Shortly after the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) took power in January 2006, I started to receive black-and-white ‘postcards’ at my home in Waterloo, Ontario, about 100 kilometres southwest of Toronto, Canada’s largest city. Slightly wider than a bookmark, their long, rectangular shape and black-and-white graphics set them apart from the usual bills, letters and flyers, as they began arriving on a frequent, albeit irregular, basis.
While the first extolled the ‘virtues’ of ‘Canada’s New Government’ and its commitment to particular (Conservative) promises, such as cutting the ‘Goods and Services Tax’ (GST), later postcards focused specifically on attacking the Liberals and their new leader, Stéphane Dion.
It turned out that my residence was in a bellweather riding, Kitchener-Waterloo, and I began to record their arrival. At the time, the riding was held by a Liberal, but all of these black-and-white postcards and leaflets were sent by Conservative MPs, most of whom represented ridings that were hundreds and thousands of kilometres away. By the time the 40th general election was underway in September 2008, I had received 35 of these postcards and leaflets in less than 32 months of the first minority government of CPC leader, Stephen Harper.
These postcards and leaflets, which became known as ‘tenpercenters’, played an unacknowledged role in a broader Conservative campaign strategy (e.g. Kozolanka, 2009). While it may be difficult to ascertain the direct impact of the CPC’s use of tenpercenters, their role in repeating and reinforcing Conservative messages on TV, radio and web is still an important one. The quantity, repetition and focus of these political leaflets and their graphics, symbols and messages is part of the continuous campaigning that scholars agree is the mark of both minority governments and the influence of US Republican Party tactics (e.g. Kozolanka, 2009; LeDuc and Pammett, 2009: 300).
Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party had been engaged in a ‘permanent campaign’ to obtain a majority of seats in Parliament since forming a minority government in January 2006; they finally succeeded in doing so on 4 May 2011. Conservatives were shut out of power for more than 12 years, in part, because of the skill of Jean Chrétien and his Liberal Party, which returned two majority governments on successive occasions after its initial landslide win in 1993.
The Right had been split between the Reform Party, representing the ‘populist’ resentment of the West, and the Progressive Conservative Party, representing a combination of traditional Conservatives and establishment neoliberals in eastern Canada; the two parties merged in 2004 and became the Conservative Party of Canada with Harper as its leader. Between their initial victory on January 23, 2006, and their second victory on October 14, 2008, which still fell short of a majority despite an increase in seats (to 143 from 124), Harper’s Conservatives had operated tactically in Parliament while awaiting the most propitious moment to go to the electorate to try and obtain a majority government.
In Harper’s Team, University of Calgary political scientist and former campaign manager and advisor to Stephen Harper, Tom Flanagan explains that the Conservatives make use of every activity, funded by the House of Commons (i.e. taxpayers), that they can direct for their propaganda and voter identification activities, such as travel to ridings and ‘public opinion research to find policies that will resonate with target demographic groups’. Conservative campaign strategy also included opinion polling, grassroots fundraising and focus groups, setting up a ‘war room’, and the ‘constituent information/issue management system’ (CIMS) which enabled them to engage in ‘[v]oter identification linked to fundraising … 363 days a year (Christmas and Easter excepted)’; the latter two tenpercenter series include a postage-paid ‘response card for voter identification’ (Flanagan, 2009: 316, 317). While ‘[a]ll parties do some of these things some of the time’, no one coordinates their activities or does it on the scale of the CPC: they “have produced the campaign equivalent of Colin Powell’s doctrine of ‘overwhelming force’” (Flanagan, 2009: 317).
Harper’s Conservatives use tactics similar to those of US Republicans and seek to evade scrutiny and to prevent Parliament from accomplishing work that would not benefit the partisan interests of the Conservative Party. For example, a series of news reports since their arrival in office highlight tactics such as: a 200-page ‘secret Tory handbook on obstructing and manipulating Commons committees’ (Canadian Press, 2007a); the use of Conservative Party logos and slogans on over-sized ‘prop cheques’ in publicity photo-ops when handing out public funds and, contrary to the ‘non-partisan’ nature of government disbursements of public funds, sometimes inviting unelected or defeated Conservative candidates to participate while non-CPC elected or sitting MPs were excluded (Delacourt, 2009); claiming that opposition MPs were ‘Taliban sympathizers’ when raising questions about the Government’s handling of Afghan detainees (Canadian Press, 2007b); and the use of taxpayer-funded political leaflets, known as ‘tenpercenters’, to perpetuate a sustained campaign of ‘character assassination’ against Liberal leader Dion (Campion-Smith, 2009).
The CPC’s permanent campaign for a majority government included identifying ridings as targets for the next election, among them Kitchener-Waterloo and Kitchener Centre, long considered bellwether ridings for their history of predicting winners. At one time, Ontario was not just Canada’s most populous province, but also its economic powerhouse, and the area is still home to a struggling manufacturing sector, but it also now hosts technology companies, such as Research-in-Motion and Open Text, two universities and one college. Although the Liberal incumbent MPs in these two ridings were re-elected in 2006 with solid majorities of several thousand, both were unseated in the 2008 election, providing two of the 19 additional seats won by the Conservatives. In Kitchener Centre, the incumbent, Karen Redman, a Liberal Party whip in the House of Commons, lost to Conservative candidate, Stephen Wordworth, by 339 votes, although this was only 349 more votes than his predecessor received in the 2006 election. Almost one-in-four of Redman’s votes (5,573) ‘disappeared’ as voters were turned off or away. In Kitchener-Waterloo, on the other hand, the Conservative candidate, Peter Braid, increased the overall Conservative vote by 3,013, from its 2006 tally of 18,817, and unseated a sitting Liberal MP and former cabinet minister with a majority of more than 12,000; Andrew Telegdi, lost by a mere 17 votes on the recount, the closest race of all 308 ridings; his vote had dropped by nearly one-third (9,323), another example of voter suppression.[i]
The Conservatives began a sustained campaign to promote themselves as ‘Canada’s New Government’ (Kozolanka, 2009) almost immediately after taking office on 23 January 2006 and then launched their negative campaign attacking Dion’s character and credibility within weeks of his selection as Liberal Party leader in December 2006 and more than 18 months prior to the 2008 general election. Tenpercenters were used to reinforce and reiterate Conservative messages from other media (TV, radio, web) which wielded (negative) influence that, while hard to measure, should not be ignored or underestimated. It is fundamentally an anti-democratic tactic and strategy to discourage people from participating in an election.
While many may have simply discarded the Conservative leaflets, some may have been persuaded not to vote for the Liberals or may have been turned off of voting altogether, a process which is a form of ‘voter suppression’. For example, LeDuc and Pammett (2009: 303-305) point out that a POLLARA post-election poll identified as ‘[m]ost prominent … the rise in reasons connected with negative attitudes towards election contest’, with 27% of non-voters indicating that they did not vote for reasons of negativity: ‘that the 2008 campaign developed a particularly nasty tone, with negative advertising beginning even before the election was called…’ (LeDuc and Pammett, 2009: 305). Nationally, voter participation dropped from 64.7 to 58.8 percent of the electorate from the 2006 to the 2008 elections.
The impact of the overall drop in voter turnout meant that in the Kitchener-Waterloo riding there were 5,934 fewer voters in 2008 compared to 2006, despite an increase of nearly 2,800 voters in the electorate from 94,749 to 97,511, whereas in the Kitchener Centre riding, there were 5,335 fewer voters despite an increase of just over 1,000 in the electorate from 77,940 to 79,062. It was more the loss of Liberal voters overall, nationally and locally, than a positive turn to the Conservatives, even though in Kitchener-Waterloo the CPC did record a significant increase: nationally, the Conservatives received 165,002 less votes than in 2006, whereas the Liberals lost 846,230 and the NDP 74,309. In both Kitchener-area ridings, the NDP vote also dropped whereas Greens increased their share of the vote. Some erstwhile Liberal voters probably felt confident that Telegdi was secure with his 12,000-plus majority and voted for the Green Party, which increased their votes over 2006 election; other voters were simply ‘turned off’.
[i] The Conservative upset in Kitchener-Waterloo was almost repeated in Vancouver South, where Ujjal Dosanjh, Liberal MP, retained his seat by a mere 20 votes, down from a majority of 9,135 in 2006, the second closest race of 2008. Did tenpercenters also flood his riding before the election?
[This is part of a longer article that I have written.]