The Accidental Prime Minister

Val Sears, the legendary feature writer for the Toronto Star, is credited with one of the best clubhouse quips in the history of Canadian election coverage.  Clambering aboard the press section of John Diefenbaker’s campaign plane one morning in 1962, he greeted his colleagues with the salutation: “To work, gentlemen!  We have a government to overthrow!”

The joke played on politicians’ suspicions about the news media, which they all too often regard as inherently and unflaggingly hostile to a candidate’s ambition for office.  But it also signaled a recognition of the growing autonomy of the media in the political arena.  The election of John F. Kennedy in the United States two years previously had served notice that party machine politics had been joined by a new style of electioneering – one that traded above all in style itself.  It became apparent that it was indeed possible, in the words of Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, to sell a politician “like soap flakes.”  Election campaigns could be propelled by pure affect, with the result that the public personae of political leaders took on proportionally greater significance.  If voters could be won over to the person, the logic ran, then they could be won over to the platform for which he or she stood and the party he or she represented.  Presumably, given a sufficiently charismatic candidate, platform and party might prove to be almost irrelevant: the leader alone could draw bodies into the polling stations.  At the time, this became known as the rise of “image politics.”

Many academics, mindful of the historical lesson of fascism, worried that this not only debased democracy, since it displaced robust debates over policy, but made dupes of the media, whose manipulation was now a prime campaign objective.  Since “image” is what today might be termed a “discursive construction,” the fourth estate provided the medium through which the persona of the leader took shape and was presented to the electorate.

However, some journalists – Sears included – recognized instinctively that a reliance on image politics entailed a dependence on campaign journalists in a way quite different from the old days of machine politics and an avowedly partisan press.  This was what made the news media quasi-autonomous players in the electoral process, because if the media were not seduced by a candidate’s image, then the voters were out of the question.  Bluntly, without ever consciously “choosing” sides, the media might indeed be instrumental to a successful campaign, but they could be just as easily pivotal to a campaign’s misfortune.

Thirty-two years after Sears’ quip, all this is old hat.  It has settled in as the received wisdom about how election campaigns are run in a media society.  And yet one of the most fascinating aspects of the electoral catastrophe suffered by Canada’s governing Progressive Conservative Party on October 25 1993, was how the Conservative campaign adhered to the logic of image politics while at the same time supposedly flaunting its departure from it.  The Conservatives set out to seduce the electorate in part by demonstrating their leader’s disdain for image politics.

There is nothing inherently wrong with such a strategy.  The no-image image has been used in North American advertising in the service of products as diverse as the Volkswagen Beetle, Smucker’s Jam (“With a name like Smucker’s, it has to be good”) and Buckley’s Cough Mixture (“It tastes terrible, but it works”).  Politically, it was used to considerable advantage by Ross Perot in the U.S. presidential campaign of 1992.  In the case of Canada’s Tories, however, almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

The intention was to present the leader as “herself” – which is to say, as a smart, fresh, candid, decisive individual who was not bound by the old rules and who cared little for media “packaging.”  In one respect, the strategy worked.  By the end of the 47 day campaign, the majority of voters believed they had been vouchsafed an honest glimpse of the real Kim Campbell.  Unfortunately for the Conservatives, what Canadians thought they saw was an insensitive opportunist with her eye on the main chance, who arrogantly thought she could swan through a federal election campaign with the most threadbare of policy platforms, who could not control her own campaign team, who blamed the media for her inability to connect with the electorate, and who, when the going got rough, caved in on policy commitments and resorted to the most hoary of campaign attack tactics.

What is remarkable about this shift in public perception is how rapidly and unapologetically it came about.  Just prior to the onset of the campaign, the country seemed fairly infatuated with her.  As Robert Lewis, editor of the newsweekly Maclean’s, wrote at the time: “Campbell appears to have grabbed the momentum … The election is there for her to win.”  Six weeks later, she had roundly disqualified herself from political life.

It is almost impossible to overstate the extent of the disaster that befell the Progressive Conservative Party in the election of 1993.  Even those who worked most assiduously to throw it out of office were flabbergasted by the results.  The party of Sir John A. Macdonald, the party of Confederation, a party that had won two consecutive majorities and had a bulging war chest to its advantage, was all but obliterated from the political landscape.  Going into the election, the party commanded 153 seats in a 294-seat House of Commons.  When it was over, they held two, losing their status as an official party and all the perquisites that go with it.  The leader herself was trounced in her own riding.

The Setting

Without a doubt, from the vantage point of early 1993, the Conservatives faced a formidable challenge in their bid for re-election.  The party of Brian Mulroney had been first elected in 1984 on promises of fiscal responsibility and “jobs, jobs, jobs,” but as they neared the end of their second term in office, in a nation of 27 million there were 1.6 million officially unemployed, the national debt was approaching $500 billion, and the annual deficit was running in the region of $35 billion.  Despite provoking a prolonged and divisive debate, the government had failed to resolve the nation’s constitutional crisis, first with the collapse of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990, and then with the rejection by referendum of the Charlottetown Accord in 1992, leaving the Quebec question if anything more inflamed.

Even the Conservatives’ achievements were clouded, at best.  They had rammed through two policies that fundamentally altered the economic life of the country: a Goods and Services Tax and a wide-ranging Free Trade Agreement with the U.S.  Both had their supporters, but the country’s political culture was marked by the ferocity with which the policies were despised by their opponents.  The Free Trade Agreement, in particular, was not simply detested as a misguided economic policy that would lead to job loss and hardship, but as a surrender of sovereignty to the United States.

By early 1993, then, the Conservatives were not just unpopular.  They were the most unpopular government in the history of Canadian polling.  And above all, the enmity focused on the party leader, Brian Mulroney.  By the end, it had gone beyond angry disagreement with policies and conduct.  From coast to coast, Canadians believed they knew Mulroney to his core, and they viscerally recoiled from a man they saw as vain, venal and all too intoxicated with the exercise of power for its own sake.  The prime minister’s friends might speak of the charming individual they knew in private, but that was not the Brian Mulroney the public saw.  When at last he announced in February 1993 that he was stepping down, the obligatory person-in-the-street reaction interviews became a chorus of uncharitable good riddance.  To say the least, the Progressive Conservative Party was saddled with an image problem.

Its machine on the ground was in no better shape, although this would not become strikingly obvious until later.  Mulroney had won two elections by building on the Tories’ traditional base in Western Canada and by eroding Liberal support in Ontario, but his crucial breakthrough had been to carry the former Liberal fortress of Quebec.  In part, he did so by promising Quebec nationalists an accommodation with their interests.

By 1993, any such lines of loyalty and alliance had been lost.  After two disappointments at the constitutional bargaining table, nationalist sentiment in Quebec was at a high point.  Prominent Quebec Tories had crossed the floor to form their own party of eight members, the Bloc Québécois, devoted to separation and sovereignty.  Their leader was Lucien Bouchard, a former cabinet minister whom Mulroney had personally recruited into federal politics.  But while the apparent strength of the Bloc in Quebec may have given the Tory strategists pause, the conventional wisdom was that this support would evaporate when Quebec voters confronted the reality that they would be casting ballots for a party that could never hold power.

Meanwhile, in the West, another new party had arisen: Reform, under the charismatic leadership of Preston Manning, the son of a former Social Credit premier of the province of Alberta.  Short, slight, bespectacled and with a strange, cracking high-pitched voice, Manning does not look much like a high-charisma politician, but the obvious comparison is with Ross Perot.  Manning’s constituency not only believes he talks sense but that he talks candidly, untainted by image consultants and unafraid to say what needs to be said.  The appeal is grassroots and the agenda is hardline conservative: immediate action on the deficit in the form of drastic surgery on supposedly bloated and inefficient social programs such as welfare, unemployment insurance and medicare; an end to fat government; stricter attention to immigration levels; and no more bending over backwards to please Quebec.

Although at the dissolution of parliament the Reform Party held only one seat (won in a by-election), it had been prominent in the defeat of the Charlottetown Accord – the sole national party to advocate rejection of the deal – and the referendum had provided it with a dress rehearsal for the election campaign to follow exactly a year later.  If the Bloc Québécois was a threat to the Conservatives in Quebec, Reform was the thorn in its side in the West and to the Right.

Nonetheless, the Tories judged their chances for re-election optimistically, largely because of what they perceived to be the weaknesses of their opponents.  And they believed that their major opponents were the two other national parties, the New Democrats (NDP) and the Liberals.

The NDP – the left-of-centre option – had been discredited by everything from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the performance of NDP provincial governments in Ontario and British Columbia during times of economic austerity.  Both provincial parties had been elected largely as protest gestures, ousting previous governments that had overstayed their welcome or squandered their goodwill, but the Canadian financial community did not react kindly to socialists running the economic engine of the country, while the people who had always voted NDP saw their ideals compromised and their interests betrayed.  Federally, the NDP hovered around nine per cent in the polls, and its leader, Audrey McLaughlin, was expected to perform stolidly, but unspectacularly, during the election campaign.

The real threat was the Liberal Party, the official opposition.  But to the glee of Tory strategists, the Liberals were led by Jean Chrétien, whom they viewed as a political albatross.  Chrétien had been first elected to the House in 1963 and had held numerous cabinet portfolios in the governments of Pierre Trudeau.  He was easily painted as “yesterday’s man.”  Even better, he had been Trudeau’s hatchet man in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and was roundly disliked in Quebec as the broker of a late-night deal in 1981 that repatriated the Canadian constitution with the approval of every province except Quebec.  He had also opposed the Meech Lake Accord on the grounds that it violated his (and Pierre Trudeau’s) federalist vision for the country.  And if Preston Manning cut an unconventional figure in the era of image politics, Jean Chrétien was a spin doctor’s nightmare.

Chrétien is not a handsome man.  He is frequently caricatured in editorial cartoons as Frankenstein’s monster, complete with bolts through the neck.  Conservative political commentator Dalton Camp once described him as “the guy who drives the get-away car.”  As a consequence of a childhood paralysis, he speaks out of only one side of his mouth.  Although bilingual, he is popularly known as someone who speaks neither official language.  His French is coarse and incorrect, and his English pronunciation, grammar and syntax are politely described as mangled.

With Chrétien at the helm, the Tories believed the Liberals had forfeited Quebec along with any possibility of inroads in the West.  Given the right leader, the Conservatives liked their chances in the next election.

The unprecedented unpopularity of Brian Mulroney might even work to their advantage, they reasoned.  If the antagonism toward the party was directed at the departing prime minister, perhaps his exit would draw the political fire.  There is every indication that Mulroney himself banked on this, and that he plotted the selection of his successor with his own symbolic liabilities in mind.

The Rise

At first blush, Kim Campbell might have seemed an unlikely choice, since she had been a member of the Progressive Conservative Party for a mere five years, but her rise within the party ranks had been meteoric.  She was elected member of parliament for the riding of Vancouver Centre in the November election of 1988, defeating her NDP rival by a slim margin of 269 votes.  In 1989 she was named Minister of State for Indian Affairs and Northern Development, a junior cabinet post, but in 1990 she was elevated to Minister of Justice and Attorney General, one of the most senior cabinet positions.  In the cabinet shuffle of January 1993, she became Minister of National Defence and Minister of Veterans’ Affairs.

She had been born Avril Phaedra Campbell on March 10, 1947, but renamed herself Kim at the age of 12 when her free-spirited mother abandoned her lawyer husband and her daughters to work on yachts in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean.  Kim took an undergraduate degree in political science at the University of British Columbia and in 1972 married Nathan Divinsky, 22 years her senior, a candidly right-wing chess master and math professor at UBC whom she had met while a student.  She eventually proceeded to doctoral studies in Soviet government at the London School of Economics, although she failed to complete the degree – a fact that would return to haunt her later, when she was slow to correct the impression that she held a Ph.D.

She returned to Canada and lectured in political science at UBC and at Vancouver Community College from 1975 until 1981, but the fact that she held only a B.A. frustrated any academic ambitions and she never held a tenure-track post.  She made her first foray into politics in 1981, taking the seat on the Vancouver School Board vacated by her husband, which she occupied until 1984.  Meanwhile, she had completed a law degree at UBC, and worked as a lawyer until 1985.

By 1986, she had divorced Divinsky and married a lawyer, a union that would also shortly founder.  In July of that year, she ran for the leadership of British Columbia’s governing Social Credit Party, a contest in which she finished dead last.  It was during that race, however, that she quipped of Bill Vander Zalm, the front-runner who would become premier, “charisma without substance is a dangerous thing.”  At the time, the remark was little noted, but as her own federal leadership aspirations took flight, it was repeated in the media like a mantra.  She was elected to the B.C. Legislative Assembly as a Social Credit member in October 1986, then jumped to the Conservatives and federal politics two years later.

It was in the high-profile position of Minister of Justice that Campbell began to attract attention as a potential party leader.  This was the portfolio held by Pierre Trudeau before winning the leadership of the Liberal Party in 1968, a position he had used to liberalize the nation’s divorce laws and to declare that “the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.”  Campbell, similarly, presided over a series of domestic policy measures that reached into the realm of the private, in her case to protect the rights of women.

It is important to recognize that, in Canada, this is where true political power resides: in the public regulation of the private.  As an economy, the nation is self-evidently integrated into a global trading system, which limits its self-sufficiency and therefore its autonomy.  Geo-politically, its foreign policy is plainly attuned to that of its most powerful traditional allies, which circumscribes its diplomatic latitude.  Even its public institutions, in which once so much faith and revenue was invested, have become problems to be managed rather than strengths to be cultivated.  The passenger rail system is all but gone.  The domestic publishing industry is on its knees.  The universities are bleeding to death.  The health care system continues to deteriorate.  The CBC is overstretched and under fire.  The entire socio-cultural superstructure is underfunded and overwhelmed.

In such circumstances, the only remaining avenue of political authority – free from external constraint, and that does not involve cutbacks, layoffs or apologies – is the one that regulates how people behave.  And given the decline of traditional public institutions and the continuing confusion over what are or should be common cultural values, the chief mechanism for policing social conduct has become the law.  The Ministry of Justice is therefore the ideal portfolio for any politician keen to demonstrate the capacity for leadership and the ability to effect social change.

Along with the position, Campbell inherited a mess.  The abortion debate was at its height, and the Supreme Court had struck down the prevailing law.  One of Campbell’s first initiatives was an abortion bill that, while it still used the Criminal Code to regulate the termination of pregnancy, nonetheless legalized abortion in many more circumstances than previously.  When the bill died in the Senate, the Minister declined to re-introduce a new one, in effect rendering abortion free from Criminal Code regulation.

In 1991, in response to the 1989 massacre of 14 women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique, she introduced gun control legislation over the objections of many of her more right-wing caucus colleagues.  Although not as restrictive as gun control advocates had demanded, the bill nevertheless made illegal many weapons that had previously been available on the market and limited the size of ammunition magazines.

By 1992, she had amended the provisions of the Criminal Code having to do with sexual assault, introducing “rape-shield” legislation.  The changes protected women bring accusations of rape from courtroom prying into their sexual history, and made the defendant responsible for proving that consent had been given for sex, rather than placing the burden on the complainant to prove that it had not.

In 1993, albeit in a move forced upon her by a court ruling, Campbell proposed amendments to the Human Rights Act that would have extended the rights of homosexuals.  The proposals were attacked from both flanks – gay rights advocates denounced them for failing to institutionalize same-sex marriages, while members of her own party railed against them as morally wrong-headed – and they were never enacted.  Nonetheless, in three short years Campbell had emerged as a prominent cabinet minister whose legislative record appeared to mark her as a centrist on social issues and therefore, in the right light, as a maverick in the Tory ranks.

However, what really ignited popular interest in Kim Campbell, the personality, was an image – specifically, a photograph.  It was taken by Barbara Woodley and first published in 1990 in her book Portraits: Canadian Women in Focus, but it was not widely noticed until two years later, when the Ottawa Citizen ran it prominently in a Saturday edition, announcing an exhibition of photographs from the book.  It showed Campbell gazing directly into the camera, bare-shouldered, and holding her legal robes before her on a clothes hanger.

What exactly the gesture was intended to mean has never been clear, and amateur semioticians have since had a field day with it.  Suffice it to say that the image was sufficiently arresting to strike a chord with the Canadian electorate.  It caused a sensation, and one altogether advantageous to the woman portrayed.

Although her body from the shoulders down was obscured by the robes, the photo gave the impression that she had posed nude (although in fact she had not).  Though her face is almost expressionless, there is something deliberately flirtatious about the image – and not simply in the sense that she is revealing while concealing her sexual self.  The pose flirts with danger and with impropriety.  At a time when pictures of naked women are denounced as licentious by those on the right and as a form of sexual violence by those on the left, what was one to make of this unorthodox, provocative and ironic pose on the part of the Minister of Justice?  To their credit, the vast majority of Canadians saw it as clever, daring and refreshing.  It suggested to them – almost literally – that there was a flesh and blood person behind the trappings of office, and they liked the person who would take the political risk such a pose appeared to entail.  The seduction of the public had begun in earnest.

By January 1993, the combination of the photograph and her legislative record had propelled Campbell into the political limelight and there was open talk among the pundits about her leadership chances.  When Brian Mulroney shuffled his cabinet that month for what was to be the last time, there was therefore considerable head-scratching in the media about the significance of Campbell’s move from Justice to Defence.  Was this a demotion, a promotion, or a lateral shift?  After all, the Department of National Defence was a perennial target of government cutbacks.  How would Campbell’s career be served by being the first woman to preside over the predominantly male culture of the nation’s military if her mandate was to proceed with its dismantling?

With hindsight, it appears obvious that the appointment was intended to round out not so much Campbell’s credentials as her developing political image.  Just as American politics in the late 20th century are drenched in nostalgia for John F. Kennedy, Canadian politics are coloured by the memory of a troika of prime ministers: John Diefenbaker, the populist lawyer; Lester B. Pearson, the international peacemaker and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work during the Suez Crisis; and Pierre Trudeau, the intellectual and philosopher-king.  The perfect political candidate would combine all of these symbolic qualities in a single individual.

As it happened, Campbell possessed – or seemed to possess – at least some of them.  She forthrightly presented herself as an intellectual, conversant in Russian and German and preoccupied with big ideas.  Her foreign language fluency may have been overstated, but at least it had a basis in reality.  Passing herself off as a populist, however, was out of the question.  In 1983, in an effort to show empathy with the disadvantaged, she told people on Vancouver’s skid row: “I know that a lot of you have faced disappointment and loss in your lives.  I have, too.  I wanted more than anything to be a concert cellist.”  In 1986, she observed that politicians represent a good many people “who may sit in their undershirt and watch the game on Saturday, beer in hand.  I suppose they would find me as boring as I would find them.”  But in many respects she had something better than kinship with the common folk: she had her gender and her age, which seemed to place her at the crest of a rising tide whose time had come.  It was the 1990s equivalent of Diefenbaker’s ‘50s grassroots appeal.

In that regard, her appointment to Defence was calculated with a view to shading in the missing Pearsonian elements.  At the time, Canadian troops were prominently involved in two global peacekeeping efforts: in Somalia and in Bosnia.  The new portfolio made Campbell Canada’s top peacemaker and vaulted her into the two hottest foreign policy issues.

As well, although the armed forces had suffered in the climate of austerity, cabinet had approved the purchase of 50 European state-of-the-art EH-101 helicopters to replace the country’s ancient fleet of Sea Kings, at a cost of $5.8 billion spread over 13 years.  Campbell had actually argued against the purchase in cabinet while Minister of Justice, but now that she was Minister of Defence she emerged as a staunch defender of the decision.  The military was desperate to procure whatever new equipment it could, for reasons of morale as surely as for national security, and was consequently happy to have a high-flying minister who would press the case.  For her part, Campbell seemed to relish having hardware under her command.  As she joked to reporters upon assuming the Defence portfolio: “Don’t mess with me.  I’ve got tanks.”

The Candidacy

By February 24, 1993, when Brian Mulroney announced his intention to step down, the stage had been set for a Campbell leadership bid.  In principle, at least, she looked to top Tory strategists to be precisely what was required.  Blonde and female, she could not have been more physically different from the departing prime minister.  She was not only a Westerner, but from bustling British Columbia, a province determined to make its growing economic clout felt within Confederation.  True, her French was only passable at best, but this would not harm her in Anglophone Canada and she might have other qualities with which to woo Quebec voters.  Most importantly, unlike Mulroney, the consummate backroom insider, her rapid and unconventional rise within the party meant that she was not tarred as part of the old gang of schemers and graspers.  She could present herself as a fresh option who, by dint of her sex and her personality, would practise a very different sort of politics.

This was a facet Tory strategists held to be paramount.  The rejection of the Charlottetown Accord in 1992 had been widely interpreted by the nation’s political elites as a repudiation of those who had championed it, namely the nation’s political elites.  Poll after poll showed a volatile, disaffected electorate, more in a mood to punish its elected representatives than to be swept up in a wave of political enthusiasm.  As Maclean’s put it: it was “a cranky, divided land” whose citizens were “fed up with old-line parties and wanting change.”  Above all, the Tories reckoned, they needed a leader who could shed the party’s old skin without reneging on what had become its central commitment, both to the public and to international money markets: namely, to erase the national deficit.  Campbell fit the bill to perfection.

As it turned out, this was the first of the Tories’ problems.  Campbell seemed so ideal that, as her bandwagon picked up speed, one by one all of her most serious leadership rivals announced that they would not run or that they were retiring from politics.  The party faced the prospect of a coronation rather than a race, not only forfeiting the policy debates that would come from a leadership contest but also the considerable public exposure.  Indeed, without a leadership race the party ran the risk of irritating an already disgruntled electorate, who might view the proceedings as yet another arrogant Tory attempt to cakewalk to victory. If there were the slightest suspicion that the fix was in – that the old guard was engineering things behind the scenes, and that therefore Kim Campbell was Brian Mulroney’s hand-picked successor – then the whole deal soured.

In the end, the party not only got the race they needed, they got more than they bargained for.  In order to concoct a contest, Mulroney himself persuaded Jean Charest, the boyish 34-year-old Minister of the Environment, to throw his hat in the ring.  At the outset, no one thought Charest had a ghost of a chance of winning.  He was too young.  He was unknown.  Like Mulroney, he was from Quebec, when protocol decreed that the next leader should be from Anglophone Canada.

An editorial cartoon by Brian Gable of the Globe and Mail caught the mood at the start of the leadership contest perfectly.  Campbell and Charest are at the starting line of an automobile race.  Campbell sits in the cockpit of an enormous Formula One-type vehicle, all engine and air foils.  Charest, caricatured as a school boy, is behind the wheel of an inexpertly-assembled wooden soapbox cart.

But a mere three weeks after Campbell had declared her candidacy and with two months still to go until the leadership convention, Gable returned to the theme.  This time Campbell’s gleaming roadster sits broken down and immobile, high-tech parts strewn by the roadside, while Charest rolls past in his soapbox.

The turnabout was remarkable.  In March, a Globe and Mail poll indicated that Jean Charest was the preferred choice for prime minister of only four per cent of Canadians and would not lift the Conservatives out of third place in an election.  By early June, only days until the leadership vote, a steady stream of polls suggested that if the Tories were led by Charest they would beat the Liberals; if they were led by Campbell they would lose.  Rumours circulated that Mulroney himself had switched allegiance from Campbell to Charest.

Most of the credit must go to Charest and his team.  They simply ran a top-flight campaign.  Their mascot and motif was the tortoise, a choice that could only have been more apt if they had actually won.  In the course of the race, Charest the unknown became a political star.  He was more comfortable and more confident in every setting, whether a candidates’ debate or an appearance on Much Music, the rock video channel.  He was perfectly, fluently bilingual – not to mention much more prescient than his near-unilingual rival about the threat of the Bloc Québécois and the need to field an adversary who literally spoke their language.  Above all, he demonstrated a quality that obstinately eluded Campbell: that ineffable capacity to cultivate goodwill and respect, even in those who might be otherwise inclined.  In a word, charisma.

If Charest ran an impressive campaign, Campbell ran a disturbing one.  She seemed incapable of anticipating how her candour might be received.  After a while, this looked more and more like an inability to imagine what it might be like to be someone other than herself – not a reassuring trait in a candidate for a job that involves representing others.

She could not refrain from giving the impression that she thought anyone who disagreed with her was contemptible.  During one of the leadership forums, she described opponents of the Conservatives’ deficit-reduction strategy as “enemies of Canadians” – hence branding everyone who was not a paid-up Tory as treasonous.  When pressed as to whether the remark might not have been intemperate, she shrugged that “I have a passionate and candid way of expressing myself.”

In the midst of the leadership fray, she granted a long interview to author Peter C. Newman, scribe to the rich and powerful, which ran in the May issue of Vancouver magazine, and in which she described her decision to join the Anglican Church as a means of “warding off the demons of the papacy” – thus offending every Catholic in the country.  More damaging were her thoughts on Canadians who choose not to involve themselves in politics through party membership.  “Who do they think is working to keep this society intact,” she told Newman, “so they can have the luxury of sitting back and being such condescending S.O.B.s?  The hell with them.”  Again, she dismissed the resulting flap by saying that she was just being “candid and open.”

In what was to become a leitmotif of both her leadership and election campaigns, she insisted that the problem lay not in her frankness but with the news media, who were not used to a politician who spoke her mind.  It was not up to her to be mindful of the reactions her words might prompt, she implied; and if those reactions were adverse, this was the fault of the media, not the candidate.  The message was that the media would have to learn to love Kim Campbell, not the reverse.

In the meantime, the media did in fact love Kim Campbell, although in their own black way.  Adrian Raeside’s editorial cartoon in the May 20 Victoria Times-Colonist showed a map of “Kim Campbell’s Canada,” divided into 13 regions bearing labels such as “Papal Demons,” “Linguistically Challenged Jews,” “Condescending S.O.B.s,” and “Beer-Drinking Papists.”  The nation’s capital was cheerily labelled “Me.”  In a similar vein, an Anthony Jenkins cartoon in the Globe and Mail four days later had Campbell greeting a voter with the words: “Pleased to meet you, you spotty little nonentity.  I hope you’ll get off your fat butt and vote for me come election day.”  The unpackaged honesty and authenticity Campbell was trying to project was fast becoming an image of hubris, intolerance and petulance, and her much-vaunted claim to be practising a new “politics of inclusion” was being revealed as precisely the sort of empty rhetoric that had always been bandied by politicians.

When the Conservative delegates arrived in Ottawa for the June 13 leadership vote, the race was too close to call.  Right up until the last moment, Charest’s momentum appeared to build, helped by a fiery speech to the convention, while Campbell delivered a speech in what the Globe and Mail would later call the “wooden, sessional-lecturer style she found prime ministerial.”  But in the end, too many delegates had been pledged to Campbell too early in the race, and her people made the commitments hold.  Campbell won by a whisker on the second ballot, taking 52.7 per cent of the votes.

Even in victory, she managed to appear ungracious.  Her attitude toward her rival seemed to be one of irritation that he had inconvenienced and upstaged her, robbing her of undivided adulation.  In her acceptance speech, she made only one brief reference to him: “Jean – you’re one hell of a tortoise.”  So much for the politics of inclusion.

That evening among the Tories there was little of the exhausted euphoria one might have expected following the crowning of a new leader.  Charest’s supporters were bitter, convinced the party had made the wrong choice, and many of those who had actually voted for Campbell worried that they might be right.  Journalist Michel Vastel spoke for many of the delegates when he wrote the following morning in Le soleil: “Just before 8:30 last night, 3452 Conservative Party members chose the next prime minister of Canada: Jean Chrétien.”

But then the most peculiar thing happened.  As the summer progressed, the country seemed to fall under the spell of the first woman to hold the office of prime minister.  The race was over, the House was in recess, and Campbell was neither being dogged by a rival nor pestered by annoying questions from reporters.  She visibly relaxed.  She spent what became known as “the summer of love” making one public appearance after another.  On Canada Day, July 1, she jetted from one end of the country to the other, watching the sun come up at Signal Hill, Newfoundland, dropping in on the celebrations on Parliament Hill, and ending the day in her home town of Vancouver, greeted by cheering crowds wherever she appeared.  She danced the twist at the Ontario Art Gallery premiere of Ron Mann’s documentary The Twist.  She ate hot dogs at country fairs and wore tartan at Scottish games.  She posed with the other G-7 leaders in Tokyo.

She also humanized herself by joking about her weight (of which she thought she had too much) and her love life (of which she thought she had too little).  She complained about her inability to get “the prime ministerial bum into the prime ministerial skirt.”  On a Quebec talk show hosted by the bubbly Julie Synder, she bemoaned the fact that life in Ottawa left little time for “le hanky panky.”

By early September, she had single-handedly pulled her party from a low of 19 per cent in the polls to 36 per cent, even with the Liberals, and her own approval rating vastly outstripped that of Jean Chrétien.  Senior Tory strategists believed they had everything they needed to win an election.  They would base their campaign on the personal popularity of the prime minister.

The Campaign

In the aftermath of the disaster that followed, there was blame enough for all involved.  The campaign team was a forced alliance of people who had worked for Campbell and people who had worked for Charest.  The two camps did not always work well together.  The cabinet proved itself incapable of agreeing on an election platform.  There were repeated breakdowns in communication and co-ordination between campaign headquarters and the prime minister’s staff on the campaign trail.  Allan Gregg, the pollster and chief strategist, was undergoing a family tragedy and was so frequently absent in the early stages of the race that he was nicknamed Waldo by his own colleagues (after the Where’s Waldo? children’s books) and “the accidental tourist.”  But the fatal flaw, when all was said and done, was building the campaign on the persona of the leader.

Things went wrong even before the election was called.  Given that the sole policy issue on which the party would run was deficit reduction, it was obvious that $5.8 billion worth of submarine-hunting helicopters was going to be a tough political sell, especially since the end of the Cold War had sparked talk of a “peace dividend.”  Cancelling the deal, however, was not only financially messy but politically perilous, since it was Campbell herself who had defended the purchase as Minister of Defence.  If she stood fast, she handed her opponents a cudgel with which to beat her.  But if she scrapped the choppers, she looked weak, indecisive, opportunistic or worse.

In the last few days before the writ was dropped, the Tories did what they could to jettison unpleasant ballast by getting the bad news out of the way before the campaign began.  There were announcements of more fishery closures in Newfoundland because of depleted cod stocks.  It came to light that Canadian peacekeeping troops had tortured to death a young Somali man.  The choppers, similarly, had to be dealt with.  On September 2, calling it the “toughest political decision” of her career, Campbell announced she was cutting the number of helicopters from 50 to 43.  Citing a costing scheme that looked dodgy at best, she claimed this would shave $1 billion from the purchase price.

It was probably the worst decision she could have made.  Far from being “tough,” it looked like a feeble compromise, and it still left a weapon in the hands of her enemies.  Even her talk about being a tough decision suggested someone shell-shocked by her introduction to power brokerage politics.  She wasn’t helped by her Minister of Defence, Tom Siddon, who responded with exasperation to reporters’ persistent questioning, blurting that “Sometimes you guys are so preoccupied with the truth that you don’t understand that time changes a lot of things.”

It would never get any better.  In announcing the election call, Campbell barely mentioned jobs, hope or opportunity.  She droned instead about deficit reduction.  Asked when the level of unemployment was likely to dip below 10 per cent, she replied that “I would like to see, certainly by the turn of the century, a country where unemployment is way down and we are paying down our national debt and there is a whole new vision of future opening up for Canadians.”

A Gallup poll released only two days before had shown than 41 per cent of respondents worried they could lose their jobs in the next 12 months.  Campbell’s response not only seemed to betray an uncaring policy wonk’s disregard for those who were currently unemployed, but did nothing to allay the fears of those who did have jobs.  She appeared to be telling the electorate not to expect any improvement until the next millennium, and she failed to display any real anguish over it.  Wags remarked that while Clinton’s campaign refrain had been “always believe in a town called Hope,” Campbell’s could have been set to the tune of “Town Without Pity.”  Almost overlooked was the last part of her response.  Apparently, voters could expect no “new vision of [the] future” from Kim Campbell.  That, like employment, would have to wait until the end of the century.

Jean Chrétien pounced immediately, launching his campaign by unveiling a two-year $6 billion public works plan to rebuild the country’s infrastructure of roads and bridges that he claimed would create between 100,000 and 120,000 jobs.  The provinces, municipalities and the federal government would each contribute a third of the cost.  Asked where the money would come from, he vowed to cancel the helicopter deal outright.  From the start, the Liberals pitched themselves as offering both hope and ideas, while the Tories offered neither.

Immediately, a campaign dynamic was in place.  The Liberals had been prevented from running on the charisma of their leader for two reasons.  First, he didn’t have any.  Polls consistently rated him poorly in terms of popularity.  Second, given his lack of telegenic appeal, no one counted on him ever suddenly developing it.  Instead, under Chrétien’s tight organizational rein, the party spent a year preparing for the election behind the scenes, developing a platform and plotting a strategy.  Although the Liberals therefore paid enormous attention to packaging and spinning their message for the media, it was the Conservatives who could be accused of running a superficial campaign on nothing but style.  That the Tories’ style was supposedly based on a contempt for “image politics” only added to the irony.

Various senior Tories expressed frustration over the media reaction to Campbell’s opening remarks of the campaign.  She was merely being honest and realistic about the unemployment problem, they insisted.  There were no quick fixes and anyone who would have the voters believe otherwise was trying to hoodwink his way into office.  How could it be a gaffe to tell the truth?

But this was a disingenuous response.  People who had planned a campaign around the candidate’s candour surely had to confront the reality that how something is said can be as important as whether it is true.  Blaming the media for adverse public reaction is the first sign of panic in any campaign.

The media quickly became accustomed to being blamed by the prime minister.  The day after her “turn of the century” pronouncement, she was sticking to what the Globe and Mail described as her “grim assessment” of the immediate future.  A reporter asked why she seemed to be campaigning on a theme of pessimism, and she snapped that “Maybe you need a hearing aid.  I am offering hope – hope for a solid economy.”  This was the first of many declarations that the media simply did not understand – and therefore misrepresented – Campbell’s campaign.  Her metaphor, however, was ill-advised.  Many Canadians do indeed require hearing aids, including the Ottawa bureau chief of the Globe and Mail.  Campbell’s crack in no way influenced her press coverage, but many of the parliamentary press corps could not help but count it as a faux pas.

The plan, to the extent that the Tories had one, called for painting the Liberals as profligate.  But since the Liberals’ $6 billion infrastructure proposal would cost the federal government only $2 billion – which the Liberals claimed would come from redirecting existing revenue – the Conservatives were taken off guard.  Preston Manning of Reform stole their thunder.  An even more adamant deficit fighter than Campbell, Manning, rather than playing up the cost of the Liberal proposal, belittled it as naïve, a sop to public sentiment, and ignorant of how economic recovery actually worked.  “Any politician who thinks you can stimulate a $700 billion GNP economy with some sewer projects and $2 or $3 billion in public works,” Manning scoffed, “believes you can start a 747 with a flashlight battery.”

In keeping with her promise to “change the way politics are practiced,” Campbell eschewed the usual stump speeches before partisan audiences in favour of town hall-style meetings with voters.  She kept a notebook to hand, all the better to record the mood of the people.  Perhaps unduly swayed by the favourable response to her bare-shouldered portrait and her running commentary about a shortage of “le hanky panky,” she continued to play the coquette.  Appearing on a Toronto radio station, she flirted on-air with traffic reporter Darryl Dahmet, first inquiring whether he was single and then, when asked what she had in mind, volunteering that “I could get interested.”

But what had been fresh, inclusive and humanizing during the summer seemed inappropriate on the campaign trail.  Campbell was awkward in the town hall setting, especially in contrast to Preston Manning, who was also holding town hall-style gatherings but who was infinitely better at them, largely because he used the occasions to field tough questions and explain his positions rather than pretend he was getting in touch with the grassroots.  Manning proceeded from the assumption that he was already well attuned to the grassroots.

As well, Campbell’s decision to forego partisan rallies was not in fact innovative or original.  It had actually been pioneered by Pierre Trudeau in 1972, when the tactic was dubbed “conversations with Canadians.”  Similarly, Campbell’s notebook, rather than being a sign of her attentiveness, became a quickly-abandoned symbol of her lack of a policy platform.  The time for listening was long past.  The voters wanted to hear what she had in mind should she form a government.

Even her flirtatious humour went nowhere.  Now that the election campaign was on, voters cared little about Kim Campbell’s sex life.  It had nothing to do with the job at hand.

On September 15, the Liberals unveiled a 112-page policy document titled “Creating Opportunity,” but popularly known as the Red Book.  In addition to their public works program, the book contained promises to create a youth apprenticeship program, to replace the hated Goods and Services Tax (although it did not say how), and to negotiate stronger anti-dumping rules for the North American Free Trade Agreement, threatening to rescind the agreement if these were not forthcoming.  And while Manning and Campbell were competing as to who could eliminate the deficit more swiftly – Manning promised it could be done in three years, while Campbell held that five years was realistic – the Liberals were content to reduce it over three years from 5.2 per cent of GDP to 3 per cent.

As much as the Tories tried to ridicule the Red Book, it gave the Liberals a huge advantage.  At every campaign stop, they could brandish it as evidence that they had concrete policy proposals.  They offered it as a contract between the party and the voters, so that if elected the public could hold them to their promises.  And every time they waved it in the air at a rally, they would produce an empty blue binder, joking that it represented the Conservatives’ platform.

Despite the fact that she was running on slashing the deficit, Campbell offered no details of how she proposed to do so, claiming that this was because of inconsistencies in federal bookkeeping methods that would take two months to clear up.  By the second week of the campaign this was beginning to rankle, but so far the Conservative numbers were holding steady.  On September 20, a ComQuest/Globe and Mail poll put the Liberals and Conservatives at 35 per cent each, the Bloc Québécois and Reform at 11 per cent each, and the NDP at 6 per cent.  On September 23, however, the Tories managed to infuriate entire swaths of the electorate.

The NDP’s Audrey McLaughlin had gone public with a leaked government document that she claimed showed the Conservatives had a secret agenda: their deficit reduction plans were based on gutting spending on the social welfare net.  On the outskirts of Montreal, questioned about the allegations, Campbell conceded that the country would have to “completely rethink” its system of social security, but refused to discuss what the government might have in mind, snapping that “You can’t have a debate on such a key issue as the modernization of social programs in 47 days.”  When it was suggested that an election might be an ideal time for such a debate, she responded testily: “That’s the worst possible time to have that discussion because it takes more than 47 days to settle anything that is that serious.”

Horrified, her campaign chairman, John Tory, immediately urged her to retract the statement or to insist that she had not meant what she appeared to have said.  Campbell flatly refused, adamant that she had said nothing objectionable.  But the damage had been done.  The headline in the Globe and Mail the next day read: “PM won’t touch key issue.  Social programs called too vital for campaign trail.”  To voters of all persuasions, it appeared that the mask had slipped and that for a brief instant they had seen the real Kim Campbell, someone who held both the public and the democratic process in disdain.  Outrage built to a crescendo.  Either she was almost inconceivably arrogant or she did indeed have a secret agenda.  In the week following the remark, the Tories’ own polls showed they had plummeted 12 percentage points.

Characteristically, Campbell refused to accept responsibility.  Within 24 hours, she was blaming the media for “spinning” her remarks out of context.

The Fall

On September 26, the first salvo of political ads hit the airwaves.  According to a bizarre formula based on the number of seats each party held, the number of candidates fielded in the previous election and the percentage of popular vote won, Elections Canada allocated different amounts of advertising time to the various parties.  The system clearly worked to the disadvantage of Reform and the Bloc Québécois, which had not run in the previous election.  The result was that the three traditional parties received the lion’s share of allowed advertising exposure: 116 minutes for the PCs, 78 for the Liberals and 55 for the NDP.  The Marxist-Leninists, who had not won a seat since 1948, got 16 minutes, while the Bloc received only 5.

The NDP ads were the most visually arresting.  Shot in black and white, each spot featured jerky close-ups of actors pretending to be “ordinary Canadians” venting rage at the government.  Clearly, the idea was to tap into voters’ disgruntlement.  In their execution, however, the ads were probably over the top.  These did not look like people preparing to vote.  If anything, they looked like the beginnings of a lynch mob.

The English-language Liberal ads were the safest of the bunch and likely the most successful, blending a bleak montage of empty storefronts and going-out-of-business signs with footage of a relaxed and confident Jean Chrétien.  By contrast, the Tory ads were simply baffling.  Obviously crafted to capitalize on what the Conservatives thought was their major asset, the Tories prepared eight English-language ads, each a minute long and all but one entirely given over to Kim Campbell talking earnestly to someone off-screen.  Not only were they visually becalmed in the tropic of the talking head, they failed to mention the lone Conservative campaign issue of deficit reduction.  Even worse, Campbell herself came across as an officious school principal, patiently explaining matters to an audience of slow-witted pupils.

They ended with the slogan “It’s time,” which only begged the question: time for what?  Time for bed?  Time to drink up?  Presumably, it was time for a change, but this was an odd slogan for the party in power.

Given what was to come, the Liberals’ French-language ads deserve special mention.  Aware that in Quebec Chrétien was widely viewed as a political Neanderthal, the Liberals decided to confront their image problem head-on.  The ads featured tight close-ups of Chrétien’s disfigured grimace, along with slogans such as “Funny looking head, sure, but what vision.”

Meanwhile, embarrassed by the Liberals’ Red Book and battered by accusations that they offered no specifics on their deficit reduction plan, on September 28 the Tories released their response, the Blue Book, a feeble effort that looked cobbled together, and that the Liberals easily ridiculed as a brochure.  In a speech to bored high school students in Surrey, B.C., the prime minister attempted to outline how she would eliminate the deficit without touching social programs by cutting $5.85 billion from federal spending over five years.  (This was not the last time she would address a speech to an inappropriate audience.  In North Battleford, Saskatchewan, she talked about deficit reduction to kindergarten students.)  The entire scenario was based on rosy projections about increases in tax revenue as the economy moved out of recession, but try as they might reporters could not get the numbers to add up.  It was revealed only later that Campbell had gone into the speech ill-prepared.  Senior campaign staff had been sent from Ottawa to Vancouver to brief her over the weekend on the specifics, but they never actually sat down with her.  She was too busy spending time with her boyfriend, a Montreal inventor.

The following day, she met with senior political correspondents and editors at the Globe and Mail, when she again tried to explain how she would eradicate the deficit, and again the numbers refused to balance.  The Globe staffers were astonished at how poorly prepared she was.  At one point, Hugh Winsor, of the paper’s parliamentary bureau, had to point out that she was misreading her own charts: she was reading horizontally, whereas the numbers added vertically.

Given the inevitable reaction in the press, Campbell’s response was predictable.  She told BCTV in Vancouver that “the problem was that the people who were covering it [her economic plan] didn’t understand the message.”  In two subsequent radio interviews, she held that the connections between deficit reduction and job creation “were difficult things for the media to get a grip on and to cover.”

By early October, the Tories knew they were in serious trouble and were relying on a sterling performance from Campbell in the leadership debates of October 3 and 4 to pull out of the nosedive.  It did not happen.  The French-language debate was dominated by an exchange over patriotism between Chrétien, the federalist, and Bouchard, the Quebec nationalist.  In the English-language debate Bouchard savaged Campbell, demanding to know the true size of the deficit.  She stammered and evaded, tying to ignore Bouchard, while he kept repeating “Answer the question.”  She left the impression that either she did not know – something that seemed unthinkable for a prime minister who had made the deficit her sole issue – or she was concealing what she did know, presumably that the figure was much worse than the government had let on.  As it turned out, it was both.  At the time, she did not have the true figure at hand; when the numbers eventually came to light, they were worse than had been imagined.

Without the boost they needed from the debates, the Tories abandoned Campbell’s town hall-style meetings along with her promise to shun “the glib glad-handing of the past,” and resorted to traditional stump speeches before banner-waving crowds of party faithful.  They also unveiled a new set of ads, one of which ridiculed the Liberals’ job-creation scheme by showing a construction worker with a wheelbarrow brimming with gold one-dollar coins, shoveling the Loonies into a ditch.  It merely had the effect of offending blue-collar workers, who saw the ad as belittling their labour.

The final straw, however, came with the Tories’ last attempt at counter-punching via advertising.  Backed into a corner, they opted to go on the attack, targeting what they thought was the Liberals’ chief weakness: Jean Chrétien.  They prepared two ads, both composed of unflattering still photographs of Chrétien’s face, showing him with his eyes closed, or with a dazed expression, or focusing on his twisted mouth.  “Is this a prime minister?” one asked.  The other closed with a woman’s voice-over saying: “I personally would be very embarrassed if he were to become the prime minister of Canada.”

The first of the ads aired on October 14 at 7:35 p.m. Eastern time, and instantaneously backfired.  No matter that the Liberals had done something almost identical in their own French-language ads.  These were the Tories, and they sought not to see past Chrétien’s appearance, but to demean him on the basis of it.  People took one look at the ads and denounced them as bigotry, pure and simple – a disgraceful attempt to take political advantage of the man’s disfigurement.  Even more galling, if anything, was that the ads had issued from a campaign that had trumpeted its commitment to a new style of politics, a politics of inclusion.

By the next morning, the Liberals were in high dudgeon all over the media and the ads had become a major news story.  Chrétien’s own reaction, carried live on Newsworld, the CBC’s all-news channel, struck exactly the right emotional chord: it was heart-breaking because it seemed so heart-felt.  “They have a new ad that doesn’t talk about their policies or my policies,” he said.  “They try to make fun of the way I look.  God gave me a physical defect and I’ve accepted that since I was a kid.  When I was a kid, people were laughing at me.  And I accepted that because God gave me other qualities.”  Even hardened politicos who were there said they felt their eyes misting over.

The Conservatives had done more than just torpedo themselves.  In the dying days of the campaign they had done what the Liberals never even attempted: they had given Jean Chrétien charisma.

Throughout the day, the phones at every PC office in the country rang off the hook with people demanding an apology, quitting the party or calling for the resignations of those responsible.  Even within the faithful, a sense of shame was growing.  People were returning campaign signs.  Campaign workers were in tears.  Others were livid.  Tory candidates themselves called for the ads to be pulled immediately.  Moe Mantha, running for the PCs in North Bay, Ont., described them as “vicious, mean-spirited [and] insensitive.”

The lack of coordination within the Campbell campaign was such that the ads had aired without Campbell seeing them in advance.  At first, she seemed to defend them.  She apologized only later and only after repeated questioning from reporters.  When it came, the apology was half-hearted; she suggested that people had “misinterpreted” the ads.

If the Tories thought there was no way it could get any worse, they were in for one last ugly surprise.  On the very day that Campbell had been forced to apologize for the ads, she had given an interview to the editorial board of La presse.  It appeared the following morning, and in it she insulted Jean Charest for his leadership campaign and spoke unflatteringly of Brian Mulroney and his deputy, Don Mazankowski.  Not content to blame the media for her misfortunes, she had apparently begun to blame fellow Tories.  Jean Corbeil, one of her own cabinet ministers, released a letter censuring her.

From then on, the campaign was over for the Tories.  The multi-party dynamic was such that the Liberals carried Atlantic Canada; in Quebec, the Liberals took Anglophone and allophone-rich Montreal, while the Bloc Québécois took most of the rest of the province; in Ontario the anti-Liberal vote split between Reform and the Conservatives, allowing the Liberals to take the lion’s share of the seats; the West went predominantly Reform with Liberal pockets.  The Bloc Québécois just pipped Reform at the post for the title of Official Opposition.  The Conservatives took only 16 per cent of the popular vote and won only two seats.  Elsie Wayne, the popular mayor of Saint John, New Brunswick, won in her home town in her first federal outing.  And Jean Charest was returned in Quebec.

The extent of the Tory collapse took even insiders aback.  On the eve of the election, barroom talk had the Conservatives winning perhaps 40 seats, if they were lucky.  Those with access to private polling data thought the figure was closer to 20.  As the returns rolled in on the evening of October 25, CBC political commentator Rex Murphy looked at the big board set up in the Barbara Frum Atrium of the new CBC Broadcasting Centre and summed it all up in a single word: “Gadzooks.”


In November, Campbell granted Peter Kent of Global TV the first of two interviews she had promised for a documentary the network was preparing on the Tory defeat.  Pressed to identify where it had begun to go wrong, she told him: “When the poll came out showing that I had an approval rating as prime minister of, ah, the highest since Pearson, I got a sense that this was a psychological turning point, that somehow the media decided that maybe I was getting some sort of free ride.”

To the end, she blamed the media.  She refused to appear for the second

Media Information Australia August 1994