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The election’s on. The first debate is tonight. Here’s how we got here.

The election’s on. The first debate is tonight. Here’s how we got here.

As Senior Columnist for Maclean’s magazine, Paul Wells is one of Canada’s foremost political commentators. Fresh, funny and authoritative, Wells speaks in both official languages on all of the matters of the day, from Canada’s position in the global economy, to the inside scoop on what’s really happening inside the Parliament buildings. In this article today, Paul parses the last year in Canadian politics—and finds a campaign that’s been in full swing for a long time:

Any history of the Long Campaign of 2015 that begins with the official launch—the sunny summer morning of Aug. 2, 2015, when Stephen and Laureen Harper strode to the front door of Rideau Hall—will miss much of the action. Sure, many long weeks of intrigue lie ahead. The Long Campaign, at 11 weeks from writ drop to the close of polls, will be longer than the campaigns of 2008 and 2011 combined. But already a year ago, the battle was well under way. It has already seen reversals and surprises. So, as the fight of three leaders’ lives heats up, now is a good time to consider the road already travelled.

Start here, at the back of a brightly lit café on Toronto’s King Street in August 2014,where Justin Trudeau sat down with Maclean’s for a half-hour interview to mark the end of summer vacation. My first question for the Liberal leader was whether the campaign was under way. He readily agreed: “I think the way politics is done these days—certainly, if you look at the attack ads that started the day after I won the leadership—yeah, the campaign started a long time ago,” Trudeau said. “And what a campaign is, is connecting with Canadians to convince them that you have the team and solutions that are going to bring us in the right direction.”

From Trudeau’s perspective, the connection with Canadians was going rather nicely.The latest Ekos poll, released a few days earlier, showed the Liberals at 38.7 per cent of voter support, fully 13 points ahead of the Conservatives at 25.6, with the NDP pulling up the rear at a wheezy 23.4 per cent. “Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party has pushed out to a profound lead,” Ekos president Frank Graves wrote. The Conservatives’ “reign appears to be ending.” For the New Democrats, the only consolation was that NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, a scrappy Irish brawler who had made Harper’s life in question period harder than ever, had the highest approval rating of any party leader.

Not that it seemed to be doing Mulcair or his party much good. When Parliament resumed in early autumn, the mood among the capital’s long-suffering Liberals was buoyant. Many of them gathered for a wonks’ convention organized by Canada2020, a nominally non-partisan think tank whose biggest gathering yet had the buoyant mood of a return from exile.

“I’ll just go out on a limb,” David Herle, the veteran strategist who represents the Liberals on the CBC’s weekly “Insiders” panel, said when the group gathered on the Canada2020 convention stage. “I think we’ll be likely to have two new prime ministers in 2015. I think we’ll have the prime minister that will replace Stephen Harper as the leader of the Conservative party, sometime next summer. And then I think we’ll have the person that defeats the Conservative party in the next election.”

Several people in the audience chuckled at Herle’s audacity. But, only months earlier, Herle had been one of the architects of the Ontario Liberals’ surprisingly strong victory under Kathleen Wynne, and he spoke with the clout of a winner. He pressed on. “If Mr. Harper is like every predecessor, he will go deep into his mandate, into his fifth year, searching for a re-election strategy. And when he can’t find it, he will leave.”

It was possible to believe such a thing. Harper was having a wretched time of things in the House of Commons. Only a week earlier, his parliamentary secretary, Paul Calandra, had stood to deliver a tearful apology for ignoring a question from Mulcair about the Canadian Forces deployment in Iraq. On advice from strategists in the Prime Minister’s Office, Calandra had ignored Mulcair’s questions and demanded Mulcair distance himself from a self-described NDP strategist who had written inflammatory things on the Internet about Israel’s army. After days of theatrical consternation on all sides, Calandra realized, or was made to realize by the same staffers who told him their first idea was brilliant, that it wasn’t brilliant. “I would like to unconditionally and unreservedly apologize to this House for my behaviour the other day,” Calandra said at last, his voice breaking. “Clearly, I allowed the passion and the anger of something I read get in the way of appropriately answering a question to the leader of the Opposition. For that I apologize to you and to this entire House, and to my constituents.”

For the Harper Conservatives, it was only the latest brouhaha to receive saturation coverage from the Ottawa press gallery. The Conservatives had grown used to weeks like this. The 2011 majority victory seemed so distant, the mood of euphoria that accompanied it a faded memory. Harper had often seemed uncertain about what to do with all his power. He frustrated his activist party base by seeming to drift for months, then overplayed his hand with a poorly conceived attack against environmental groups who sought to block the Pacific Gateway pipeline project. A trade overture to China succeeded only in making core Conservative voters in the Alberta oil patch nervous.

And then there was the Duffy mess. Sen. Mike Duffy, once the party’s most popular fundraiser and cheerfully co-opted media hug-bunny, was headed to trial, where he would explain how his burgeoning and deeply questionable expense-account bill came to be covered with a personal cheque from Harper’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright.

Characteristically, Harper addressed headline-topping controversies like the Duffy scandal and Calandra’s comments as rarely as he could. He couldn’t win on this terrain. Instead, he kept up a steady tempo of activity with little immediate payoff but great long-term potential.

On Sept. 17, he welcomed Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, to Ottawa for an official visit and a speech to Parliament. On Sept. 24, while Calandra was stewing at home, Harper sat on stage in front of a New York City business crowd while Gerard Baker, the editor in chief of the Wall Street Journal, interviewed him gently and deferentially.

The next day, Harper addressed the United Nations General Assembly, an annual appointment he had rarely kept in past years, to discuss one of his favourite projects, a global campaign to improve maternal and child health in developing countries. “Ending preventable maternal and child deaths within a generation is possible, but not without greater political and financial commitments,” Harper told a sparse but respectful audience. “Canada will continue to champion these issues on the world stage to ensure that they remain at the forefront of the global agenda now and beyond 2015.”

And, on the very day that Calandra delivered his mea culpa up in the House, Harper was welcoming two European Union officials to sign a long-sought free-trade deal with Europe. Reporters were permitted to ask questions. One was about the growing international coalition against the so-called Islamic State terrorist group. The Obama administration had requested Canadian jet-fighter-bomber support against IS in Iraq.

The Prime Minister grew heated. “There is no reluctance here,” he said. “This phenomenon”—Islamic State—“is a direct threat to the security of this country. When we recognize there is a threat like this . . . we do our part. We do not stand on the sidelines and watch.”

A debate and vote on Canada’s action against IS were coming in the House of Commons. Harper, of course, would be in favour. Mulcair and the NDP would be against. Trudeau had a decision to make. In a speech on the same Canada2020 stage that David Herle and the other CBC “Insiders” had just vacated, the Liberal leader tipped his hand.

“At the end of every decision to enter combat is a brave Canadian in harm’s way,” he intoned. “We owe them clarity. We owe them a plan. Most of all, we owe them the truth. Mr. Harper has offered none of these.”

If the tone he sought to set was grave and thoughtful, Trudeau set about diligently sawing a hole in the floor around him with his remarks moments later, in a question-and-answer with the retired broadcaster Don Newman. “Why aren’t we talking more about the kind of humanitarian aid that Canada can, and must, be engaged in?” Trudeau asked. “Rather than, you know, trying to whip out our CF-18s and show them how big they are.” It got a laugh, but, to some, it called Trudeau’s seriousness into question.

Months earlier, a senior Conservative strategist had told Maclean’s he was unconcerned by the polls. “Three things are reasonably easy to predict,” the Conservative said. “One, Justin Trudeau is going to deliver a gaffe every month, like clockwork. Two, Mulcair and the NDP are going to come on strong and able. And three, the most appealing elements of our platform won’t kick in until the last months of our mandate.”

On Oct. 30, Harper revealed the details of those appealing platform elements. In Vaughan, a riding near Toronto that is home to the Canada’s Wonderland amusement park and to a higher proportion of voters of Italian origin than any other riding in Canada, Harper showed up for an event that had all the trappings of a campaign rally.

A Canadian flag was on the wall behind him, carefully selected Conservative-supporting constituents arrayed in photogenic rows on every side. Harper strolled freely without a lectern, teleprompters arrayed before him where TV news cameras wouldn’t catch them, stereo microphones deployed on his lapels, dress shirt unencumbered by a necktie. Any half-competent Parliament Hill semiotician would have spotted a man who was in full campaign mode, nine months before he would make it official.

Harper’s goal was to deliver, at last, on a 2011 campaign promise. A centrepiece of his tax plan that year had been a proposal to permit married couples to file income tax jointly, paying a much lower combined tax bill if one spouse’s income was much higher than the other’s. Such “income splitting” schemes are common even in progressive northern European countries, but seemed like voodoo to many Canadians, and would indeed have the effect of rewarding single-income couples with jumbo tax cuts.

In the last months of his life before his shocking death in April 2014, Jim Flaherty, Harper’s long-serving finance minister, had sounded warnings about the fairness and the political saleability of income splitting. Harper and his policy team had not ignored the warnings. They put limits on the effect of the income-splitting provision, so it wouldn’t apply to the most affluent families. They used some of the remaining money to boost the value of child tax benefits for every child under six, and to introduce new, smaller cheques for every child under 18.

And, crucially, they decided to make it all retroactive from the moment Harper spoke, even though it would be months before the legislation could pass. So, when the money started flowing, it would come out in an initial burst, like water from a tap long unused. Cheques for millions of families of all kinds. Just before a campaign began.

Harper would get out of Ottawa often, usually to the vast ring of fast-growing communities outside Toronto, where Conservatives had cemented their breakthrough in 2011 and hoped to repeat the exploit in 2015. In London on Nov. 24, he announced more than $5 billion in infrastructure spending, a New Building Canada Fund that would allow fresh Economic Action Plan signs to spring up next to construction sites from coast to coast. The elements of a Conservative re-election discourse were coming together, built on trade, a muscular foreign policy in the crisis spots of Ukraine and Iraq, and gushers of taxpayer cash coming home to roost.

But no electoral battle plan can long survive contact with the often lousy luck of the day, and all of Ottawa was battered through the autumn by a series of calamities. The worst came on Oct. 22, when the addled would-be Islamist Michael Zehaf-Bibeau murdered the unarmed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo at the National War Memorial before shooting his way into Parliament’s Centre Block. Zehaf-Bibeau died in a hail of gunfire. The business of politics paused for a couple of days. Harper announced he would introduce legislation to ensure no such thing could happen again.

The war in Iraq, and the extent to which it might inspire some terrorist strikes at home, would serve as a dark subtext for many of the ensuing events. The Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris on Jan. 7 would serve as a horrible reminder. Other incidents were less lofty, more tawdry. Trudeau kicked two MPs, Scott Andrews and Massimo Pacetti, from his caucus after NDP MPs accused them of sexual impropriety. Dean Del Mastro, a Conservative MP who had served as Harper’s parliamentary secretary, resigned his seat after a Peterborough judge found him guilty of spending over the limit on his 2008 campaign, then trying to cover it up. Del Mastro’s speech, a defiant ode to his own goodness, was an extended and nearly unwatchable demonstration of his inability to understand that actions, even his own, might have consequences. Early in the new year, Harper finally shuffled Julian Fantino out of the Veterans Affairs portfolio, where his brusque manner had succeeded in making members of a veterans’ group cry on national television.

Still, on the evidence of the polls, the race between Harper and Trudeau was narrowing. By January, the Conservatives were up a couple of points from October, the Liberals down maybe five, but Trudeau had descended from such heights that few Liberals were yet worried. Everywhere the leader stopped, the crowds were still big, happy and huggy. Because Trudeau’s closest advisers, Gerald Butts and campaign director Katie Telford, often travelled with him, they saw and continued to trust the evidence of the crowds.

Mulcair and the NDP, meanwhile, were flatlined, maybe even falling. Mulcair had wasted a lot of energy defending the use of parliamentary funds to pay for party offices in Quebec and Saskatchewan. The Commons’ Board of Internal Economy decided this was an egregious breach of the rules. Mulcair protested that the Commons committee was composed, in the main, of the NDP’s political opponents in other parties. They had a strong interest in finding the NDP guilty. Still, the mess remained a distraction.

Finally, over the Christmas holiday, Mulcair decided he was tired of eating the other parties’ dust. He replaced Raoul Gebert, his chief of staff and the organizer of his campaign in the NDP leadership race, with Alain Gaul, a Montreal lawyer who had been assigned by the Quebec premier’s office to be Mulcair’s chief of staff when Mulcair was the province’s environment minister.

Perhaps more significant, he recruited Brad Lavigne, a key architect of Jack Layton’s decade-long rise toward the NDP’s 2011 breakthrough, as a senior campaign adviser. Anne McGrath, another Layton confidante, had already returned to the fold to run the 2015 campaign. The new group persuaded Mulcair that the activities he enjoyed most—battering Harper with as many as 16 consecutive questions in question period, then taking questions in the lobby until reporters collapsed from fatigue—did not impress or even register with most Canadians. Such prolixity could even leave honest listeners wondering, at the end of a long day, what Mulcair stood for. The new staff applied jumbo pruning shears to Mulcair’s speeches and schedule. The first appearance of Mulcair 2.0 was at a caucus meeting to which news cameras were invited, on the very day the office overhaul was announced. The speech was punchy and specific. It had been “a mess” a week earlier, one of Mulcair’s advisers admitted.

One member of the old crew had not returned to the fold: Brian Topp, who had run against Mulcair for the party’s leadership as the semi-official Layton family standard bearer. Topp lost, but remained an industrious New Democrat, always on the lookout for ways to make himself helpful. His services were welcome in Alberta, where he ran the election campaign for the rookie NDP leader, Rachel Notley. Notley found herself running against Jim Prentice, long one of the most admired Calgarians in Conservative politics, polished and impeccably well-connected. But damned if Prentice didn’t turn out to be one of the worst campaigners ever to blink and stammer his way through a stump speech. On May 5, Prentice lost 60 Progressive Conservative seats, and Notley gained 50 to become the province’s first NDP premier.

Mulcair’s federal NDP had already been gaining support, a point or two a month since he shuffled his staff. But Notley’s win was a huge gift, because it provided concrete evidence that, even in Alberta, an NDP vote need not be a wasted vote. In January, the NDP had been around 20 per cent in national polls, and McGrath and Lavigne hoped to reach 25 per cent by the end of June. Now it was mid-May and they were at 28 per cent. Everything seemed possible.

“Our plan all along, going back to January, was to hold Quebec, then focus on the GTA and British Columbia,” a senior New Democrat said then. “That doesn’t mean that we ignore Saskatoon or Halifax. But those are the areas of focus, those are where the populations are, that’s where the seats are. Fifty seats in the GTA—well, that’s bigger than pretty much every other province, other than Quebec.”

That’s why the party’s ads were running in Toronto-area ridings and the lower B.C. mainland, not elsewhere. It’s why Mulcair, a lifelong Montrealer, suddenly took to calling Toronto “the most important city in the country” and visiting Vancouver as often as he could make the trip.

The NDP’s largest voter pool, the New Democrat said, was “orange-red switchers: They tried Trudeau and they’re coming back to the NDP. I submit an emerging pool is blue-orange switchers,” voters who could be coaxed away from the Harper Conservatives to support the NDP. “Maybe they’re the Oakville housewife who just wanted drugs off her street.” Maybe it was a guy who drives a truck and voted Harper Conservative three times. “Those people live in Red Deer, they live in Regina, they live in Kelowna.”

But those voters were reachable only at the highest extreme of NDP aspiration. The core battleground was university-educated progressives living in the urban core of Canada’s biggest cities. Their votes had been up for grabs since Trudeau made two surprising decisions in early February.

On Feb. 4, Trudeau said he would support Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism legislation Harper’s government had tabled five days earlier. “Matters of national security should be beyond partisanship,” Trudeau said in announcing his position. “We will take a constructive approach to improving this bill. Liberals welcome the measures that build on powers of preventative arrest, make better use of no-fly lists, and allow for more coordinated information-sharing by government departments and agencies.”

There were other provisions they liked less, Trudeau said. He would tighten some definitions, broaden parliamentary oversight, and put the law up for regular review. It must have seemed like the sort of nuanced position a responsible centrist could love. And opposing C-51 outright looked like folly. On Feb. 19, the Globe and Mail ran an article whose headline called the bill a “political juggernaut,” based on an Angus Reid poll that showed 82 per cent of respondents supported the bill. More than one-third thought it didn’t go far enough.

But, as time passed, opposition to C-51 grew, including among Liberal supporters who wondered why Trudeau could vote for a bill he planned to change later. New Democrats professed surprise at the anger Trudeau’s position was provoking among voters who would not normally follow the details of public-security legislation.

Questions about Trudeau’s judgment became more pressing on Feb. 9, when he held an hour-long, sit-down news conference in the National Press Theatre to celebrate the defection of Eve Adams. A Conservative MP of no distinction, Adams had already pulled so many shenanigans in her fight to win the Conservative nomination in a new seat that the party had told her she was no longer welcome to run. But, to Trudeau, she was the reincarnation of Pericles. “One of the many things that have impressed me about Eve Adams in recent weeks is her commitment to public service,” Trudeau proclaimed to the assembled reporters. He called Adams “value-driven,” and pronounced himself “incredibly proud of the process we’ve established” for selecting candidates.

Trudeau’s advisers liked to say that, far from being an aloof glad-hander, the Liberal leader was a keen student of retail politics at the riding level. It was becoming harder to discern any benefit to the party from that interest. Adams lost her nomination race to the sort of fellow who would run anyway without the party’s help. In the Montreal riding of Ahuntsic-Cartierville, where a former mayoral candidate named Mélanie Joly had been coaxed into running by Trudeau, so many other people sought the nomination that Joly could not be assured of victory. So the nomination meeting was delayed. By the time the campaign began, Ahuntsic still didn’t have a Liberal candidate, photogenic and Trudeau-anointed or otherwise.

But what was most unnerving for Liberals was not that they made mistakes that hurt, but that when Trudeau tried to help his cause by detailing his plans for government, it had little discernible effect. On Feb. 6 in Calgary, he began to outline his plan for reducing carbon emissions. On March 10 in Toronto, he gave a long speech about the Liberal notion of liberty. On May 4 at a family restaurant in Gatineau, Que., he revealed a set of family tax benefits that were, at lower incomes, more generous than anything Harper had envisioned. On June 16 at Ottawa’s Château Laurier hotel, he listed a vast array of democratic reforms, including a promise that the coming election would be the last under the traditional first-past-the-post mode of electing MPs. If, at least, Canadians elected a Liberal government. The odds of that were getting longer with each week that passed.

By July, Liberals had persuaded themselves that their only hope was to get into an election campaign, where Trudeau would receive an automatic share of the daily coverage. A second look would remind Canadians what they liked in Trudeau in the first place. It was the same thing Michael Ignatieff’s entourage had told themselves in the days before the 2011 campaign began. Maybe it would be true this time.

On the eve of the campaign launch, the senior Conservative and NDP sources who had spoken to Maclean’s earlier shared their latest thinking in separate interviews.

It’s said that governments defeat themselves. Certainly, the New Democrat said, the “fatigue factor” with Harper is higher now than before the four years of majority government began. But “change is only appetizing when you have an alternative you can turn to,” the New Democrat said, and it was still up to Mulcair to demonstrate he could be that alternative.

In the final days of July, as the campaign approached, the Conservatives had finally started airing ads that squarely targeted Mulcair instead of Trudeau. For Harper’s crew, putting Mulcair in their ads was the highest form of flattery, because it suggested the Conservatives were taking the NDP threat seriously. In the ads, the same job-search committee that had considered Trudeau and found him wanting turned their attention to Mulcair. A career politician, they called him. A long-time Liberal.

The New Democrat strategist professed not to be worried by the ads. “Career politician? Liberal? When you’re at the place where we’re at now, given the people we need to reach, that’s not a put-off for these people,” the New Democrat said. Calling Mulcair a wild-eyed Stalinist loon might do it; saying he’d been in positions of influence forever wouldn’t.

Or that was the claim. We’ll see. In the meantime, the NDP had some business with Harper. “He’s got two pillars that haven’t gone his way: ethical government and competent economic management.” The NDP’s “Enough” ad, which ended with Del Mastro striding to a paddy wagon in leg irons, was designed to reduce the Conservatives’ credibility on ethics. They have other tricks in store for the economic-management pillar. “Once we get done knocking those two legs out from under him,” the New Democrat said of Harper, “all he’s got left is his charm.”

Not that Harper planned to sit meekly and take it. He had already come so far. The Conservative leader had united the country’s political right, defeated the candidates of Ontario’s Tory elites for the Conservative leadership, cut the wind from Paul Martin’s sails and defeated him, then Stéphane Dion, put down an opposition coalition and, finally, made Michael Ignatieff his third victim. Now he had 11 weeks to keep Trudeau from rebounding and to make trouble for Mulcair.

“We’ve studied the orange waves,” the senior Conservative said. “There have been three of them: Bob Rae and the Ontario NDP in 1990, Jack Layton in 2011, and Rachel Notley in 2015. In all three, the NDP was not seriously scrutinized before voting day. And in Notley’s case, Jim Prentice couldn’t oppose her as an advocate of deficits and high taxes, because the PCs were running massive deficits and raising taxes.”

The difference this time, at the federal level, is twofold, the Conservative said. “We see them coming,” he said of Mulcair’s NDP, and “we have a balanced budget and we have not raised taxes. And we still have well over two months to warn voters of those consequences.”

All three large parties had high hopes for the campaign that was now, at last, beginning. All had run a hard road to get here. The Long Campaign of 2015 would decide the outcome of the even longer campaign before it.

Paul Wells/Maclean’s/August, 2015