Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

For Ignatieff, 'the hatchet job is complete'

Michael Ignatieff waves goodbye to supporters as he walks off stage after his election defeat in Toronto on May 2, 2011.

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Michael Ignatieff's future at the helm of the Liberal Party was unclear early Tuesday morning as he and his team assessed the damage that's reduced the party to a 34-seat rump.

The Liberal Leader clarified things for his personal fortunes at a 10 a.m. ET. press conference in which he announced his immediate departure and a caucus review to pick an interim leader.

He himself lost his Etobicoke-Lakeshore seat and referred to his election effort as a "historic defeat." He even won fewer seats than the 77 his predecessor - Stéphane Dion, who was widely criticized - eked out in 2008.

Story continues below advertisement

And for the first time in the party's history he lost official opposition status. NDP Leader Jack Layton will now move into Stornoway.

Mr. Ignatieff and his team knew they would be defeated election night. They began sensing it after the English-language debate from which they didn't get a much-needed bump.

Never, though, did they imagine this. Mr. Ignatieff had said Sunday night he didn't feel it would be a "disaster." He was so wrong.

Some Liberals had predicted between 40 and 50 seats. Mr. Ignatieff's senior advisers figured on a low of about 41.

What happened? There are some Liberals who say what happened Monday night happened long before the writ was dropped.

For so many Canadians, Mr. Ignatieff was that man characterized in the Tory attack ads - the latte-sipping elitist, who returned from the hallowed halls of Harvard and London after a 30-year absence to take over the party and grab power for the sake of power.

"The hatchet job is complete," said David Small, campaign manager for Ruby Dhalla, the incumbent Liberal who lost her Greater Toronto Area seat to a Conservative.

Story continues below advertisement

The Tory ads were devastating and were made even more so because they went unanswered. Some Liberal advisers had urged Mr. Ignatieff and his team to put up ads of their own, countering the pre-campaign attack, but to no avail.

A document leaked to The Globe and Mail shows how aggressively the Conservatives advertised in the 90 days before the writ was dropped, outspending the Liberals about 15 to one, according to a senior Liberal source.

The document shows the "GRPs" - or gross point ratings - that measure the frequency and reach of ads. In the Toronto market, for six weeks between Jan. 17 and Feb. 21, for example, the Conservative GRP was 1538.5 compared to 131.7 for the Liberals and 11.7 for the NDP.

"We've just received the latest competitive TV GRP data from Nielsen in the weeks leading up to the writ," says a note accompanying the results. "Note the heavy and sustained presence of the Conservative Party. The picture is the same in Vancouver. In Calgary and Montreal French, they had about 600 GRP's over the same period."

The Liberal brain trust was warned but did nothing about it. On Sunday night, Mr. Ignatieff said the party didn't have that kind of money - pre-writ - to spend on ads.

If you are going to do it, he said, you have to "show up." He noted that the Liberals couldn't compete with Tory ads being placed during the Super Bowl, the Oscars, the Grammy Awards and Hockey Night in Canada.

Story continues below advertisement

However, the bottom line, some Liberals believe, is that they should have countered the assault - and they shouldn't have forced the election. It was much too early; the party was not nearly ready.

For that, Mr. Ignatieff has accepted responsibility. But so must his team: Peter Donolo, his chief of staff and main strategist, campaign manager Gordon Ashworth and Pat Sorbara, the deputy campaign manager.

With the exception of Mr. Ashworth, this was the team Mr. Ignatieff brought in to replace his original advisers, who were seen not to understand Ottawa or what it takes to govern and win.

His original team, however, had tried to begin the rebuilding and renewal process. In fact, former chief of staff Ian Davey had looked to the United States and Barack Obama's 2008 success for some clues, buying list management software to create the "Liberal list."

The list identified everything about individual voters from whether they were Liberals or Conservatives, if they had ever taken a lawn sign or even if they had once said they didn't like Stephen Harper. "It was one of the multitude of initiatives we undertook to get the party into the 21st Century," Mr. Davey said.

Liberals - including Mr. Ignatieff and his campaign co-chairman Senator David Smith - had banked on this program to help them get out the Liberal vote. But it doesn't seem to have made any difference.

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.