Conservatives under Stephen Harper and NDP Leader Jack Layton aimed to destroy the Liberals

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      It will take a while before historians come to their conclusions about the significance of the Conservatives winning a majority government under Stephen Harper.

      However, one thing is already clear: the Harperites and the NDP under Jack Layton were engaged in a mutually beneficial pincer movement against the federal Liberals stretching back several years.

      And this cannot be underestimated in any evaluation of how Canada ended up with a majority government under Harper, who always wanted the Conservatives to supplant the Liberals as the natural governing party.

      In the book Harperland: The Politics of Control, author Lawrence Martin quotes Harper adviser Keith Beardsley saying that the prime minister "hates the Liberal Party", and the long-time strategy was to "break the brand".

      A former Harper chief of staff, Ian Brodie, was quoted in the same book saying: "Does he hate the Liberals? Some of them."

      Former Liberal and Conservative cabinet minister David Emerson offered up a similar observation, describing Harper and his men "hating their political opponents" to a degree that startled him.

      No wonder Harper appeared so self-satisfied last night in his victory speech. He had finally crushed the Liberal Party of Canada.

      This was thanks to vicious attack advertising between elections, constant courting of new Canadians, and a relentless drive to appropriate the symbols of the country—including the flag, the military, and hockey—as emblems of Conservatism.

      In the 2004 election, Harper made gains, but couldn't quite take down the Liberals under Paul Martin.

      Harper got a lucky (or orchestrated?) break in 2006 when the RCMP announced a criminal investigation into a government leak about income trusts. This ensured that his negative ads—deriding the Liberals as untrustworthy—resonated more deeply with voters.

      Over the following two years, the Conservatives continued throwing mud at the Liberals, focusing devastating personal attacks on the then-leader, Stephane Dion. For the most part, the Conservatives ignored the NDP.

      After Dion was crushed, the nasty blue machine turned Michael Ignatieff into a punching bag. Ads released long before the election writ was dropped claimed that the Liberal leader was "just visiting", "arrogant", and "in it for himself".

      Conservative attack ads declared that Ignatieff was "just visiting".

      Similar messages were even sent out by Conservative MPs in their mailouts to constituents. Again, the Harperites left Layton and the NDP alone.

      That's because Layton was a useful ally. He joined Harper at a news conference after the 2004 election, suggesting he was prepared to work with the Conservative leader to bring down the Liberals.

      Layton later helped defeat Paul Martin's Liberal government in 2006, which brought Harper to power. During the 2006 election campaign, the NDP trained almost all of its attacks on the Liberals, barely touching the Conservatives.

      That prompted Green leader Elizabeth May to later suggest to the Georgia Straight that Layton's real objective was to replace the Liberals as the Official Opposition.

      In 2008, Layton was more eager to criticize the Conservatives. This helped him sidestep any charge that he was only interested in slamming Liberals. But by then, most of the damage had already been inflicted on Dion by the Harperites.

      In 2011, Layton cleverly attacked the Conservatives at the start of the campaign. Once again, this enabled him to beat back accusations that his real objective was the destruction of the Liberal party.

      The message to voters was that Harper and Ignatieff were "more of the same", suggesting there was no difference between Conservatives and Liberals.

      NDP ads poked fun at Ignatieff's alleged flip-flopping on the issues, whereas Layton was portrayed as a man who knows where he stands.

      One NDP ad made Ignatieff and the Liberal caucus look like zombies.

      In the English-language leaders' debate, it was Layton's demolition of Ignatieff—by highlighting his poor attendance record in the House of Commons—that captured the most attention.

      The NDP then followed up with light-hearted ads focusing on Ignatieff missing votes in Parliament.

      This NDP ad poked fun at Ignatieff's attendance record.

      Other NDP ads emphasized that voters have a choice. This message zeroed in on female voters, traditionally a Liberal strength. I counted Layton alongside four different babies in one 30-second NDP spot.

      Layton is seen with four different infants in one of his party's ads.

      By the end of the campaign, the NDP ads were based around the theme of "Imagine a leader...who actually cares". These were filmed in an urban setting, again targeting Liberal voters.

      The NDP's "Imagine a leader" ad highlighted Layton's compassionate side.

      Looking at the trajectory over the course of the election, the NDP started by covering its back with attacks on Harper. Then it demolished Ignatieff. Following that, the NDP chased Liberal voters with a determination and sophistication that took the Grits by surprise.

      By the time the Liberals reacted, it was too late. They tried running an ad showing Layton and Harper as two sides the same coin. If you watch it closely, you'll see that most of the Liberal guns are trained on Layton, suggesting he demolished the national child-care program, undermined stronger gun control, and gutted environmental protections.

      In this ad, the coin shows Layton's face whenever a Liberal program was eliminated.

      The Conservative and NDP efforts against the Liberals resembled a tag-team wresting match. At times, Harper would clobber Ignatieff. Then Layton would take over and deliver some blows.

      Their efforts worked perfectly—almost too perfectly from the Conservatives' perspective.

      Late in the campaign, Harper realized that the NDP was gaining quickly. So the Conservatives went thermonuclear against Layton by broadcasting an ad suggesting he was in bed with Quebec separatists.

      The menacing tone claimed that Layton was driven by "blind ambition".

      Conservative ads targeted Layton near the end of the campaign.

      Then in the final weekend, an anonymous police officer's notes allegedly suggested that Layton visited a massage parlour in the mid-1990s, years before he entered federal politics. This leak from a police agency appeared to benefit the Conservatives again, just as a different RCMP leak did in 2006.

      It makes one wonder what the police might leak to the media during the next election campaign to keep Harper in power.

      Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at




      May 3, 2011 at 7:55am

      Harper is thrilled at how everything worked out. Layton seems thrilled too, but I doubt all NDP supporters are thrilled with a Harper majority. Some partisans see this is a necessary stepping stone to PM Layton, but beyond NDP partisans are Canadians who will suffer under a Harper majority. So, all in all, not a happy day for many Canadians.

      Peter Kelly

      May 3, 2011 at 7:58am

      The question now is, will progressive Canadians be prepared to step up and forge a new generic progressive movement or be stubbornly attached to party labels? The longer that the Liberals, NDP and Greens campaign against each other, the longer the Conservatives get to rule. (not govern)


      May 3, 2011 at 8:37am

      Glad to see Iggy gone. He was poinson anyways and should go back to the US where he belongs. I am glad to see a Conservative Government majority. Now we can relax and let the government do their job for the next four years instead of waiting for another elcetion.


      May 3, 2011 at 9:09am

      And yes, Charlie, you and the GS played your part in the polarization of Canadian politics and decimation of moderation as faithful servants of the NDP. Congratulations. Isn't it wildly coincidental that you publish this story the day after the election rather than in the days before.

      Fan O'Truth

      May 3, 2011 at 9:35am

      It is a fact that Michael Ignatieff was for all intents and purposes an imported leader. He did not rise through the ranks in Parliament or the Liberal Party, and was never actually chosen leader of his party in any meaningful way. He was simply annointed. That kind of advantaged path to the top was fair game for those liberal minded voters who were tiring of an attitude of entitlement and elitism.

      Smith's analysis picks over details in particular TV commercials, a fascination learned from reading to many Making of the President books. How many babies in a Jack Layton TV ad? Wow. Someone's pretty god damned desperate to find a conspiracy.

      Smith also ignored fact number one in the Liberal downfall, money. When Jean Chretien banned corporate donations he basically put the Liberal party's finances into chaos. Liberal organizers and staffers and careerists at first couldn't believe the Prime Minister was serious, and when he ploughed it through regardless, the smart among them knew it was a fatal blow. The elections since then, 2004 and onwards, have each shown further declines in Liberal fortunes as the funding situation worked its inevitable toll.


      May 3, 2011 at 9:42am

      Well, Michael Ignatieff successfully did what Harper himself couldn't do. He got the Conservatives a majority government.

      You may say he got tag teamed, and that it wasn't fair. However if Jack Layton had been the Liberal Leader you wouldn't have a Conservative government at all today. The successive terrible leaders of the Liberal party have cost them dearly. I remember seeing the candidates for the Liberal leader back when Ignatieff took over and can honestly say that I think ANY of them could have done a better job. I believe Michael Ignatieff will go down in Canadian history as the least relate-able Liberal leader in history. Even Stephane Dion you could at least see that he was struggling to do what he thought was right. Not so with Walking Eagle Ignatieff.


      May 3, 2011 at 9:57am

      article says NDP poked fun at Iggys attendence record how can you poke fun at a fact (dismal record) Ended his political career???Thats a stretch What career??? he was only around for a short time
      Lets give the Conservatives some credit for keeping us out of the fix that seems to be going on around the rest of the world


      May 3, 2011 at 10:31am

      Those parties didn't AIM to destroy the Liberals; the Tories stayed the course and the NDP continued their move to the Right.

      Blue Tories and Red Tories used the private media 'stealth' campaign to their advantage and the Liberals continued to court their traditional core which has all but evaporated.

      You can't destroy something that for the past three elections have been hemorrhaging support and seats due to their own mistakes. That's giving the Tories and the NDP too much credit.

      The biggest losers were the Bloc; their annihilation proved once and for all that Quebec votes for Quebec and 'separatism' was never really a 'core' issue in federal politics


      May 3, 2011 at 10:49am

      I'm happy for the NDP, but I'm not happy with the Conservative majority government. Harper's evangelist Christian beliefs scare me.


      May 3, 2011 at 11:01am

      Charlie, my last post before I leave the GS in search of real debate. After last night, I can no longer participate in your and the GS's promotion of the left in Canada, especially while railing against the MSM for exactly that. I had hoped for better and feel that I only serve to legitimize the GS's cheeleading.

      Signing off,