Clark an astute political strategist suggesting he would have gone down as one of the greats if he had stayed in the backrooms. Nothing in Canadian politics could be more patent than Clark's stupidity. He is at it again opposing the Alliance/PC merger. But if in Hollywood you are only as good as your last movie the political strategist is always as good as his one victory. So Clark won the Tory leadership in 1976 by astuteness according to Duffy. In reality the fractious party could not settle on any of the candidates with more character and history and had to settle on Joe Who.

Duffy's strategist's perspective leads to overanalysis of elections. Debates and ads and speeches and posters that most people never paid any attention to are carefully assessed for their impact. He knows his stuff. The story of recent campaigns may awake nostalgia in some readers and earlier campaigns have antiquarian interest. But elections were won and lost on the character of candidates as demonstrated before campaigns began, on what they had done and what people believed they would do based on much more than campaign promises. Campaigns rather reflect than shape public opinion, which is founded on everything from elementary school indoctrination to Hollywood movies.

Where political strategist become really dangerous is if they get to shape government policy between elections. This happened with the Ontario Tories in recent years and they and the province suffered from it.

Duffy's third featured electoral battle is Diefenbaker's two stage triumph of 1957 and 1958.  It was what he calls a "populist rush", which amounts to no more than saying that Dief was more popular than the elderly and arrogant Liberals who had been in power for 22 years. Dief's campaigns did make a difference. Even as a widespread figure of fun in the 1960's he was able to keep Pearson from a majority. But Dief's melodramatic oratory was about the farthest thing imaginable from the strategy and image that Duffy and his colleagues set so much store by.

The 1979 and 1980 elections do not seem particularly interesting. Perhaps for Duffy just the idea that the legendary Trudeau could be defeated seems extraordinary. But after the Trudeaumania election of 1968, another "populist rush", Trudeau was never a particularly popular politician. The Tories beat him in English Canada in every election. Quebec kept him in power, giving him 74 of its 75 seats, more than half his caucus, in 1980.

Quebec is a black hole in Duffy's analysis. It sends squadrons of Liberals to Ottawa in most elections and then surprises with 50 Tories in 1958, explained as simply backing a winner. Mulroney's Quebec strength it is darkly suggested grew from wooing separatists. The same separatists who voted overwhelmingly for Trudeau in 1980 presumably.

The 1988 election was the most dramatic in living memory but it is doubtful whether election strategy and tactics made much difference to the result. Free trade was simply a good policy whose time had come. It was bound to provoke emotional opposition but it drew support across party lines.

Preston Manning's Think Big is a political memoir, the first half of which covers familiar terrain in the history of the Reform Party and Manning's personal history. The second half of the book is what is new, and, to a degree, interesting. It covers the united alternative initiative, the formation of the Canadian Alliance, the leadership race that ended in Manning's defeat by Stockwell Day, the general election of November 2000 and Stockwell Day's downfall.

Manning is not shy about presenting himself as a model politician whose avowed Christianity threatens no policy commitments but stands as a warranty of his probity and selfless concern. In fact he was a consummate political strategist in politics whose success and failure demonstrate the limitations of that role. Far from being a right wing conviction politician Manning seems to have had no political beliefs at all beyond a belief in his own unique capacity to manage what issues might arise. In Waiting for the Wave Tom Flanagan has lucidly described the process by which Manning caught successive waves of Western resentment, tax fatigue and deficit anxiety to carry Reform to 52 seats in the 1993 election. To do this he had to join in and exploit the Liberals' demonisation of Mulroney's Tories. It was a remarkable achievement for a party founded barely six years before.

But in the ten years that have followed the movement that Manning founded and for over ten years led and was identified with has not been able to build on that success. The election of 1997 brought eight more seats in a larger house and official opposition status but the Tories had made an important comeback. Manning moved to finish off the Tories on the day Jean Charest announced his resignation as leader announcing the united alternative (never "unite the right") initiative. Unwilling to merge with the Tories, whose demonisation had been essential to his success, Manning hoped to peel off enough to weaken the party fatally. But the united alternative, leading to the founding of the Canadian Alliance was a failure. For the most part the Tories recruited were fervent neo-cons who tended to push the new party to the right when Manning would rather have moved stealthily to the centre. And then the new party, which was little more than new in name only, would need a new leader. Manning could not understand this.

Manning seems genuinely to have believed in 2000 that he was on his way to becoming Prime Minister. He called his campaign for the Alliance leadership PM4PM. As Manning tells the story he was fearful of defeat from the outset of the leadership campaign. News reports at the time had him shocked when the results of the voting were announced. One difficulty he faced was the need openly to sell himself. He had always been selling himself. He is at it again in Think Big. But always before he could hide behind the movement or the cause, the Reform Party or the United Alternative or a Triple E Senate and he faced no serious rival in the political terrain he had taken for himself.

He says he and his supporters were exhausted from the general election, the United Alternative initiative and the founding of the Alliance. He complains that the media paid more attention to the pronouncements of Stockwell Day and Tom Long, the new faces, than they did to him. He seemed at the time to keep a deliberately low profile and his low key campaign gave every sign that while he welcomed other candidates as giving legitimacy to the new party he assumed the leadership was his. He could not credit that both old Reform members and new members who believed that the Alliance would be a real alternative to the Liberals wanted a new leader and found in Stockwell Day a credible one.

Manning complains that Day won the leadership by aggressively recruiting Christian social conservatives. As if Manning had not appealed to them, if not so aggressively, having had no competition; or the Manning brand in Canadian politics did not go back to Bible Bill Aberhart's radio ministry, continued by Ernest Manning until 1989. In any event, Christian support for Day was a secondary factor. Tom Long, the Ontario Tory and political strategist who place third on the first ballot gave his energetic support to Manning for the second. But Manning's vote did no grow and practically all of Long's support went to Day. Not a fundamentalist Christian among them.

To Manning the small advance made by the Alliance under Day in the 2000 election bears out his contention that something went wrong with the Alliance leadership race. But would Manning's fourth appearance as party leader have carried the Alliance to a better result? Almost certainly not. Manning is harshly critical of Day's every step. His defence against the charge that he undermined Day's leadership is basically that Day's leadership was indefensible.

But Day was not an unprecedentedly untalented politician. He is no worse than Joe Clark. He had a fair reputation at Alberta Treasurer and has been an effective foreign affairs critic since Stephen Harper became leader of the Alliance. Wary lest the Alliance should be accepted as an alternative government the Liberals subjected Day to unprecedented fire in 2000. Manning never faced anything like it.

Manning's political career is over. He has become not so much an ideas man as a topics man. He ends the books outlining a wide range of topics from the ethical implications of a genetic revolution to the future of the Canadian dollar about which he has nothing to say.

Manning devotes a whole chapter and several passages elsewhere to an attack on Liberal ethics, Shawinigate etc. This is well enough done but rather stale. It should have been material for vigorous attacks on the Liberals in the House of Commons and election campaigns. But Manning was always thinking too big and too busy plotting the demise of the Tories to be effective at day to day politics. The Tory rump, pretending nothing much had changed, were often a more effective opposition than their more numerous Reform or Alliance colleagues.

For all his electoral success Manning was never able to form a party that was more than his instrument. When he tried to do so it got out of his hands and began to fall apart. As Stephen Harper has managed to pull it together he has come around to seeing that Manning's most successful strategy, the attack on the Tories must be abandoned.

Even if Harper leads the Conservative Party it will be something more than his instrument. Manning's strategy of catching waves could never build the long term base of support that the Tories have relied on to keep going through ten years in the wilderness. It is the revival of that base of support, the return of demoralised Tories, reinvigorated by the merger and the burying of the Reform hatchet that is the Conservative Party's hope for the future rather than Manning's effort to catch waves. Before the Martin juggernaut the Conservative Party may not even match the success of Stockwell Day's Alliance in 2000. But they will be an effective opposition and some day a new Tory government. Canadian politics will recover from the damage Manning did. It will continue to suffer from the mendacity of the Liberals and the distractions of political strategy.